AZ Solution to CPS Crisis: More Foster Care?

Things have gotten so bad at Arizona Child Protective Services that the governor has vowed change.  But if this article (Arizona Republic, 10/14/11) or this article (Arizona Central, 10/15/11) is any indication, the results won’t be good.  The complaints about Arizona CPS have been coming fast and furiously for some time, and every time someone from inside the child welfare bureaucracy responds, they come off like, well,  classic bureaucrats.  “It’s not my fault; I’m the victim here,” is the refrain in two articles I’ve reported on that quoted senior CPS bureaucrats at length. In the meantime, children are being abused and some are dying because of the dysfunction in the state’s CPS system.  So it must be good that Governor Jan Brewer has announced her intention to appoint a task force to do a top-to-bottom review of CPS and
recommend changes.  Or maybe not so good. Laurie Roberts’ article reprises all the previous times wholesale changes have supposedly been made at Arizona CPS, but with little or no real improvement in child welfare.  In 1993, 1994, 1996, and 2003, everyone from the Executive Director of CPS to the governor agreed there was a crisis within CPS.  Each time thorough-going change was promised, but if CPS’s behavior improved, it was hard to see. Now it’s 2011 and once again, the powers that be have noticed the dying and abused children and vow action.  Maybe that’s the good news; maybe it’s the bad. As I said, if the two articles are any indication, it may be the bad news.  Why?  Because both argue that families are the problem.

Maricopa County’s chief prosecutor says Arizona should focus more aggressively on child safety and criminal prosecution and move away from a child-welfare system that seems to prioritize keeping families together.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery said there needs to be a separate criminal response, not just a social-welfare response, to separate child abusers from their children.

“This is not a realm where family reunification is either the highest goal or something that should be sought at all costs,” Montgomery said.

Leave it to a prosecutor to believe that the answer to (fill in the blank) is more prosecutions.  Surely Montgomery understands that child abuse is already a crime punishable in accordance with the severity of the abuse.  So what he must be arguing for is prosecution of a wider range of offenses including child neglect that aren’t usually prosecuted. That should scare anyone who’s the least concerned about the state’s interference in our private lives.  It’s not just the prospect of parents, grandparents, daycare workers, baby sitters, etc. being hauled into court and threatened with jail for the simplest of oversights that’s so alarming, although it certainly is.  It’s the idea that wholesale application of criminal law against people trying to care for their kids is the right prescription for what ails us. Anyone who abuses a child should face appropriate consequences and in some cases, criminal ones.  But again, that’s what happens now.  Tossing out the dragnet for parents who dare to spank a child is not the answer to our child welfare riddle. Laurie Roberts’ piece is even worse.  She starts in 1992 and names every case she can think of in which a child, known to CPS, was killed by its caregiver.  Those are tragic cases and CPS bears a huge burden of blame in each of them.  But Roberts chooses her examples carefully – so carefully that she leaves out all the cases of children injured in foster care. That’s right.  Roberts is enraged at the actions or inactions of CPS and rightly so, but her anger is directed only one way – at parents.  That makes her solution simple and one-sided.

And so I hope this governor will listen to foster parents and grandparents who watch with horror as children are returned to people not fit to call themselves parents. I hope she will listen to prosecutors and hospital workers, so often appalled by what they see.

“Some of these abusers are repeat offenders that continue to have babies returned to their care,’ one hospital social worker told me. “We have a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs with many of the CPS-approved discharges to parents, knowing full well that this baby will likely end up in the ER or morgue.’

I hope she will listen to frontline CPS workers who can tell her how little power they really have. “It’s all about protecting parents’ rights,’ one worker recently told me, “not protecting the child.’

That’s her answer to the whole problem of CPS – more foster care.  According to Roberts, parents are the problem and foster care is the solution.  I guess she’s never heard that child abuse in foster care is far more likely than in parent care.  Is it possible that she’s never read about the outrages – the beatings, the deaths, the sexual abuse – perpetrated against kids in foster homes? Of course she has.  She’s got her Google Alerts set with all the right search terms.  My guess is that she reads about child abuse in foster care every day.  But it’s only parents at whom she directs her ire. And it’s not just the failure of caseworkers to take children from their parents that’s the problem; it’s also their failure to leave them there that gives CPS a bad name.  CPS’s overreaching is well known to anyone who keeps up with the issue at all, but you’d never know it to read Roberts’ piece. And that’s a problem itself, because demanding that CPS take more children from parents leads to exactly that – more overreaching.  So if Roberts has her way, there’ll be many more Maryanne Godboldos in the world.  Godboldo is the Detroit mother who had her 13-year-old daughter taken by force by the local child welfare authority for the crime of withholding medication from the girl Godboldo thought was harming her.  (A couple of weeks after breaking into her house and taking the girl, it turned out that Godboldo was right; the girl was better off without the medication.) So people like Roberts need to understand just what it is they’re advocating.  The want children taken from parents.  Obviously that’s appropriate in some situations.  But erring on the side of taking children leads not to less abuse but to more.  Some parents are a danger to their children, but children are more likely to be abused in foster care than in parental care.  Second, Roberts is arguing (whether she knows it or not) for more and more children taken from parents for no good reason.  That’s what greater power on the part of CPS leads to.  If she thinks that’s the solution, she doesn’t understand the problem. It’s easy to get mad at CPS; I spend a lot of my time doing just that.  But simplistic solutions to a complex problem won’t work.  And greater bias against parents and families is not only the wrong answer to the question of how to protect children from abuse, it’ll make the problem worse, not better.

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