The matter at-hand pertains to a child who died while in protective custody. This is not the first time it has happened, and it won’t be the last. This article is in no way intended to diminish the justifiable pain of a grieving mother. Solomon, the wisest of all men ever, is perhaps most famous for his understanding of a mother’s love. Rather, following another gracious lead in the mother of Heather Heyer, the girl killed in the Charlottesville riots earlier this year, it is hoped something can be done to amplify the life that was lost and the messages we all can learn.
In 2015, an estimated 428,000 children were in foster care on any given day. Anybody not living a cloistered life likely knows many moms who have had their children taken into protective services. One story involves a boyfriend/employer running off with another girl and the mother’s source of income just as rent doubled. Alcoholism ensued. Another mother of a child who died in foster care had the child taken away in infancy because he was playing naked in the yard. The mother saw nothing wrong with this. Yet another had to deal with social services because her mischievous son showed up at school one day with a bruise. When questioned about it, he said his mother had pushed him down the stairs. The allegation was so outrageous, the lady’s friends could scarcely keep a straight face when told the story. Then, there was the underprivileged girl who would randomly shout out things like, “Don’t touch me that way!” while taking a walk in the neighborhood with her babysitter.
It can be difficult to figure out who is telling the truth. In Legally Kidnapped, a book recommended in the current brouhaha, author Carlos Morales tells how jealous or vengeful neighbors will anonymously report their perceived adversaries to social services. He told of a mother-in-law who “just knew that boy was smoking pot.” In Texas, where he worked as an investigator, he said poor people repeatedly used child protective services as a “tool to fight one another.” People may call anonymously as many times as they like, so, “If someone with no ethics can hurt someone else without suffering any consequences, they often do it.” The parents on the receiving end start out at a disadvantage; dispatched social workers are looking for potential risks to children, not reasons to exonerate parents. If they are experienced, the investigators have come to expect parents to be lying and manipulating.
This should sound an alarm for everybody, knowing anybody could, out of the blue, anonymously report them for something. While some stories could mirror police officers stopping somebody for failing to signal a turn when they want to charge him with greater crimes, Morales said parents have had their kids taken because of dirty pans in the sink; leaving children in a van five minutes while going in a restaurant to pick up a to-go order; leaving a child in a toy store while shopping elsewhere in the same mall; or letting a child ride his bike around the block, play in a park seven minutes away, or play with other children in the yard when the mother was in the house. Trusty citizens are told to cooperate with authorities and everything will go well, but this could result in a child being removed from his home and being held in protective custody for a year or more before the parent is cleared of ridiculous accusations.
Or things could really go wrong. One of the worst high-profile stories is that of Justina Pelletier. She was still in high school and ice skating when she came down with the flu. When her parents sought medical attention at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, her previously-diagnosed physical disease was re-diagnosed as a mental disorder, and she was taken into custody. For sixteen months, her physical condition deteriorated, and her parents’ very restricted visitation rights were often denied. She was not allowed to have any kind of schooling or religious ministrations. Her parents were forbidden to speak to the media. According to the Boston Globe, many wards of the state endured similar guinea-pig status for about 50 HIV/AIDS studies; at least one of which resulted in a “’disturbingly’ high death rate among the children.”
Morales reported, “Foster kids are seven to eight times more likely to be abused than normal children.… They are three times more likely to be put on psychotropic drugs, and they are seven times more likely to develop an eating disorder. They are more likely to have PTSD than veterans of war, and less likely to recover from that PTSD. They are more likely to become pregnant as a teenager. They are also 20% more likely to be arrested. And tragically, they are six times more likely to die than if they stayed in an abusive family household.”
None of this is to be tolerated, but is attacking Buncombe County’s social services programs the solution? On the one hand, citizens and members of the press are supposed to keep government’s feet to the fire. On the other, any attacks should be aimed at eliminating danger, whether clear and present or creeping. To do otherwise misallocates limited resources needed to alleviate mischief and suffering elsewhere. By way of illustration, local presentations by actuary John Boyle on unfunded mandates, which remains a serious problem at the federal level, led activists to criticize Asheville and Buncombe County governments as if they were guilty, when, in fact, the state prohibits them from getting into debt like San Bernardino and Detroit were doing at the time. Ironically, Detroit’s city council did not heed Boyle’s warnings.
Buncombe County staff indicated they were playing by the rules, going by the book and doing everything as the state mandates, with no more errors than other places. The county has gone the extra mile, electing to have supplemental monitoring by the federal government and operate an in-house quality-assurance team. For these measures, Morales already had opinions. The introduction to his book was written by Brett Veinotte, an outspoken critic of public schools. Of bureaucracies, he said, “Well-intentioned people are extremely useful in corrupt organizations. We can attend to the logistics, meet quotas, sit attentively through staff meetings, and move stacks of paperwork from in-boxes to out-boxes. In fact, with the right training, we seem capable of almost anything outside of asking relevant questions about the corruption or failure itself.”
His experiences in various professional roles in public schools taught him those involved were working to ensure their professional survival more than student enrichment. He described his efforts to put rational discretion and child wellbeing before protocols as trying to “tame a lion after it eats you. … After all, if I could not placidly adjust myself to the existing system, I must be stricken with some personal defect or dysfunction. At least, that was how I had been trained to view the children under my care.” North Carolina, however, is a Dillon’s Rule state. County leadership is charged with carrying out functions as prescribed by the state and federal government. The county commissioners have no more official powers than the rest of us to adjudicate appeals to process or enact legislative reform. As for charges of profiting off perverse incentives, county leadership is adamant: Its reimbursements benefit children.
The second part of Morales’ book gives parents tips for retaining custody. First of all, it only makes sense that parents who want to keep their children should love them and proactively behave beyond reproach. In not so many words, he counsels, “Don’t do anything stupid.” Citing 2004 statistics, he notes 34.2% of children were removed from homes because of drug dependency. Physical abuse constituted only 22.4% of removals. Addictions of any kind should be avoided. Bottomless searches for extremes are traded every day in exchange for responsibility to self and loved ones, leaving society to pick up the pieces with opportunity costs.
Morales also encourages parents to know their rights, as he had observed “Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Fourteenth amendments … all ignored in many CPS proceedings.” He encourages paying whatever it costs to hire an attorney who is not “part of the system” before signing anything. He further encourages parents to record all interactions with CPS workers, in a log book and on videotape. This, he says, will keep everybody honest.
Lastly, this article would be incomplete without incomplete recognition of those doing the right thing, those scarcely noticed for holding down the fort – like all the parents raising bright, loving, and capable children; all the government workers in the trenches who rescue children from real abuse, sometimes at gunpoint; and all the good foster parents who welcome abused children into the safety of their homes, not as cash cows, but out of a desire to serve and sacrifice for their well-being.