The Atlantic’s Kid-Glove Treatment of CPS

January 30, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Here’s a soft piece on child protective services (The Atlantic, 1/27/19).  Writer Diane Redleaf knows enough about her topic to get her facts correct, but apparently not enough to pinpoint many of the problems CPS agencies create in the lives of parents and children.

Her basic point is that, once CPS decides a parent may have abused a child, that parent is in for a long, uncomfortable ride through the CPS system, pretty much irrespective of whether he/she abused the child or not.  With the police, we call that “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.”  The same is true of CPS.  Caseworkers can put the fear of God into any parent, even those who know they’ve done nothing wrong.

Such was the case of David and Michelle Weidner of Peoria, Illinois, whose infant son Jacob suffered from a rare genetic disorder that was eventually diagnosed and treated.  In the meantime, they’d rushed him to a hospital where a resident misdiagnosed a head X-ray as revealing a fracture that was suspicious for blunt trauma.  It took the Weidners and multiple doctors weeks to ascertain the truth – that there was no fracture.  During that time, Jacob spent seven days in the hospital, but almost 100 days in the CPS crosshairs.  Yes, the doctors had verified that no abuse had occurred and Jacob hadn’t been injured, but still, CPS refused to let the case out of its hands.

Plus, caseworkers had done what we’ve seen more and more over the years.

According to the Weidners, a CPS caseworker then informed them that they must accept a “safety plan” calling for round-the-clock supervision of all contact with Jacob and their two other children until further notice. Otherwise, all three of their children would be put into foster care. The Weidners started to live with the terrible fear that their children might be taken from them.

Ah yes, the proverbial “voluntary safety plan” about which I’ve written so much in the past.  Those plans are “voluntary” in exactly the way the Weidners described.  Parents can agree to the plan drawn up by CPS or they can have their children taken from them.  Sound voluntary?  It doesn’t to me either.  And of course that can happen with no finding of abuse or neglect whatsoever.  After all, one doctor said there was a fracture, not that it had resulted from abuse.  So even if there’d been a fracture, which there turned out not to be, the threat of taking the children from the Weidners was made in all sincerity despite there being no finding of abuse or neglect.

That brings me to the first serious shortcoming of Redleaf’s piece.  Nowhere does she mention the reason that, in state after state, these “voluntary safety plans” have become so popular with child protective agencies.  The reason is that they allow CPS to avoid the scrutiny of courts and the inconvenience of due process of law.  Without those plans, in order to wrest a child from a parent’s loving arms, CPS would have to go to court and produce evidence of abuse or neglect sufficient to warrant the child’s removal and a judge would have to pass judgment on that evidence.  Judges are inclined to rubberstamp the claims of CPS, so the process can be fairly quick and easy, but at least it can give the parent an opportunity to respond and produce counter evidence.

That of course is too much for CPS personnel who’d rather do it the Mob way, i.e. with threats and the parent’s “voluntary” agreement.

Threats of family separation, coupled with restrictions on families’ living arrangements during CPS investigations, are commonplace in a number of states, including Illinois. Several years ago, I co-led a class-action suit that challenged forced safety plans as unconstitutional. But in 2006, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit labeled safety plans “voluntary” agreements, thus disregarding a lower court’s finding that CPS routinely used express threats of child removal to coerce parents to agree to safety plans. The appellate court declared that an “inarticulable hunch” sufficed for the state to demand that parents agree to safety-plan restrictions during investigations. 

Amazing, but true.  An “inarticulable hunch” is sufficient for parents to either lose their children or their parental rights at the whim of a caseworker with too many cases and too little training.

Redleaf’s failure to mention the reason for the wholesale resort to these “voluntary” plans is, to say the least, a major failure.

Another major failure is her failure to mention money.  An intelligent person reading her article would surely wonder why CPS agencies time and again behave more like the Stassi than child protective organizations.  Redleaf hazards no answer to that urgent question.

But the answer is plain for all to see.  The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1998 offers states significant bounties on children taken from parents, placed in foster care and then adopted.  According to one former state senator from North Dakota, the ASFA radically altered CPS behavior in favor of taking children from parents.  Redleaf rightly bemoans CPS overreach, but never lets readers know why it happens.

One thing she gets right though is that the weight of state power wielded by CPS falls most heavily on the poor.  People like the Weidners occupy a much stronger position in the field.

The Weidners had many advantages over most other families on the receiving end of a child-abuse allegation. For one thing, as white, middle-class professionals with graduate degrees, they fell on the privileged side of the color line that disproportionately brings minority families into contact with CPS. Indeed, an analysis of 2015 data showed that Peoria County took children into foster care from African American families at rates nearly eight times as high as those of the non–African American population.

Plus, she points to an abuse suffered by the Weidners that’s probably pretty common.

Channing Petrak, through her employer’s contract with Illinois CPS, was put in charge of providing medical evidence to the state’s investigative team. Though she is a pediatrician, she was not tasked with providing medical care to Jacob.

Petrak reviewed Jacob’s CT scan and interviewed the Weidners, who cooperated fully, believing—wrongly—that Petrak was part of Jacob’s specialized diagnostic team at OSF.

In other words, neither Petrak nor anyone else disclosed her real purpose in interviewing the Weidners.  She’s a doctor and the parents understandably thought she was on their side.  She wasn’t.  The idea that CPS and their contractors don’t have to disclose who they are and what they’re doing in a potential child abuse case is outrageous.  My thought is that there should be a requirement, like a Miranda warning, that informs parents of their rights, what’s going on and what can happen.

More importantly, the use of coerced safety plans should no longer be tolerated.

Redleaf’s piece is alright as far as it goes, which isn’t nearly far enough.

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