Everyday Horrors

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I read about a horror story last month.

It wasn’t one of those cases where a child died even though the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.  Nor was it one of those cases where a child was taken from parents who could have been mother- and father-of-the-year only to die in foster care.

Those kinds of horrors are very rare.

What made this case so horrible is the fact that it’s so typical.  It’s also the kind of case child protective services (CPS) agencies almost always hide behind confidentiality rules.

This one became public – minus identifying information and with all names changed – thanks to a webinar about ChildStat, the pride and joy of John Mattingly, former commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  At ChildStat meetings, ACS officials go over data from one region and pour over one case, chosen at random.

It’s the 12-page narrative of that one case that provides this rare x-ray of the soul of a CPS agency. They never got to it during the webinar, but they might during a follow-up webinar on Oct. 6.

To really get the picture, the entire narrative needs to be read, because, in every sense of the term, the devil is in the details.  I hope readers will go through it, and then compare it to an example of best practice from the latest newsletter of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.  Readers also might want to consider these questions:

1) How would your own family rate under the kind of scrutiny the family in the New York City case was forced to endure? 

2) Can you imagine a government agency trying to micromanage a white, middle-class family the way ACS did in this case?

The allegation in the case was “educational neglect”, which would never have been taken up at all by a CPS agency in half of the 50 states, according to a comprehensive study by the Vera Institute of Justice.  Nineteen percent of the cases investigated by ACS are allegations of “educational neglect.”

The older child, age 8, missed 25 days of school between September and early April, and was late 44 times.  The parents had gotten lots of warnings and they allegedly were too lenient when the child said she was sick. 

That’s it.  No allegations of beating, torture, or starvation.  Nothing about sexual abuse or parental drug abuse.

The parents are Hispanic, their income is about 140 percent of the national poverty line – and remember, this is New York City.  They sleep on a queen size bed.  (I have no idea why that is relevant to anything, but it’s included in the narrative.)

The family has plenty of reason for stress to begin with.  Nevertheless, the picture that emerges, in spite of the narrative, is of parents who love their children, have been trying their best and are guilty of, at worst, human fallibility.  They also had tried, without success, to get the school to help with the children’s problems – possibly engendering the hostility of the teacher who, by the mother’s account, treated her like dirt – and then reported her to ACS.

This one allegation turned the family’s life upside-down. There was one inspection visit after another.  Over and over the children were questioned about the most intimate aspects of their lives.  Had anyone touched them inappropriately? (No.) Did their parents ever hit them? (Yes, they got spankings.) Did the parents ever hit each other? (No.)  Do they argue? (Yes – imagine that.)   Because of the spankings the caseworker was ordered to be sure she “assessed the children for marks and bruises each time she visited.”  I wonder what the children had to endure to meet that requirement?

The parents underwent a similar grilling. Every alleged failing was documented in the most minute detail, creating a 12-page litany of finger-wagging. 

“The parents denied any domestic violence substance abuse or problems with physical and mental health,” the narrative says.  Denied?  They’d never been accused of anything like that in the first place. Yet throughout the narrative that word, - denied - is used over and over to describe the parents’ responses. 

And the denials were never enough.  When asked, the younger child, age 6, says Dad sometimes drinks alcohol.  So the caseworker is instructed to go back and grill the child about “what he drank and his behavior.”  The children repeatedly say there’s no domestic violence.   But a supervisor says “domestic violence assistance was also a possibility.” The Child Protective Manager (CPM), the highest-ranking official to look at the case,  “noted that her concern was that Joy [the older child] held herself responsible for getting her mother into trouble because she did not want to go to school. The CPM added that the mother should have provided Joy with more structure regarding her school attendance.  … She added that [the mother] should take full responsibility for having not provided structure for her children.”

The caseworker concluded that the parents did not “demonstrate developmentally appropriate expectations of all children” and did not “attend to the needs of all children and prioritizes [sic] the children’s needs above his/her own desires.”  Apparently this was based on the fact that when the bus was late, they didn’t find another way to get the children to school.It wasn’t just the parents put through the wringer.  The amount of time put into the case by the caseworker  boggles the mind.  At one point, the caseworker came out of a meeting with her supervisor with “a list of at least 22 follow-ups … to complete” including “counseling the parents about inappropriate uses of corporal punishment” though there was no allegation or evidence that this was a problem. 

No wonder New York City caseworkers are drowning in the demands placed upon them and may well miss a child in real danger, as is well documented in an excellent New York Magazine story

At no time were the children taken from the home. What happened to this family was probably the minimum amount of trauma a CPS investigation can inflict. In the end, the intervention by ACS may have improved the children’s attendance and prompted the school to get them some help the parents couldn’t get on their own. 

But the family paid way too high a price for this “success” – and it was entirely unnecessary.

The rationale for doing all this to a family, of course, boils down to “you never know.”  Like the fanatical drug warriors who see marijuana as a “gateway drug” today’s “child savers” to use the term their 19th Century counterparts gave themselves, see educational neglect as a gateway allegation. The child missed school.  So maybe mom’s a drunk and dad’s a pervert – you never know, right?

But there is no evidence that children suffer more abuse in the states that don’t require their CPS agencies to investigate “educational neglect.” And after doing a comprehensive reading of a random sample of cases, the Vera Institute researchers found that the notion that educational neglect is the "tip of the iceberg," is nonsense.

The study authors recommended that if New York must keep investigating “educational neglect” it should be done through an approach Mattingly has long opposed,   “differential response” in which either the CPS agency or a private contractor sends out a worker to offer a helping hand instead of a wagging finger.  Had that been done here, the same potential positive results would have been achieved with no cross-examination of young children, no comprehensive visual inspections for bruises and no documentation in the case file of the size bed on which the parents sleep

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org