A March 3 Philadelphia Inquirer story begins this way:
After 12 years with an abusive partner — 12 years of black eyes and broken fingers, a shattered wrist and a busted nose — Carmen Rivera came to a realization: “It was either me leaving, or I was going to be dead.”
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services did exactly as one might expect from an agency that takes away children at one of the highest rates of any big city in America, an agency where a case-worker union leader admits they break up families in order to protect themselves: It took away Rivera’s children and consigned them to foster care for 18 months.
Then the agency rubbed salt into the family’s wounds. It forced Rivera to help foot the bill for the foster care it inflicted on the children: $11,000 in arrears plus $300 per month. Now Rivera and her son are living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, deeper in poverty than ever.
The Orwellian term typically used for these payments is “child support.” But these payments from parents do not go to supporting their own children. Rather, the money is used to keep the foster care system running. When someone’s child is taken away and the parent has to pay to get the child back, that money is not child support. It’s ransom.
As Professor Daniel Hatcher, who wrote about the practice in a law review article and in his book, “The Poverty Industry” puts it: “Foster children become collateral, mortgaged to secure the debt for their own care.”
Carmen Rivera is not alone.
An Oregon couple was charged $5,000 by the state after it mistakenly took their children when eczema on one child’s leg was mistaken for a burn. In another Oregon case, a Canadian mother was charged with “abandoning” her 11-year-old son after leaving him in Oregon for the summer with a man who, authorities said, had no “parental authority” — the boy’s stepfather. It took two years to free the child from Oregon foster care. Then the state chased the family back to Canada, this time in pursuit of thousands of dollars to pay for the child’s “care.” International outrage prompted Oregon to back down.
On one level, these families are lucky. At least they were reunited. In other cases, failure to pay ransom actually has prolonged the time children spend in foster care.
As Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family advocacy unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which provides defense counsel for some of the families who lose children to DHS, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We have clients who — the main barrier for them in reunifying with their child is they can’t find affordable housing. Then they get a job, they’re working toward getting housing, and DHS sues them for children support, not just for now, but for the entire time their child has been in foster care.”
In some cases, this prevents parents from bringing their children home, Creamer said. In other cases, “we see reunifications completely destabilized by child-support enforcement.”
It can get worse. Many states include failure to pay ransom as a ground for separating children from their parents forever, through termination of parental rights. In some cases, Hatcher notes, that failure alone can be grounds for termination. He illustrates the absurdity of the practice with this question:
“If a parent takes out a government loan to help pay the costs of a child’s education and then defaults on the loan, should the default result in termination of the parent-child relationship?”
Of course, parents who take out student loans for their children are not stereotyped as the worst people on earth. That is how people who lose children to foster care often are perceived. “Make those child abusers reimburse hardworking taxpayers like us!” is a great way to score points politically.
Children often are torn from everyone loving and familiar when family poverty is confused with neglect. Several studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing.
And, of course, we know that in typical cases — not the headline-grabbing horror stories —children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.
So what does ransom accomplish?
- Ransom guarantees that a family stressed by poverty before the children were taken almost certainly will be in deeper poverty, and under more stress, once the children are returned.
- Ransom may well prolong foster care and all the harm that does to the psyches of children.
- By prolonging foster care, ransom increases the chances that children will be abused in care, where the rate of abuse is far higher than generally realized.
- Ransom may turn children into legal orphans when their rights to their birth parents are terminated and no adoptive parent comes forward.
Here’s what ransom does not do: It does not help states and localities balance their budgets.
As Hatcher points out, the cost of operating collection and enforcement mechanisms to make parents pay their ransom is likely to equal or exceed the money collected.
In addition, when ransom prolongs foster care, it actually can increase costs to state or local governments since there is no way they are going to collect the full cost of “care.”
The last excuse for making families pay ransom is the claim that federal law requires it. Hatcher points out that federal law only requires states to try to collect “where appropriate” — and states have wide discretion to determine which cases are or are not “appropriate.” Indeed, policies concerning ransom vary widely among the states.
The Inquirer reports that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services is now “re-examining child support collection in dependency cases.”
That’s not enough. Philadelphia and all of the other states and localities that collect ransom from families should stop the practice now.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.