We all know child welfare jobs are tough and essential when stepping in to rescue kids in truly abusive home situations. But when you have a bureaucracy required to decide whether to intervene or not, it can be like the building inspector visiting your work site: if she finds nothing, there’s not much reason for her to have a job, and if she decides to let a borderline violation go and it turns out later to have led to a disastrous and public failure, she pays a heavy price. So the inclination is to enforce, especially when there haven’t been many enforcement actions recently. This can result in injustice.
Worse, the system for caring for children taken away from their parents is itself abusive, with undersupervised, paid foster care worse for children than many of the parents under examination. The orphanages and state institutions of earlier eras were just as bad; my mother was personally threatened by the state with losing custody of me during an episode of truancy when I was 12, and it was only because she was resourceful that I was saved from being sent to what was then called Juvenile Hall.
Children cannot learn to make their own way in a dangerous world without some experience in handling it for themselves; ideally they are given more and more freedom and progressively challenged as appropriate for their age, with advanced 10 year olds able to roam almost freely (as I did, riding bikes miles in all directions, visiting friends and teachers, learning to plan routes and deal with hazards.) Unfortunately the relentless media focus on fear of extremely rare events like stranger abductions has created a population not only risk-averse for themselves, but willing to blame strangers for giving their children any freedom and responsibility at all until they apparently are released fully-capable from their protective custody at 18, blinking in the sunlight.
Conor Friedersdorf (one of the better writers of the modern era of online nonfiction) has two good pieces in the Atlantic on child welfare overreach. The first is about a mother who allowed her 9 year old daughter to play in the park (filled with other children and parents) while she went to work a short shift at McDonald’s:
The case is disturbing on several levels.
1) Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold. Honestly, it seems a bit young to me, but I don’t know the kid or the neighborhood, it doesn’t sound as though the mother had any great option, and as I didn’t give birth to the kid, support her, and raise her for 9 years, it isn’t my call.
2) By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?
3) The state’s decision is coming at a time when it is suffering from a shortage of foster families, as well as a child protective services workforce so overwhelmed that serious child abuse inquiries are regularly closed in violation of policy.
Perhaps most concerning of all are the surfeit of cases where child protective services censures parents for ostensibly jeopardizing a kid’s safety in a manner that is totally disconnected from any statistical realities about the actual dangers faced. This point was made superbly in a Salon article written by a mother who was cited by police for leaving her kid in a car while briefly running into a store–even though it wasn’t a hot day, she was gone for mere minutes, and the kid was in no danger. She relayed a conversation she later had with a Free Range Kids founder:
“Listen,” she said at one point. “Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day—and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger.
“So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car,” she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,” she goes on, “there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?”
Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”
Conor Friedersdorf’s second story reports on another mother’s story contained in one of the comments on the first story:
My decision to allow my kids to stay home for a few hours while I went to school for several hours, a mile away, turned out to be the most catastrophically life-altering decision I’ve ever made. A neighbor noticed me walking to school without the kids and called the police. When I arrived home several hours later, I found a note on the door, but no kids inside. Despite having been told my whereabouts, neither the police nor the CPS workers who removed my kids from our home made any effort to find me, instead regarding the situation as an emergency, procedurally.
This happened four years ago.
We were some of the lucky ones. I fought a protracted court battle with an appointed attorney and few resources. Against the odds, our family was restored.
Over the two years during which the case dragged on, my kids were subjected to, according to them, sexual molestation (which was never investigated) and physical abuse within the foster care system. They were separated from each other many times, moved around frequently, and attended multiple schools. This, of course, was all in the name of protection. Many of the things I was required to do to get my kids back had nothing to do with the supposed issue of inadequate supervision. Under one court order, I was required to allow CPS workers into my home to conduct a thorough “white glove” type inspection. According to the court order, if any of the workers felt anything was amiss, the return of custody would be delayed or denied. I was told to sweep cobwebs and scrub the oven to their satisfaction, which I did, obsequiously. They were pleased.
The kids were returned.
Still under court orders, I moved with the kids to my parents house, over a hundred miles away from the jurisdictional county. One of the requirements of the court order returning my children to me under protective county custody was that they were not to miss a single day of school. (This, also, having nothing to do with the reason why they were removed initially). The court order stated that if they missed even a single day of school, the county could again take custody. During the move, there was a delay before I could enroll them in a new school. CPS workers, acting on another court order, drove the hundred miles to my parents’ home and, with the assistance of sheriff’s deputies, physically pulled my kids out of the house screaming and crying. We had been sitting around enjoying a quiet family evening. They had been in no danger. This was traumatic for all of us. My parents witnessed how this system was not about protection, but power.
Once subject to the scrutiny of this system, parents are at its mercy. Kids are held in de facto hostage as arbitrary demands are made. When those demands are met, new ones are imposed, or the adequacy of the performance is questioned. Rather than being innocent until proven guilty, parents are presumed guilty until they have passed a rigorous and unforgiving character-assassination attempt. Somehow, our family survived this and emerged intact, but not unscathed.
In a small and gossipy rural town, I have been referred to as, “that girl who got her kids taken away.” I feel as if I have to work harder to prove that I’m parentally competent. An unexpected knock at the door still makes my heart beat rapidly. I’m more conscious of strangers’ stares and comments when I go out with my children. Ultimately, I found this ostensibly well-meaning system of child protection to be an exercise in often baseless finger-pointing, pitting neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. As people vie for power and victory, it all becomes so much less about kids’ best interests and more about adults’ selfish interests. In criminalizing previously culturally normal activities, such as an unaccompanied child playing at a public park, we open the door for any unorthodox parental decision to be subjected to similar unfavorable scrutiny.
We assume that only parents that fit an arbitrary sociocultural mold can be fit parents. Those whose poverty or inadequate childcare options result in intervention don’t get much sympathy in our class-biased culture. People seem more willing to spew vitriol than offer actual substantive assistance. In my own case, four years have passed since our encounter with CPS. As any family who has endured something similar can attest, it is not something from which a family emerges unaffected. It’s hard to say what should change or how. Parents are not perfect. They make mistakes. Some parents are abusive and truly horrible. Some otherwise well-meaning parents are simply caught in unfortunate, temporary circumstances. In many cases, the supposed cure turns into its own illness.
The stories need to be told. Many families are adversely affected and because of the stigma are not discussing it. As more people do so, hopefully it will allow for discourse, and thus, for change. I tried to do too much. I couldn’t be in two places at once. I didn’t have a social support structure. I thought I could do it all. I was wrong.
The harm done to her children (including sexual abuse) by the state’s caretaking vastly outweighed the purely theoretical and unlikely harm that might have been done to her kids by leaving them in the home alone.
More on education and child development :
Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
Early Child Development: The High Cost of Abuse and Neglect
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
“Crying It Out” – Parental Malpractice!
Brazilian For-Profit Universities Bring Quality With Quantity
The Affordable, Effective University: Indiana and Mitch Daniels
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
“Attachment Parenting” – Good Idea Taken Too Far?
Real Self-Esteem: Trophies for Everyone?
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities