Sometimes foster care is the only way to keep children safe. All we know, however — and we can know a lot — tells us it should be a last resort.
Yet a mother — let’s call her Carey — had to flee her home state to avoid losing her two-year-old to the child protective services agency, though her child suffered neither abuse nor neglect, she told me. And I’ve every reason to believe her.
Her story is in some ways not unique, but in other ways it is — as, of course, is everybody’s story. I’m going to try to tease out what’s not unique from the fabric of particulars she shared.
Carey, her toddler and her fiance — let’s call him Mike — never had a home of their own. They’d been living with her mother, but had to leave because she was moving to a place where she couldn’t house them. This is a fine — and hardly unique — instance of how unstable doubled-up situations usually are.
Carey and Mike decided to live in a tent at a campground because that was so much cheaper than staying in a motel. They thought they could save enough to cover the upfront costs of renting. And perhaps they could have, since he was working.
The campground had running water, bathrooms with showers and electricity (for an extra fee). The family had enough food, thanks to a combination of food stamps and Mike’s wages. Carey was around to care for her child 24/7.
Well, someone reported them to CPS, which sent out a caseworker, as it should have. The caseworker told the couple they’d have to move to housing within two weeks. The agency — or some other source — would pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.
The couple couldn’t find an affordable place within such a tight deadline. So they decided that Carey and the child would move in with Mike’s dad, while Mike stayed at the campground. This, they thought, would placate the caseworker while giving them more time to find an apartment. It didn’t. The caseworker insisted they all had to stay together and move to housing PDQ.
Another avenue opened up long about this time. Carey had applied for a federal Housing Choice voucher and learned she’d been approved.
A new deadline then — 60 days to sign a lease. But the couple couldn’t find a landlord who’d rent to them. The problem, Carey says, is that Mike has a criminal record — not for a recent offense, however, nor one that would clearly flag him as likely to harm other tenants or property.
But private landlords can generally screen out applicants with criminal records so long as they don’t target those protected by civil rights laws. Such data as we have indicate that many do.
Carey asked for an extension of the lease-up deadline. The housing authority’s protocol apparently included this option. But CPS wouldn’t let the couple continue the search while still caring for the child.
So to keep her, the family left the state for a place far away, where they could stay with Carey’s sister. “I was pushed out of my hometown,” Carey says. And the family’s situation is more precarious now.
Mark’s out of a job — and without a car because the one he had broke down en route. He’s got a work history, of course, but also a criminal record. And we know that’s a common screen-out factor.
Meanwhile, the caseworker was bound and determined to find the family. S/he issued threats through relatives — an Amber alert, an arrest warrant.
Carey feels unjustly hounded. “We are a good family in a bad situation,” she says. “My daughter is my life.” She’d be “traumatized to be taken from her mom and dad.” Children often are, the research tells us.
I couldn’t get the CPS side of the story, of course, but what Carey says seems credible. Surely CPS would have taken custody of the child forthwith if there were even inklings of imminent harm.
I’d like to think this story is a one-of-a-kind thing. Some singularly single-minded caseworker more intent on getting his/her way than on the child’s welfare.
Perhaps, though the risk of losing a child to foster care because of inadequate housing isn’t. So I think it’s worth asking what should have happened. We can look at this from two angles — finding housing and family protection.
From the first, someone — perhaps at the housing authority or the agency that administers homeless services — could have helped the couple find a low-cost apartment a landlord would rent to them. This might include actually talking with landlords or engaging faith-based organizations and other nonprofits to do that.
As part of its push to rapidly re-house more homeless families, the D.C. government has hired “navigators” to, among other things, negotiate with landlords so they’ll rent to those with poor credit and rental histories. Seem to me that criminal histories could be subject to negotiations of this sort too.
On a broader and more affirmative front, the local or state government could have prohibited landlords from discriminating on the basis of criminal records unless they could justify exclusions in particular cases.
Eighteen states, the District of Columbia and many more local governments have already taken this approach to give people with criminal records a fairer chance of employment. So far as I can tell, only one city has done the same for housing.
If any such help or legal protection were available to Carey and Mike, they obviously didn’t know it. Which brings me to the other angle. The couple should have had a lawyer — or a supervised budding lawyer.
They would, of course, have needed free services like those provided by legal aid societies, other nonprofits, law school clinics and attorneys in private practice who volunteer through a pro bono program.
Carey believes that she and Mike could have found a landlord to rent to them if they’d just been given more time. Knowing a fair number of lawyers, I’m quite confident that one could, at the very least, have gotten the caseworker to back off — or the agency to pull him/her off.
Expert legal help might also have made the housing search less challenging because Mike could perhaps have gotten his criminal record expunged, i.e., sealed from disclosure to landlords, as well as others.
So the story Carey told me could have ended very differently. One can only hope that the sequel better rewards the love, determination and resourcefulness that led to her and Mike’s exile.