In one of the North Carolina counties in which I practice law, juvenile delinquency court is held every other week. During these sessions, children who have been charged with criminal offenses come before the court to have their matters heard. In the alternating weeks, dependency court is held, during which the parents of children who are alleged to be abused, neglected or dependent have their matters heard.
The irony is that in the majority of cases nationwide, the children in these two forums are the same. In fact, a recent study has shown that approximately two-thirds of children referred to juvenile delinquency court have some involvement in the social-services system stemming from allegations of abuse, neglect or dependency. For children with two or more prior offenses in juvenile court, the percentage increases to 89 percent who have some social-services involvement. Across the country, these children are referred to as “cross-over,” “multi-system” or “dual jurisdiction kids,” as they are simultaneously under the umbrellas of two separate systems with protracted judicial processes, court orders that may conflict, and no inter-agency cooperation or collaboration. Nationally, cross-system youth have been found to be detained more frequently and experience longer detention stays than children in a single system. They are also more likely to reoffend.
I know something about social services and foster care. For a year between college and law school, I worked for child protective services in New York City. I was hired as a case investigator in 1988 after Mayor Ed Koch ordered an expansion of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). I was 23, raised in suburban New Jersey, and knew little of Manhattan aside from its museums and Broadway theaters. I wanted to do something meaningful before entering graduate school, and an ad in The New York Times stating that helping children required only a college degree (mine was in English literature) caught my eye.
After a short period of so-called training (10 or 12 weeks) at a desolate outpost in Queens, I was unceremoniously given the power to decide if there was “credible evidence” of child maltreatment, such that children should be removed from their homes and placed in the custody of the state of New York. I spent much of the work day taking the subway to and from pockets of the city I had never seen, knocking on doors of small apartments in rundown housing projects, finding little food in the refrigerator or clean clothes in the closet, and trying to decide whether poverty — often coupled with drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness but rarely signs of physical abuse or neglect — warranted removal. I received no supervision, and the bureaucratic machine required forms to be completed in triplicate. I constantly felt overwhelmed and under-qualified.
I recalled these experiences when I recently watched “A Life Changing Visitor: When Children’s Services Knocks,” a short documentary produced by New York University Law School’s Family Defense Clinic. Three law students in the clinic — Molly Greer, Jessica Rubin-Wills and Dara Young — interviewed parents who had been subjected to child-welfare interventions and whose children were ultimately placed in foster care.
In the film, the parents speak powerfully about their love for their children and the needlessly destructive impact the child-welfare system has wrecked upon their families. One parent shares the following: “No one wanted to see that I was in pain. No one wanted to see that I’m a human being. They just think you’re some type of monster. When you are in the child-welfare system, you’re guilty until proven innocent, and you’re never really proven innocent. You’re just branded for the rest of your life as a bad parent.”
The film reminded me of the basic facts that I had learned years ago: that every county in the United States has a government agency that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect, that anyone can make a call reporting suspicion of maltreatment, and that no substantiation is needed — the report can be based on hearsay or an unverified hunch.
As Mike Arsham, executive director of New York City’s Child Welfare Organizing Project, explains: “The unfortunate reality is that in certain communities, it’s a near certainty that if you have children who are a range of ages, if you live in public housing, if they go to public schools, if you use publicly subsidized day care or a public child health clinic, it’s not even a matter of are you going to come to the attention of ACS, it’s closer to a matter of when are you going to come to the attention of ACS.”
Professor Martin Guggenheim, one of the NYU Law faculty members who supervises students in the clinic, offers this analysis: “Everyone who has studied child welfare over the past generation has come to the same conclusion in every jurisdiction throughout the country: The majority of children removed from their parents’ homes coercively are not in the kind of danger that justifies their removal under a proper application of law. What most of us working in this field are trying to do is simply enforce the law. We’re not looking for any change; we’re looking for people to become faithful to it.”
The film notes that more than 250,000 U.S. children are taken from their parents by government officials annually, that social-services workers make unannounced visits to families more than 2 million times each year, and that the majority of children who go into foster care are eventually returned to their parents — though sometimes not until many years later.
Professor Christine Gottlieb, who also supervises students in the NYU clinic, encapsulates the film’s message with these words: “The system — in its zeal to protect children — sometimes forgets how damaging the process itself can be to the children.” In other words, child-welfare workers must listen closely to parents and see them as human beings, not suspects. Program directors must work to ensure that the communities they serve view them as partners – not police – in raising their children. And all youth workers must learn that treating a parent with respect, rather than suspicion, ultimately benefits the child.
Tamar Birckhead is associate professor of law and interim director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Law.