March 4th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Another child is dead at the hands of his mother to whom child welfare authorities gave custody despite her violent and drug-addicted past, and his father’s pleas that the boy be placed in his care. Read about it here (Chicago Tribune, 2/29/12).
Last June, two-year-old Lavandis Hudson was brought into a Chicago area emergency room with a split lip, swollen eyes and bruised face. The ER doctor didn’t believe the boy’s mother when she blamed his injuries on a younger sister. So he alerted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, as he was required to do by law.
But DCFS decided Lavandis was in no danger and, a matter of days later, returned him to his mother, Marles Blackman, 37. Three weeks later Lavandis Hudson was dead, killed, authorities say, by a beating administered by Blackman. She’s currently charged with first-degree murder in the boy’s death.
At the time DCFS returned Lavandis to Blackman, here’s what caseworkers knew about her: when Lavandis was born a month prematurely, he had crack cocaine and opiates in his system and doctors suspected he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Mere days after his birth, he was taken from Blackman and into foster care, but he was eventually returned. In his short life, Blackman was investigated twice by DCFS for allegations of abuse.
In addition to child abuse, Blackman admitted to “having 30 physical altercations with different people, including one in which she drove over a violent drug dealer’s leg, records show. She was charged with battery and assault in some of the incidents but was never convicted, court records show.” She had also gotten upset with her own mother in 2002 and burned her house down. No one was injured.
In a nutshell, that’s the woman DCFS knew and concluded, despite his injuries, that Lavandis would be safe in her “care.” They were wrong, as just about any layperson would have seen with even a cursory glance at Blackman’s history.
But Lavandis Hudson’s story isn’t just about the failure of child welfare authorities to keep the little boy away from his mother. It’s also about their failure to consider his father as a placement alternative for him.
The boy’s father, who is estranged from the mother after a brief relationship, told the Tribune that he begged the DCFS investigator at the hospital in June to release his son to him. He said his pleas were ignored.
“They gave him to the wrong parent,” said Herbert Hudson, 56, of Blue Island. “If they had given me my son, he’d still be alive today.”
Herbert Hudson has learned what I’ve written about many times – the refusal of child welfare caseworkers to contact fathers in cases in which children are in danger from their mothers. As far as I can tell, that happens routinely in all states. I know of no state or local child welfare agency that, as a matter of policy, seeks out fathers as placement alternatives when a child is taken from its mother.
More importantly, the Urban Institute studied the matter and found that caseworkers fail to contact fathers in at least half the cases in which they take children from mothers. This preference for foster care over father care is more than blatantly anti-father, although it is surely that. It’s also extremely costly to the states. Foster care is expensive and taxpayers foot the bill for caseworkers’ disdain for fathers’ care and fathers’ rights.
Likewise, studies indicate that foster care is, on average, more dangerous to children than parental care. Of course that’s far from true in every case. Unquestionably there are fine, loving foster parents, just as there are biological parents who are dangerous to children, just as Marles Blackman was.
But public policy can’t be based on anecdotal evidence; it has to reflect sound social science, and that shows that generally, children are safer with parents – even those that are somewhat abusive and neglectful – than they are in foster care. So the widespread preference for foster care over father care is bad for children as well.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services knows this and has lengthy educational materials whose aim is to convince caseworkers of the value of fathers to children. But it doesn’t work, I suspect because caseworkers’ training doesn’t inculcate the importance of involving fathers in children’s upbringing.
Almost 100 years of United States Supreme Court precedents rule that sates have no power to come between a biological parent and his/her child as long as that parent is fit to give parental care. Despite the law though, child welfare authorities do exactly that every day of every year by failing to contact fathers to find out if they are that type of fit parent or not. According to the Supreme Court, parental rights don’t depend on marriage or wealth or anything else; they depend on the fitness of the parent. Until a state demonstrates unfitness, it has no power to come between the parent and his child. But states do exactly that in case after case.
As an aside, I’d like to point out that my last post was about the veil of secrecy the New York Office of Children and Family Services has illegally drawn across its conduct of abuse cases. Because of that, the press and public are in the dark about what the OCFS does and fails to do in cases involving the death of a child.
But in Illinois, the situation is different. The Chicago Tribune clearly had access to the DCFS files in Lavandis Hudson’s case. That means the people of Illinois know what happened and can draw their own conclusions about what should have happened. So can state legislators.
There’s no magic bullet to protect all children from harm. Sadly, there will always be parents and others who hurt and neglect children and the most perfect child welfare system imaginable won’t protect them all. But at least the people of Illinois have access to the facts and can do their best to shape public policy to protect children as best as is possible.
The people of New York should be so lucky.