1. The Child Protective Services (CPS) agency administrator says: “We can’t take away children on our own. A judge must approve everything we do. Families are protected by due process.”
“Caught in a Master Narrative”
– Richard WexlerThe truth is that untrained, inexperienced, overwhelmed CPS workers can take away children on their own, and they often do. In all 50 states, caseworkers have the authority to remove a child from the home on the spot. In about half the states they can do it themselves, in the rest they must call law enforcement, but the decision rests with the worker alone.
In theory, this is supposed to be done only in emergencies. In fact, in New York City, to cite one example, the child welfare agency has admitted that this is their typical procedure, whether there is an “emergency” or not. A judge doesn’t get involved until a few days later. At that point she is faced with a lawyer for CPS who does this for a living and has had days to review the file, versus an overwhelmed, impoverished parent who, if she has a lawyer at all, just met him five minutes ago. As a report from the New York City Public Advocate’s office points out, it’s impossible for that lawyer to mount a defense without seeking a postponement. The child stays in foster care. That report and others have found that representation for parents typically ranges from shoddy to nonexistent.
In New York City parents win their cases just 1.6 percent of the time. A second report, from an independent advisory panel of national experts, found that the city’s family court judges admit they routinely remove children even when they don’t think CPS has made a case because they’re terrified of the publicity if they send a child home and something goes wrong.
The administrators who tell journalists about due process know all this, of course. Why not ask the lawyers who represent parents in your family court if judges wield gavels or press rubber stamps?
2. A spokesman for child welfare agencies says there is hardly any abuse in foster care, based on “official” statistics.
Even the official numbers show at least as much abuse in foster care as in the general population. But for abuse in foster care to become “official,” a child has to confide in a worker, often the very worker who put him in the home. The worker, who often works for a private agency that oversees the home, has to report to her bosses her own failure in putting the child in an abusive home. The agency has to turn itself in to the government that gave it the contract, and the government has to “substantiate” a charge against an agency that it hired. So it should come as no surprise that whenever researchers seriously study abuse in foster care, the rate of abuse vastly exceeds the “official” numbers.
Furthermore the official data don’t even count foster children abusing each other. Thus, a lawyer representing children in Broward County, Florida could become personally aware of 50 cases of child-on-child sexual abuse involving more than 100 foster children in just 18 months, even though the “official” number was seven.
The people who fall back on the official numbers know this, of course. But they represent agencies, not children. Accepting such data from them without question is like accepting data on abuse of the elderly from a trade association for nursing homes.
3. The CPS worker says, “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”
In 24 years of looking at child welfare as a reporter and then as an advocate, I have never read a news story in which a CPS worker is criminally charged, fired, suspended, demoted, or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. Yet all these things have happened to workers who leave children in their own homes when something goes wrong.
The very first words out of the mouth of Washington State Governor Gary Locke after a child “known to the system” died in Tacoma in May was a threat of “full disciplinary action” against any worker involved who may have erred. The caseworker who left a two-year-old Iowa girl in a home where she died was quickly named and vilified in quotes given to The Des Moines Register. And after Elisa Izquierdo was killed by her mother, the (New York) Daily News editorialized that the worker who handled the case should be “flogged, then fired.”
The CPS workers who give you the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” line know this, of course. But the truth is, when it comes to taking away children from their parents, they’re not damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They’re only damned if they don’t.