Last November, I wrote a column for Youth Today about the alarming similarities between the Trump administration policy of tearing apart families at the Mexican border and the way U.S. child protective services agencies routinely separate families in the United States.
Certainly the two are not identical, but there are more similarities than differences. In my column, I wrote that nothing upsets the U.S. child welfare establishment more than being reminded of this fact. (A few weeks later, a pillar of that establishment proved my point.)
Now the list of similarities has grown even longer. Confronted with the failure to reunite many of the children it wrongfully tore from their parents in the first place, the Trump administration is doing exactly what child protective services agencies do: They’re playing the “bonding” card.
Some of the children are with “sponsors” — in other words, foster parents, the administration says. So even if we were wrong to steal them from their parents in the first place, they say, if we tried to find them and return them now it would “present grave child welfare concerns.” So says Jonathan White, who, in a wonderfully Orwellian touch, is in charge of efforts to reunite these families. “It would destabilize the permanency of their existing home environment, and could be traumatic to the children,” he said.
Of course U.S. child welfare agencies would never sink so low — except all the time. Consider two recent cases:
Playing the bonding card in Michigan
A poor mother with a learning disability is raising her infant son with help from extended family, especially the boy’s paternal grandmother. The mother takes the boy from their home in New York to Michigan to visit friends. When she has to return to New York briefly she doesn’t want to subject the infant to another long bus trip — so she asks the friends to care for the boy.
But when Mom doesn’t have money for a return bus ticket the infant remains with her friends for another 2½ weeks — until the friends decide they can’t afford to care for the boy and surrender him to local police.
At no time was the mother accused of abusing her child. There was, in fact, nothing wrong that couldn’t have been fixed for the price of a bus ticket. And if Michigan authorities still were worried about the mother, there was a grandmother ready to step in — a grandmother who also is a social worker in the New York foster care system. She told her story to Detroit television station WXYZ.
Over the months that followed the grandmother made clear, over and over and over, that she was eager to take custody of the infant. She traveled to Michigan every month to visit. She even became formally licensed as a foster parent.
But whether because of bureaucratic callousness or simply mind-boggling blunders, the case dragged on for a year and a half.
That’s when the state — and the strangers now caring for the child and seeking to adopt him, played the bonding card. That influenced the decision to terminate the mother’s parental rights and shut out the grandmother. As the mother’s lawyers explain, Michigan authorities “wrongfully created the condition the court relied upon to terminate [the mother’s] parental rights by unlawfully denying [the child’s] placement with his grandmother.”
The case is now on appeal.
Playing the bonding card in Florida
Mellisa Mirick lost her children, and ultimately her life, to drug addiction. Two of her three children were placed with their fathers. The third child, Ryleigh, was placed with a great-aunt, Ashley McCaw. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, McCaw “continued to care for her for more than two years. She even planned to adopt Ryleigh until child welfare officials objected to her long-term boyfriend’s violation of probation on a battery on a law enforcement officer conviction in 2015. Officials then removed Ryleigh from her home.”
Apparently, child welfare officials had no concern about “bonding” then. The Herald-Tribune reports that “McCaw said she informed caseworkers that Ryleigh had extended family in Massachusetts and Maine, but none of them were contacted.”
It took a Facebook post from Ryleigh’s grandfather to alert another great-aunt, Kathleen McGinty. She’s been fighting for Ryleigh ever since. As the Herald Tribune explains:
“McGinty herself works as a mentor for a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to prevent childhood abuse and neglect. … While relatives were ignored, the Safe Children Coalition and a subcontractor rushed to place Ryleigh in a pre-adoptive home with strangers who were not even licensed foster parents.”
The case remains in the courts — but McGinty knows what’s coming: “She said the [adoptive parents] also have noted that Ryleigh has been in their care for more than a year and has bonded with them. …”
This is not the first such case in Florida. When a similar tug-of-war between relatives and stranger-care parents grabbed headlines in 2006, the Florida Legislature rushed to put a thumb on the scales of justice — in favor of the people middle-class lawmakers, could identify with — middle-class strangers.
That law may have contributed indirectly to one of the state’s most horrific child abuse tragedies — the torture and murder of Nubia Barahona. Relatives were refused custody of Nubia in favor of the strangers who allegedly killed her — in part because of a “bonding” assessment that favored the strangers.
But you can’t from Brazil
Like almost everything else in child welfare, whether you get to play the bonding card depends on your race and/or class.
David Goldman’s mother fled with him to her native Brazil, then divorced the father. The mother died, and the boy’s Brazilian family sought to retain custody. The court battle dragged on for five years. David’s father could not even see his son.
David’s Brazilian family tried to play the bonding card — but you can’t do that if you’re a South American foreigner and the child is American! Here in America, public sentiment was overwhelmingly with the father. It remained there even when the ultimate reunion proved difficult. Five years after that reunion, father and son went on the “Today Show” — and everyone was celebrating.
But there’s an even more fundamental double standard at play when child welfare plays the bonding card: The implicit notion that, somehow, children’s brains get a mulligan — that is, the first time the bond is broken, when they are taken from their own parents, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately people of color, that somehow does them no harm. Only restoring that bond — which requires taking them from strangers who are more likely to be white and middle class — somehow is harmful.
Even the notion that blood ties don’t matter — which has been child welfare dogma for decades — makes no real sense. If blood ties didn’t matter, we’d choose which pictures of amazingly gifted, talented, funny, creative, beautiful children to post on Facebook based on objective independent criteria — instead of our deep knowledge that of course the children who fit all those categories are our own.
Even the child welfare establishment admits to the importance of blood ties — when it suits them. Think of all those times they issue apocalyptic warnings about women’s boyfriends because they are said to be so much more likely to kill those women’s children. In fact, the odds of any parent killing a child are infinitesimal. The odds of a boyfriend killing a child are slightly less infinitesimal.
But ask those mounting the anti-boyfriend campaigns why they are such a danger and they give the same answer: No blood tie!
The trauma of breaking children’s bonds is serious and real. That’s one of the main reasons why foster care is so harmful to children and why it should be used far less often than it is. But bonding is more complicated than just running a stopwatch. In Michigan and Florida, for example, relatives repeatedly have come from far away to maintain their bonds with the children.
And even if it were that simple, there’d be still another problem with playing the bonding card: It further encourages child welfare agencies to turn their systems into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own. They know that if all else fails, they can just stall long enough to play the bonding card. That ignores one of the most fundamental of all children’s rights — the right to live in a just society where they will not grow up to fall prey to anyone who is rich enough and powerful enough and wants their child.
So add one more item to the long checklist of ways in which the Trump administration approach to children taken at the border is entirely in keeping with standard operating procedure in American child welfare: Both play the bonding card, and to paraphrase an attorney in the O.J. Simpson case, they deal it from the bottom of the deck.
To those who approve of that standard operating procedure, I have one last question:
If I kidnap your child when he’s a toddler, flee to Brazil, take really good care of him and come back five years later — can I keep him?
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.