Open Court Proceedings Could Change the Child Welfare Narrative

March 4, 2012

Professor Matthew Fraidin sent “a small, friendly amendment” to my post on child welfare narratives. I said that he had previously focused on the need to open now-secret child welfare proceedings, but had turned his attention to narratives.

He explains that the two issues are intimately inked, as follows:

As I pointed out in an article in the Maine Law Review, the closure of child welfare courts plays an important role in creating the inaccurate narrative by suppressing stories other than horror stories.

My speech at the University of Michigan, which you discussed in your post, is an effort to depict the narrative that might exist if the much more common, much truer stories of child welfare could be told — stories of racial disparity, stories of child taken from their families unlawfully and unnecessarily, stories of lawyers who haven’t met with their child or adult clients, stories of judges who openly ignore the law.

Laws creating secret courts not only limit the people who may enter and observe the proceedings. They also limit the stories that may be told by those allowed to enter.

In other words, a lawyer involved in a child welfare case may enter the courtroom and review the documents in the court file, but s/he may not talk, i.e., tell stories, about what s/he knows or has seen or read.

In fact, the only lawfully-allowed stories are stories of criminal acts — murders, brutal injuries or severe neglect, for which adults are charted as criminals. But those don’t come from the child welfare cases and courtrooms.

In those instances, someone gets arrested, and the law places no limit on the information the policy may share with reporters. Reporters then tell the gruesome story beneath a screaming headline. And THAT creates and perpetuates the inaccurate narrative!

If child welfare courts were open to the public and press, the narrative would be much more nuanced, to say the least. We would read a diverse array of stories, including stories about lackluster lawyers, caseworkers and judges.

Most importantly, we would read about children who were taken, terrified, from their schools and homes and families, but didn’t need to be.

We’d read about children who were doing better at home than in foster care. We would read about parents who love their children, and children who love their parents and siblings, children who miss their homes and wither in foster care.

Those new stories might change our collective mindset about the child welfare system so that we would no longer think of it simply as a holding pen for animalistic parents and their children, who, inevitably in our minds, are fruit that doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Child welfare” would be a much more complex phenomenon.

The D.C. Citizen Review Panel’s recent findings suggest that there are literally hundreds of children in foster care unlawfully and to their detriment.

The many, many stories that could be told about those children would convey a much richer, more realistic and less stereotyped image of the parents.

In the meantime, the ideas summarized in my HuffPo article represent an effort to start changing the inaccurate, destructive narrative, even in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia where child welfare proceedings are held in secret.

In my opinion, secret courts protect from challenge the inaccurate narrative created by racial bias and sensational horror stories.

You got it exactly right, Kathryn. “Chang[ing] the stories in our heads” can help us tell accurate stories, which happen to be the ones made illegal by secrecy laws.


Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.