Media, Child Protective Services Agree — Dads Not Important

December 4, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The mainstream communications media’s ability to ignore the pain and suffering of men can be astonishing. The same holds true for the rights of fathers. Perhaps worse, that apparently willful ignorance about fathers seems to rub off on their kids. When a child’s need for its father should become an issue, all too often, it’s not. Whatever sins fathers have committed, punishment for them seems to be visited on their children by media whose ability to overlook fathers seems boundless.

So for example, not long ago, the New York Times had a truly excellent editorial opposing mandatory sentencing laws. It was one of the most powerful, moving and heartfelt pieces I’ve read in the Times in a long while. It not only pointed out the insanity of laws that imprison those convicted of minor offenses, sometimes for years, it brought up cases that would make the hardest-core “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type blanch.

The editorial of course mentioned the dramatic imbalance in sentencing between the classes and races, and rightly so. But what it didn’t do is mention what is at least as obvious as the tendency of our criminal justice system to punish the poor, the uneducated and people of color far more than their well-heeled white counterpart. What it didn’t do is mention the word “men.”

Somehow, despite what is known to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear — that overwhelmingly, it is men who are arrested, charged, denied bail, tried, convicted, sentenced and sentenced more harshly than are women. To those who would answer that it’s men who commit the majority of crimes, both violent and non-violent, the response is “Do some reading.” The literature has by now established the fact that, when the usual sentencing factors — prior record, severity of the offense, use or not of a weapon, etc. — are equal, men are treated far more harshly than women at every stage of the process.

But the Times missed that obvious and well-known fact. That over 90% of the victims of the very system the “paper of record” was excoriating were men went entirely unmentioned.

A similar thing appears here (The New Yorker, 12/2/13). The New Yorker article is about the unseemly zeal with which case workers for child welfare agencies are prone to snatch children from their parents and feed them into the foster care system. As such, it’s an excellent topic and the writer, Rachel Aviv does a fine job of showing how an unmarried mother in Orange County, California lost her child to foster care and adoption. The reader can almost see the movement of the wheels of a system that, once in motion, turn inexorably until the child is taken from the parent, placed in foster care and finally adopted.

The woman, Niveen Ismail, had a son she named Adam out of wedlock. She had some health problems, but was able to work as a software designer and care for Adam who was born in 2002. But when the demands of work impinged on her time and her ill health impinged on her energy, her parenting suffered although at no time in the article does it seem that Adam’s well-being was in real danger.

Into the bargain, Ismail is Egyptian and a first-generation resident of the United States. That meant she had no friends or relatives here who could help her care for her son when she couldn’t do it herself. It also meant that her maternal ways differed from those caseworkers wanted to see.

So one day when Adam was three, beset on one hand by a boss who was looking askance at her taking time off to care for her son and on the other by her own weakened physical state, Ismail left the boy home alone. She provided toys and food and left him in his crib. Eventually, his cries reached the ears of neighbors who called the police.

Adam was never again in his mother’s care. From the instant the police came in the window of her second-floor apartment, Adam was in first one foster family that proved to be chaotic and abusive, and then another that was bent on adopting him. It took three years to do the job, but caseworkers, two judges and the adoptive parents managed to wrest a little boy from a mother who, while far from a perfect parent, was the furthest thing from unfit — the constitutional standard for a state’s interference in the authority of parents.

Ismail’s parenting behavior came directly from her own parents who were permissive with her, and that didn’t sit well with caseworkers. Also, she at first suffered from the delusion that she had a voice in the process of deciding whether her child should be taken from her or not. That may have been her biggest mistake.

“The way to ‘lose’ your case here is to complain and complain about how unfair the system is,” the psychologist Leslie Drozd, wrote Niveen in an email. “‘Winning’ is getting your child back and to do that, the formula is simple: Comply. Comply. Comply.”

And Ismail tried to comply, but time and again caseworkers found her efforts wanting. She went to psychologists, took parenting classes and saw Adam as often as the court allowed. None of it was good enough.

Once Niveen was under increased scrutiny of Social Services, the bar for being a “good enough” parent seemed to rise. The social workers took turns monitoring Niveen’s visits, compiling lengthy accounts of blunders: Niveen offered Adam too many toys to play with; she fed him a tuna sandwich while he was bowling; she let him sit on a slippery stool without noticing that he might fall off; and she failed to assemble a telescope before presenting it to him as a gift. She didn’t carry a purse, her pants were wrinkled, her hair was uncombed, and her sweater had rust-colored stains.

The gist here is clear. The decision had been made to place Adam for adoption and all stops would be pulled out to make that happen. If that meant criticizing a parent for behavior that in no way reflected on her parental abilities, then so be it. Let’s not forget, these are Department of Social Services case workers in one of the largest counties in the country. They see brutality, drug addiction, violent crime, poverty, stupidity and the most incompetent parenting every single day. And yet in Niveen Ismail’s case they’re complaining about when she feeds her son a sandwich.

And Aviv let’s her readers know just why that decision was made about Adam.  He was an intelligent, outgoing, charming, blond little boy and therefore, as one caseworker wrote, “very adoptable.” And of course Aviv doesn’t overlook the fact that the federal government pays a hefty bounty for every child who’s adopted out of foster care.

So the wheels of the “child protection” system creaked into action and didn’t stop until Niveen Ismail had lost her child and Adam had lost his mother.

The message is clear: Ismail had some shortcomings as a parent, but under no theory of child welfare should she have lost her son; under no theory of constitutional law should she have had her parental rights terminated. The system had a life of its own. The wheels ground her down to nothing.

In short, it’s a good article. It shows just what can happen and why. No parent who reads it should be less than incensed and horrified.

And yet Aviv, for all that she rightly excoriates the caseworkers and the system they promote every day, strongly agrees with them on one subject — fathers aren’t important.

Amazingly, Aviv mentions Adam’s father only twice in her entire article and then only in passing. First, Ismail had lied to the police when they first took Adam from her apartment telling them that the child was supposed to have been babysat by his father. Second,

At thirty-five, after a brief relationship with a blond cameraman, she found she was pregnant. He urged her to get an abortion, explaining that he wasn’t financially prepared to be a father. But Niveen had always wanted a child and didn’t know if she’d have another chance.

And that, my friends, is all we know about Adam’s dad. Did he pay child support? Did he have visitation? Did he provide informal support? Did he babysit the boy? And if he did none of those things, why didn’t he? Why didn’t Ismail go to court and get an order? That usually results in the father taking a greater role in the child’s life, even if he wasn’t ready to be a full-time father.

But to Aviv, none of that’s important, even though it was probably one of the surest ways for Ismail to salvage her parental rights. After all, if she could have shown the case workers and the court that she had qualified backup parenting available any time, she’d have been a lot better off legally. But obviously Ismail never took those steps. What Ismail apparently did was, when the dad said he wasn’t ready to be a parent, to go her own way without him — no child support, no parenting — and that decision led to her loss of her son. Aviv ignores that. To her, Adam’s father is a non-factor. Indeed, so are other dads. Aviv routinely refers to the victims of Social Services’ adoption zeal as ‘mothers.’

But they aren’t, not by a long chalk. And that’s where Aviv and Social Services — apparent adversaries — enthusiastically agree. Back in 2006, the Urban Institute published a study showing that, when a child welfare agency took a child from an unfit mother and moved to terminate her rights, in fewer than half the cases, was any effort made to contact the child’s father as a possible placement. That’s true despite the fact that placing a child with its father would be far cheaper than placing it in foster care. Indeed, in most cases, the money saved on foster care would far exceed the money received from Washington in the event the child was adopted.

Did social services even attempt to contact Adam’s father? If they did, Aviv doesn’t mention the fact. Did a judge ask the question the Urban Institute did, “What about the dad?” Again, Aviv is silent. There’s no question that Ismail knew the father and likely where to contact him, but all parties — mother, police, caseworkers, judges, psychologists, etc. — agreed that he was to continue as before — a non-factor in his child’s life. They unanimously endorsed Ismail’s original decision to go it alone, as if Dad didn’t exist.

In other words, both Rachel Aviv and child welfare agencies everywhere share the mindset that fathers aren’t important to children. Despite her strong misgivings about Social Services, Aviv agrees with them that even contacting the father would have been pointless. Maybe that’s why she didn’t contact him herself.

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