Friday, October 12, 2012

Mandatory Denouncing? The politics of CPS

Bad Quaker (or as Michael Deene likes to refer to him, Ben Quaker) is doing a superb podcast series on protecting children in a free society. Building on the premises that 1) we have no free society, at least in the US and 2) putting them in the "system" which includes the police, the courts, and Child Protective Services does not help kids and it especially doesn't help families.

I have my differences with Ben, which I've already addressed in a comment on his blog.  But CPS has been coming up in all sorts of coversations around me lately, so I figured it's time to do a blog post.

Let me first establish my street cred with regard to CPS, at least CPS in my own state.

  I'm a social worker.  Social workers, like all health practitioners, teachers, and probably many others, are what is called "mandatory reporters."  That means that we are required by law to submit a report to CPS any time we suspect child abuse or neglect.  As you might imagine, the key word here is "suspect", which can mean a variety of things.  Does it mean we saw abuse take place?  Does it mean a 3rd party told us it took place?  Do we know an "Occupy Wall Street" person and presume, because he or she has kids, violence must be taking place at home because violence always occurs around "those types"?  Have we seen a bruise?  Is the child in question dressed in plaid pants an a striped blouse (thus clearly suffering a little known form of child abuse known as fashion abuse)?  Does a teenage client who we have reason to believe is unreliable claim his stepdad tried to run over him with the family SUV?  Does a small child exhibit what are known as the "red flags" of sexual abuse (sexual preoccupation that is unusual for the child's age, and perhaps even sexual abuse of other children)? 
As you can see, what can arouse suspicion in a social worker varies from person to person.

I also did time as a foster care worker.  Yes. Did time.  That's exactly how it felt.  Being a foster care worker for as long as I could stand it (4 months) meant that I was working every day with the system we expose children to when a CPS report is made and "substantiated", leading to children being removed from home and placed, maybe temporarily, maybe not, in fostercare homes.  That includes CPS, the courts, foster parents, non-custodial parents who at times are the initial reporters of abuse, and psychotherapists working within the foster care system.  (To clarify, I did not work for CPS at the time.  I worked at a private agency that contracted with the Department of Social Services to provide supervision of families whose kids had been removd, and assistance in reuniting those families.)  Taken individually, most people in that circle meant well, loved kids, had no "hidden agenda" of causing harm to the parent who had been reported (no, not even the non-custodial parents, usually).   But taken as a whole monstrous Leviathan, this beast chewed children up and spit them out, and often the whole family with them.  I had kids on my caseload who became clinically depressed in care, were physically or sexually abused by foster family members, were sent to a foster home in a distant rural county (most of our families lived in the city of Detroit), making it harder than heck to get them to the agency for the mandatory weekly visitation with their estranged parents.  I saw parents deprived of due process the first place, by just having their children removed from them; but then later too, as the court would demand paperwork that a functionary failed to complete and then delay hearings. 

Frequently, poor families in the inner city consist of a single mom raising 2 or more children, each with different fathers.  The law mandates that before the process of examining a case for possible termination of parental rights of the mother, each father needs to be notified.  Logical.  But just as often as poor young women have 2 or more baby daddies, poor young men make themselves pretty scarce in the face of fatherhood.  So serving each person with a subpoena is a difficult and seemingly never-ending task.  You've had your children removed, and want your day in court?  Has the father been notified?  You and CPS have tried to locate him to no avail?  Sorry, can't help you.  Come back in 3 months and if you've succeeded where we have failed in reaching him, maybe we'll have a hearing for you...provided the 10 governmnent employees involved in your case have done all their paperwork.  If they haven't, even if you've gone above and beyond what the court has asked to prove your own fitness as a parent, the case won't even start. 

I recently had a typical disagreement among colleagues regarding a family that we had "in common", that is, who were receiving services from each of us.  They believed the kids in the family may be at risk for neglect and abuse, and I didn't see it.  One of the typical arguments for being trigger happy with 3200s (the paperwork we complete to report suspected abuse) was bandied about:  "Well, you can always report it anyway; better safe than sorry."  Yeah, well, great.  If you are looking at the case from the perspective of "How can I keep from being sued if abuse, which I don't believe is likely, should be discovered by someone else" that makes a great deal of sense.  But if what you want to do is protect children from abuse, it's a rotten argument.

Here's why.  Doing therapy with kids has taught me a great lesson:  removal from either parent's home is always detrimental.  We see this a lot with divorce.  We may tell ourselves that, "Well, mommy and daddy aren't fighting anymore, so the kids must be better off,"  but that's never borne up well in reality.  Does that mean that parents should never divorce?  Absolutely not. If the benefits of the parents divorcing outweighs the inevitable pain the kids will experience subsequent to the divorce, then by all means, the parents should.  They also should if their life and welfare is in danger, regardless of the child's vulnerability.  Because a dead parent is even more devastating than divorced parents, as is a parent in prison for life.  So removal may be necessary, removal may totally satisfy the basic needs of the child, removal may expose a child to many positive things.  But we fool ourselves if we say that removal, of and by itself, does no damage to a kid.  It always causes some damage.

Another reason that sometimes applies is the unintended consequences of an investigated, unsubstantiated report. If this occurs, it is usually within families who are seen at risk of providng an abusive environment, but are making enough of an effort to work on the issues leading to abuse that usually, professionals involved don't sense that actual abuse might be occuring.  These might be families in which problems are regularly solved by violence, parents who were abused, history of spousal abuse, history of prior protective services cases.  Their cooperation prevents suspicion of abuse from surfacing.   Then something happens that changes that:  a credible report by the child herself of abuse, a strange looking bruise, etc.  Something that professional hasn't witnessed, but  which they do suspect occurred.

So of course that professional calls the CPS hotline antd files a 3200.  These are the kids who I've seen in my practice who often come back saying "They came out and talked to me but they didn't do nothing.  Now dad says I can't come here anymore because he says I lied about him abusing me .  But I didn't lie."

In these cases, which aren't the majority, but happen often enough,  I think we can argue that the report didn't make the child safer and may have made their situation worse.   Somehow, between a therapist's careful ascertainment and a by the book investigation by CPS, a kid who really has been abused falls through the cracks.

And we probably have all read of the documented cases where children have been removed from the home for months or even years while parents plead their case, when no one has proved beyone a reasonable doubt that any abuse or neglect occurred until finally the court admits that and send the kids home. 

On the other hand, I can't argue that the other unfortunate cases don't occur:  the ones where children are mistakenly sent back home to parents who then maim or even kill them.  Kids supervised by the system whose workers forget to check on them one time.  Kids who simply are not placed in care because abusive parens were able to deceive professionals...or even worse, bribe them or put political pressure on them to look the other way. 

Like democracy, which may be the worst form of government "except for all the others", as Churchill once said, maybe CPS is the worst way we have to protect kids in our fallen world....except for all the others. 

So I report, I always report when I am faced with signs of abuse.  And cross my fingers, and pray that any contact with the CPS system will have minimal damage, and perhaps some healing. 


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