Why Do Child Welfare Agencies Keep Demanding Poor People Raise Their Kids ‘Independently’ When No One Else Does?

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richard wexlerI’ve just caught up with an excellent 2014 story from ProPublica on how child welfare systems deal with parents who have mental illnesses.

The story looked at two cases in which parents really did have some sort of mental illness (putting them in the same company as an estimated 43.8 million Americans in any given year). That sets the point of the story apart from another major problem in child welfare — quick-and-dirty “psych evals” that mislabel parents mentally ill largely because they are poor and/or because it’s what the child welfare agencies that pay for the evaluations want to hear. (ProPublica has dealt well with that issue too, as did the Arizona Court of Appeals in a recent decision.)

But what was striking about this story was a common theme in the two cases that was explored: Child welfare’s obsession with the idea that, in order to be allowed to raise their own children, parents must prove they can do so independently.

In one case, a father with no history of abuse or neglect had arranged to move in with his sister and his mother. They would raise the child together. But that wasn’t good enough for the child protective services agency, which wanted the child adopted by the strangers who were caring for her as foster parents.

The psychologist who did the “psych eval” in this case never observed the father in any real-life situation — where, in fact, he was functioning well. He never talked to the relatives prepared to raise the child with him. Rather, based on a test he administered, he concluded that the father “would experience significant problems if he were to attempt fully independent living.”

The issue arises again in Connecticut

The same issue has arisen in a tragic case unfolding in Connecticut. There, a mother’s children were taken because she lacked adequate housing and because of concerns about her mental health. One of the children nearly died in foster care.

Instead of acting to reunite the family and surround it with whatever help it needs, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families has compounded the children’s trauma by separating them from each other and moving them from foster home to foster home. (A comment on the NCCPR Facebook page summed up this case best: "Sometimes you ask yourself: if they hated children and families, what would they have done differently?")

Now the agency is seeking to terminate both parents’ parental rights.

It is not clear if the concerns about mental health had any validity. But even assuming they did, a few things are clear: The mother is in a long-term stable relationship with the father of three of the children, both parents have jobs, and the mother has a relative who has stepped forward to let the family move to a new apartment with him and split the rent. He’d also help with child care. On top of that, on the final day of the termination trial, a total stranger came forward with a check for $12,000 to cover the family’s housing for a year.

Indeed, after reading the excellent stories about the case by Deborah Straszheim of The Day in New London, Connecticut, I can’t imagine many middle-class parents could go through what the mother in this case has endured and function as impressively as she.

Even the state’s own expert witness said that terminating parental rights would be “profoundly psychologically harmful” to at least one of the children.

Nevertheless, he did not support reunification either. Why? Because the mother had not proven to his satisfaction that she could raise the children “independently.”

And in Oregon, a termination of parental rights hearing is scheduled to start Tuesday in a case in which the state child welfare agency has spent well over $100,000 on foster care, vast numbers of lawyers and witnesses, all because they seem to believe a developmentally disabled couple can’t raise their children entirely on their own.

All of which raises one obvious question: Who in the world raises a child independently?

Certainly not middle-class families. They have child care if they want it when the children are very young, and after-school care when they’re older. They have babysitters when they just need a break. Often they have housekeepers. If they have mental health problems they can go to their discreet family doctor who can refer them to a nice private therapist — and no one is going to call child protective services. (If the family is rich, add private tutors, private schools and nannies to the list.) Even something as simple as the internet — to answer a question like “is this serious enough that I need to take my child to the doctor?” is not always available to those on the poor side of the digital divide.

Certainly not foster families. They get the ultimate extra help — a monthly cash payment, plus free health insurance coverage for the children and sometimes even payment for their child care. That’s the minimum. If they’re lucky and have a good caseworker, they have a range of other supports as well.

Certainly not families who adopt foster children. That cash payment they got if they adopted the child from foster care often continues as an adoption subsidy. And they typically get at least some sort of “post-adoption services.”

Yet somehow, America’s child protective services agencies demand that the people who have the least, impoverished birth parents, raise the children “independently” — or lose them forever to foster parents or adoptive parents who won’t raise them independently either.

A Missouri appellate court decision, cited in the ProPublica story, sums things up well:

"Even a mental condition that renders a parent unable to provide adequate care for a child alone does not provide a basis for termination if the parent has access to additional support because parenting is frequently 'a group effort.' It is because of the frequently group nature of modern parenting that [the law] does not allow for the termination of parental rights simply because a parent cannot shoulder the entire burden of raising a child on his or her own."

Or, to put it another way, not only have America’s child welfare agencies turned “It takes a village …” into the most hackneyed cliché in the field, they never really believed it anyway.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

  • Megan Banet

    A big issue within child protective services is the lack of consistency across cases. I have seen so many amazing child welfare workers who conduct high-quality investigations and provide excellent case management. And then I have seen some child welfare workers conduct slipshod investigations where their individual and systemic biases harm families and children. While child welfare systems have wonderful policies on paper, the application of those policies in real life cases varies greatly. I asked one person who was in charge of a state’s child protective service policy division how a certain policy would be applied in a case. That person – who probably wrote the policy and trains child welfare workers on the application of the policy – could not answer that question. On top of that, there are issues within the child welfare system of recognizing the complexity of the problems families face. For example, many states have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to substance abuse. This doesn’t recognize that many people who have substance abuse issues may not travel a straight line to sober living without any slips or relapses. Or that with proper support, a relapse does not necessarily put children in danger. When it comes to domestic violence, I have seen child protective services place children with family members of the abuser who then continue to threaten and intimidate victim during visits and family team meetings. While the case manager does nothing. While I recognize the importance of not taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach in child welfare, I still hope the child welfare system finds some middle ground where there is quality training and supervision for front-line workers and a more open, equitable process that helps families and keeps children safe.

  • jusbecuz

    This one has me puzzled, as well. It’s been decades since children have been returning home to live in multi-generational homes to have financial stability (due to the economy). I call that problem-solving! During the end of my daughter’s case, a GAL had come into my home where Mom and grandchild lived and had later told the court that she had concerns that we could put 2 toddlers into a brand newly built 2 bedroom home. I was stunned!