As my friends and regular readers of this blog know, I’m a lawyer. For most of the past 18 years, I have focused my practice on a much-maligned and little-understood area of the law: juvenile justice and child welfare. I’ve been a lawyer for kids and families.
I have stopped doing this work in the last year, though. I’m burned out and disgusted by a system that is designed to make families fail. I’m also tired of parents who can’t get it through their heads that their conduct endangers their children.
The story that is described in the link at the beginning of this blog entry tells of a social services worker who was apparently murdered when she brought a foster child to his biological mother’s home for a visit. The wire service report doesn’t begin to tell half of what brought the situation to such a point. As someone who has worked in the system for nearly two decades, I can easily fill in the missing facts.
No mention is made in the article as to why this child came into foster care to begin with. The fact that the child is developmentally disabled may mean that there was abuse or neglect in his home environment or it may have nothing at all to do with why he was removed from his mother’s custody. Please keep in mind, though, that courts do not remove children from their parent’s custody unless there is evidence that the child in some sort of danger or at risk for serious abuse or neglect.
When children are removed from their parents and placed in foster care, federal law mandates that the social services agencies involved make reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the family so that the child can be returned safely to the parent from whom he was removed. To this end, visits between the parent and child must take place. Normally these visits are supervised at first, but as reunification of the family becomes more likely, visits often take place in the parent’s home. The fact that the social worker had brought the child to his mother’s home for a visit probably means that the mother was soon going to be given custody of her child again.
A 33 year old mother whose child is in foster care and who has a 23 year old boyfriend is most likely not exercising good judgment in her life choices. Although many of us see a ten-year difference in age as a small hurdle, the difference in the maturity level between someone 23 and someone 33 is usually pretty marked, especially where marginally functioning people are concerned.
I have been involved in many cases in which the judge has ordered that the mother not have any boyfriends around the children. Before the First Amendment “freedom of association” arguments are made, let me explain why I often agree that this is wise on the part of the judge, and that such an order is often in the best interest of the children.
A mother who is moving from man to man, from relationship to relationship, does not display the stability a child needs. Furthermore, the men that rotate in and out of the mother’s life are frequently abusive both to her and to the children. The mother is the parent upon whom the children depend, and it is the mother who must be able to provide for them.
So, in a nutshell, revolving door-type boyfriends are frowned upon. If the boyfriend and the mother are in a long term, serious relationship, though, and the boyfriend participates willingly in the services designed to reunify the mother and children, he is not so much of a liability.
Often children are removed because of violence between their mother and her sexual partner, be it a boyfriend or a husband. Judges frequently require that the mother not allow the violent man around the children at all, and if he is still in the picture the judge is extremely reluctant to return the children to their home. Children who see their mother’s lovers brandishing guns and knives tend not to forget such traumatic events. And although a judge will never order a woman to get a divorce as a condition to her children coming back home to her, the message is made more than abundantly clear: she must choose between her man and her children. Sadly, these mothers often prefer their men.
Typically, the mother is the parent from whom the children are removed. The mother is usually surviving on minimum wage income or on government assistance alone. Frequently there are no sympathetic family members able to help the mother financially. The mother turns to the only person willing to help: a boyfriend who is looking for a place to live. He moves into her government-subsidized home contrary to the terms of her lease. This jeopardizes the roof over her head, but she has the roof and food stamps are never enough to feed a family. She needs money to pay for utilities, clothing, and additional food. She needs this extra income to provide food, shelter, and clothing for her child and herself.
The financial stresses of a middle class existence are sometimes overwhelming, so imagine a family living on $200 worth of food stamps a month and perhaps an additional $800 coming from a combination of government assistance, unemployment checks, or minimum wage jobs. There simply is not enough money to survive.
Probably the leading cause of child abuse and neglect, though, is drug abuse. In the area where I live, and in growing frequency nationwide, crystal methamphetamine is the drug of choice for poor people. It offers a euphoric high for not very much money. It can be made at home. It kills personalities, brains, and relationships. Meth is worse than crack ever dreamed of being, in my opinion. The brain damage caused by meth use is immediate and irreversible.
Add to that the inertia of depression that overtakes parents who are overwhelmed by their lot in life or by drug or alcohol abuse. The home is a wreck, knives are within easy reach of children, hot irons are left plugged in where children pull them off ironing boards, trash is not removed from the home, and roaches, fleas, and lice are jumping everywhere. If there are school-age children, it is unlikely that the parent gets them up and to school regularly, even though the children can be fed two or three hot meals that don’t require food stamps to be expended.
The financial and environmental stresses take their toll. In anger, the boyfriend or the mother lashes out at a baby who won’t stop crying, a toddler who refuses to take a bath, or a child who is making too much of a mess. The results are a shaken baby with brain damage, a toddler with second degree immersion burns from being held in a tub of hot water, a child bruised black and blue from repeated beatings.
At this point, all it takes is a single telephone call from a daycare worker, a teacher, or a neighbor and social services investigate the home. The children are then taken away from everything they know and placed with strangers in a foster home.
A very telling statement was included in the AP report on this murder. A neighbor described the mother as “goofy, like a little kid…..But every time I talked to her, she was sweet as can be.” This statement speaks volumes to me. The mother is probably functioning at a low level. She probably loves her child but is unable to care for him the way he needs because of his developmental delays and her own limited mental capacity.
Many, many of the parents whose children are removed for abuse and neglect are functioning at a mental level so low that they cannot manage many of the skills the working class and middle class take for granted. They cannot budget their income. They cannot consider long-term implications of their decisions. They cannot perform jobs at any but the most basic level. They may receive disability benefits not because they are playing the system but because they are truly disabled as a result of mental illness or mental impairment. More often than not, the parents of abused foster children were themselves abused children. They have no role models for good parenting.
In more than one case, parents whose children have been removed from their care have tried to run away with the children. They have hidden the children from social services workers and from the police, moved across state lines, and simply refused to turn the children over to foster care. Now, it seems, that there is one child over whom murder has been committed.
One of the dangers of being a social services worker is that home visits have to be made. This is the case whether or not visits are occurring in the home. The social service workers have to know whether or not the home is physically suitable for a child to live there. Sometimes social services workers are assigned to actually go to the parent’s home to teach housekeeping and home-making skills – everything from how to clean a toilet to how to budget income. Parenting classes in the home are very effective, too, but require the social services worker to go to the home.
Parents usually hate to see the social services workers come. These workers are the same people who took the child from the parent in the first place. They have virtually carte blanche to open any door, look in any cupboard or closet, remark on deficits in housekeeping, and spin their tales in court of the parent’s lack of cooperation. The parent usually has no one on her side, other than her lawyer, to refute the allegations.
Imagine, for a moment, that your neighbor has sued you because they do not like the way you trim your grass. The judge has said that your grass trimming is substandard, and orders your neighbor to monitor how you keep your lawn and report back to the court in six-month intervals. You do everything the judge requires, even to the point of taking special classes in lawn maintenance, but you cannot seem to please your neighbor who continues to find fault with your lawn maintenance. Within one year, according to federal law, the judge says you have had long enough to learn effective lawn maintenance and orders your home and lawn sold. You will not be allowed to retrieve your belongings from the house, but must go on and find somewhere else to live. You will be allowed one last night in the house but that is all, and an armed guard will stand watch to ensure you do not vandalize the place. After you leave the house, your neighbor arranges for his friend to move into your old house. The friend’s lawn maintenance skills may not be much better than yours, but the neighbor does not complain.
Can you imagine the cries of injustice if this were to happen? This does happen, though, with our foster care system. The children are the lawns, the social services agencies are the neighbors, and the parents are the proprietors of that substandard lawn. Shockingly enough, sometimes the lawns may have been substandard only once, maybe by accident, maybe because a caretaker hired to oversee the lawn while the proprietor was on vacation left town himself.
I am not about to make excuses for parents who abuse and neglect their children. I have seen cases of abuse that have made me physically ill. I have seen children who are little more than wild animals because of the emotional vacuum to which they have been subjected. I have seen children who are permanently maimed or scarred by physical abuse. I have listened to children talk about horrific sexual abuse in a matter-of-fact way, as if they could not imagine a world where such things did not happen. I have been in the homes of children that reek of feces and vomit, in which fleas and lice make a living slipcover for sofas and chairs, and where food has been left to grow old and moldy and full of maggots on the kitchen counters. It is despicable what some parents do to their children.
But I have also seen miracles of parenting and achievement where there was no apparent hope. Those cases are the ones that kept me accepting these cases year after year. Those, and the happy smiles of children who get to go back to their homes and families. It is rare that even abused and neglected children don’t want to go home.
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