Conor Friedersdorf’s Excellent Article on Child Protective Services

July 23, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Hard on the heels of Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the New York Times last Sunday comes this quite good piece from Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic, 7/22/14). At last the continuing scandal of our child protective agencies is gaining a wider audience. It’s high time. Douthat grasped the fact that CPS agencies are overreaching, intervening in families where they have no business. He also understands that we live in a culture that vastly overdoes the concept of parenting. Time and again we read of parents being jailed, their kids stashed in foster care for the slightest oversights or worse, simply for parenting in ways that are entirely responsible, but different from what someone somewhere might wish.

So we’ve seen a boy taken into foster care and his mother charged with neglect for allowing him to play at the end of a cul-de-sac under her watchful eye. We’ve seen a mother jailed for allowing her daughter to ride her bicycle to school. We’ve seen a father charged and his daughter taken into care simply because Dad asserted his rights as a parent under the U.S. Constitution. CPS in California has gotten so bad one legislator has publicly called for the whole agency to be scrapped and a new start made.

The list is endless, but until recently, the ham-handedness of child welfare agencies has mostly flown under the radar of the national MSM.

What Friedersdorf does that Douthat didn’t is look at the figures. I offered a few of those in my last post, and I did so for the proposition that children in this country are pretty safe. After all, the Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency that collects data from state child welfare organizations, reported recently on the data for 2013. It found that there had been 686,000 cases in which child abuse or neglect had been substantiated. Of those, about 140,000 were cases of abuse. As I pointed out, that’s out of national population of some 73.6 million kids under the age of 18. So on average, kids have about a 0.2% chance of being abused in any given year.

And abuse can run the gamut from the most horrifying brutality to the occasional spanking. And tragically, some 1,640 children died last year due to their abuse. Likewise, neglect can refer to a wide variety of sins. We’ve seen children starved to death, for example, but we’ve also seen children whose neglect consists of Mom taking a nap while little Andy or Jenny finds a way out into the yard.

But the simple truth is that, on average, overwhelmingly, children in this country are safe. Does that mean that parents who are known to be abusive or incompetent don’t need to be investigated and if their kids are at serious risk, have them removed? Of course not. We need to do what we can to protect children at risk of harm. But Douthat’s correct as are many of us who’ve made the same points; we live in a culture that, for whatever reason, believes children to be in constant dire peril. That flawed notion leads us to the conclusion that every child is our responsibility and the slightest misstep by a parent warrants a call to the police.

So, there were 686,000 verified cases of abuse or neglect of children last year. Care to guess how many reports of abuse or neglect were checked out and found to reveal no risk for the children? Almost four times as many as were substantiated, or about 2.5 million in all. Of the total 3.4 million reports to CPS agencies, an astonishing 1.3 million were “screened out,” i.e. of so little merit as to not even require a visit to the family by a caseworker. That’s right, about twice as many reports were deemed to be unworthy even of investigation as were found to be substantiated.

The conclusion? We’re far too afraid about our children’s welfare. The kids are OK. Of course another conclusion is that it’s not us generally who are afraid about children, but “mandated reporters” who are afraid for their jobs. After all, most of the reports (about 59%) are made by “professionals,” meaning doctors, nurses, teachers, principals, school counselors, the police, and the like. They’re all required by law to report suspicious injuries to children, reports by children, behaviors suggesting abuse, etc. And the consequences for failure to do so can be dire, so it’s no surprise they overreact.

But a whopping 41% of reports are made by friends, relatives, neighbors, etc. (18%) and unknown others, i.e. anonymous complaints (23%). That’s about 1.4 million reports a year by your friends and neighbors.

Sometimes of course, those anonymous reports and those by non-professionals are vital to children’s welfare. But the conclusion is inescapable that parents and children live in a society in which everyone is looking over their shoulders looking for signs of abuse or neglect, and pretty much anything can qualify. It’s far from the same, but we can draw a line from the child sexual abuse hysteria of the 80s to today in which some 2.5 million reports are made to CPS agencies about children who are just fine. There’s a simmering fear about children’s welfare that’s usually unwarranted and that’s stoked by messages from a wide variety of governmental sources whose power can only be enhanced by the fear.

To his great credit, Friedersdorf gets into some of the realities of foster care. After all, it’s one thing to inveigh against governmental overreach, but yet another to show what it really means, particularly to children. When a CPS caseworker decides a child is at risk, he/she can be taken into some form of foster care, at least temporarily. Here’s Friedersdorf quoting University of Connecticut Law School Professor Paul Chill:

On an average day, police officers and child-welfare caseworkers throughout the UnitedStates remove more than seven hundred children from the custody of their parents to protect them from alleged abuse or neglect. These children are typically seized without warning from their homes or schools, subjected to intrusive interrogations, medical examinations and/or strip searches, and forced to live in foster homes or group residences while the legal system sorts out their future…

Removals can be terrifying experiences for children and families. Often they occur at night. Parents have little or no time to prepare children for separation. The officials conducting the removal, as well as the adults supervising the placement, are usually complete strangers to the child. Children are thrust into alien environs, separated from parents, siblings and all else familiar, with little if any idea of why they have been taken there. Such experiences may not only cause “grief, terror and feelings of abandonment” but may “compromise” a child’s very “capacity to form secure attachments” and lead to other serious problems. The trauma may be magnified when the child is actually suffering abuse or neglect in the home, and in any event it is increased when reunification with loved ones does not occur quickly.

Earth-shaking as such an experience may be for children taken from their parents, their homes, their siblings, their relatives, neighbors, schools, friends, etc., in many cases, it’s entirely unnecessary. Friedersdorf continues quoting Chill.

He goes on to explain that while taking kids from parents in this fashion is only permitted in emergencies as a matter of law, the way things play out in practice is very different. "According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 100,000 children who were removed in 2001–more than one in three–were later found not to have been maltreated at all," he wrote, citing a statistic that I can’t locate for more recent years. "And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Because definitions of maltreatment are extremely broad and substantiation standards low, it can be reasonably assumed that a significant number of other children who are found maltreated, and for whom perhaps some intervention–short of removal–is warranted, are nonetheless removed on an emergency basis."

And let’s not forget the CYA factor that’s ever a part of bureaucratic motivation. If there’s a doubt about whether a child who was taken by CPS should have been, you can bet the ranch that caseworkers and their supervisors will do everything in their power to spin the matter to support their own actions. Why would they not?

Friedersdorf’s is a fine piece of journalism about a topic that’s crying out for a wider audience and, most importantly, for change. Fortunately, he promises us another on the issue of CPS secrecy. I can’t wait.


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