Science

Tragedy fostered: Experts say system designed to protect children can tear families apart

In June 2017, while at a family picnic in a park in Aurora, Colorado, Vanessa Peoples noticed that one of her young sons had slipped. Peoples, who was studying to be a nurse, isn’t the first parent to lose sight of a child; it happens all the time. But a bystander’s call to the police resulted in child abuse allegations that upended his life.

“They treated me as if I had actually harmed my children, and I had not harmed anybody,” she told reporter Erin Moriarty.

A month after the picnic, a worker from Adams County Children and Family Services came to her house unannounced. The men doing the laundry downstairs didn’t hear the doorbell, so the police were called again.

People recalled, “At that point, I’m coming up the stairs thinking I’m going to pick up my kids, and a gun is pointed in my face.”

The police did not go even after it was clear that the children were not alone in the house. When bystanders objected to the way police treated his mother, who had just arrived home, officers physically restrained her, partially dislocating her shoulder in the process .

“When the officer pinned me to the floor, I saw my son dead on his face, and it was just a look of pain,” Peoples said. “I was treated like an animal. I was not treated like a human being.”

The men, who had no criminal history, were taken to jail and charged with child abuse and obstructing an officer. “The part that really got me is I looked at the social worker’s face when it happened, and she didn’t say anything. She just stood there.”

Erica Grossman, a civil rights attorney, sued the Aurora police on behalf of people accusing the officers of using excessive force. “There are certainly times when the state needs to get involved,” she said. “It wasn’t even one of those cases coming.”

Moriarty asked, “Was there any indication that there were weapons inside the house?”

“No, there was absolutely zero indication.”

A police internal investigation determined that the use of force was lawful, but the department settled the matter, and the charge of obstruction against the men was dropped. Still, there was an allegation of child abuse. No,

Grossman said, “Once you hit the state bell, it’s a tragedy – you can’t open it. It’s almost impossible to get out of it.”

Colorado child welfare officials say they cannot discuss the case, but the violence the men experienced is unusual. Yet, what happened next is not what happened. People were required to follow a strict service plan, much at their own expense, and allowed twice-weekly inspections by caseworkers. “I had to pay for a drug test,” she said. “I had to pay for parenting classes. I also had to pay to be on probation.”

Unless the treatment of a child hits the headlines (for example, when a child dies), Americans rarely think about agencies charged with child protection. Therefore, the system handling more than 3.5 million cases a year receives little public scrutiny, as those most affected are poor.

Professor Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, who has written extensively about the child custody system, states, “Part of the propaganda that the system uses to convince the public that it is in fact an altruistic care system is what it describes.” Terms used to do are: child welfare, foster care, child protection. I prefer the term ‘family policing system’, as it describes exactly what the system does – investigate, charge, separate Doing.

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And the numbers don’t lie, Roberts said. White families are twice as likely to be affected as black families. “More than half of black children in America will be subjected to child welfare checks before they reach the age of 18,” he said.

Poor or abandoned children were cared for by private charities and orphanages. But when the increased use of X-rays in the 1960s revealed that children were being abused in the home, the government got involved. Today, less than 20 percent of cases allege actual physical abuse; The great majority involves neglect.

“Neglect is commonly confused with poverty,” said Roberts. Neglect is defined by most states as parents failing to provide resources that children need, such as clothing or food or safe housing. And it’s usually because the parents can’t afford them.”

According to the Child Defense Fund, a child is removed from his home every two minutes. There are now more than 400,000 children in foster care.

Moriarty asked, “Would you agree that perhaps there are some cases of neglect—extreme poverty or a parent with a terrible drug problem—the children would be better off in another environment?”

“Yes, of course, there are cases, and again these are extreme cases,” replied Roberts. “But first, the system doesn’t spend enough attention or resources on what can be given to keep that family together.”

In the summer of 2017, Samantha Mungai was a 22-year-old single mom of a four-year-old girl living in Missouri, struggling to pay rent and childcare. One night his life changed completely. “A silly mistake that I really wish I could take back every single day,” she said. “We were behind on the rent, and so they gave us an eviction notice: ‘If you don’t pay it on time, you know, you have to leave.'”

Mungai, who danced at a club at night, says she could not find a babysitter and left her daughter alone in the apartment.

“You had to know how risky it was,” Moriarty said. “There could have been a fire. She could have been sick and she was alone. You can’t go to work that night.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, but then we would have been fired, and what do I do next?” Mungai replied.

But when she arrived home that morning, she found that her child had gone to a neighbor’s house, who called the police. The child was placed in foster care.

Mungai agrees to follow a plan to get her back. He was allowed to see his daughter only once a week. Although records show that his daughter struggled to adjust to parenting, Mungai was never allowed to spend alone time with her or bring her home.

Alan Detlaff, dean of social work at the University of Houston, who was once a child protection caseworker himself, said that service plans often set parents up for failure: “We have a system now as a One that is responding to harm, and inciting an intervention on children who inflict further harm. [Parents] They have to go for counselling, they have to go to parenting classes. When the parent would say, ‘I can’t take that much time off work to go to these classes,’ the case worker would say to the parent, ‘Well, it’s about your child. This should be your priority. You need to figure it out.'”

In Mungai’s case, he was also required to pay child support payments to the county to reimburse him for the foster care. And soon, it was weeks to months and then a year and a half away from her daughter.

Ayesha Schomberg, associate commissioner of the US Children’s Bureau, confirmed that requiring parents to pay for foster care assistance also increases the amount of time a child is away from a parent. “That’s not what we want,” she said.

Last summer, her office recommended that state and county agencies stop charging struggling parents for foster care.

But Professor Roberts said this is not enough. He and others say the entire system needs to change. “This system is a $30 billion system. To take those $30+ billion for children and give it directly to families to meet the needs of their children, to spend on housing, on clothing, on food, on medicine, Will be more beneficial. Meditation.”

Moriarty asked Schomburgh, “What do you say to people who say this system needs to be dismantled completely?”

“We don’t want 400,000 kids in foster care,” she replied. “There may be kids and families out there who need help and they are getting the help they need.”

But these agencies exercise considerable authority over the lives of families. Mungai, who now has a four-year-old son, said he was confident he would get his daughter back. But when her case files showed steady improvements, her parental rights were terminated in 2019.

Moriarty asked, “Does that mean you can’t see him?”

“If I do I’ll be in trouble, that’s what they say.”

“Can’t talk to him?”

“No.”

“Can’t figure out how she is?”

“Unh-uh.”

Mungai’s appeal was dismissed. Among the reasons cited by the court: She failed to take parenting classes, a psychological evaluation, and she missed scheduled visitation with her daughter.

The Clay County Children’s Division and the Missouri Department of Social Services said they could not talk about specific investigations.

Mungai said, “What bothers me is that she doesn’t think I love her. She’ll grow up thinking I don’t care, and I didn’t try and I gave up and I gave up.” Took.”

It’s been more than five years since Vanessa Peoples’ son has been a walk in the park. She never lost her children, yet people are still dealing with the consequences. “I live with it every day because it’s a nightmare,” she said.

In January 2018, Peoples pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment of a child rather than risk prison; But the conviction makes her unable to get a job in nursing.

Moriarty asked attorney Erica Grossman, “He has a criminal history for recklessly endangering a child, for what? For allowing a child to wander in a park?”

“Yeah. Nothing else,” replied Grossman. “It’s absolutely crazy.”

People said, “I can’t find a job. I can’t find housing. I’m still living with my mother. I should be able to build a house for my children and myself, but the fact is Somebody else intervened in my life, I am stuck at zero.”


for more information:

  • Civil rights attorney Eric Grossman, Holland, Edwards & Grossman LLC, Denver
  • Dorothy Roberts, Director, Program on Race, Science and Society, University of Pennsylvania
  • “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safe World” by Dorothy Roberts (Basic Books) in hardcover, eBook, and audio formats, available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound
  • Alan Detlaff, Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston
  • Children’s Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services


Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: George Podderek.

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