Better Chapter Opens for Homeless Family

August 17, 2015

My post on the homeless family that fled to keep their child out of foster care seems to have interested followers and others in the social media sphere. So I thought you’d like a brief update.

Shortly after I published the post, I got a note from “Carey,” the storyteller, who then posted it as a comment. More details in a second note, also then posted.

Carey reports that the family now has a home and employment — a full-time job for her fiance. Proof, though she doesn’t say so, that she was right about just needing more time than the Child Protective Services caseworker would allow.

The family is also receiving some form of assistance from the state they’re now living in. This, I suppose, because Carey is still staying home to care for their child. “The smartest two year old I know!”

And they haven’t been dogged by the caseworker (or higher-ups), though she thinks the agency could find them now.

“It’s a slow process regaining all that was lost,” she writes. “But we lost nothing as long as we have each other…. With love and understanding … and the hard work put in, I’m sure our family will succeed.”

So we have indeed the better next chapter I hoped for and a heart-warming reminder of why I — and those who responded to the post — did.

Better chapter notwithstanding, Carey still feels that what happened to the family was “unjustifiable.” After all, people live outdoors in Alaska. “What’s camping for a month in the summer?”

“People don’t understand the unjust power those people [at CPS] have until it’s happened with their family,” she concludes. I’d like to think that’s not altogether true.

But we do need stories to grasp how injustices in our publicly-funded programs play out in the lives of real people — and to get us riled up enough to do something about them.


Homeless Couple on the Lam to Keep Child Out of Foster Care

August 6, 2015

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.

 

 


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.


Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.

One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.

Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.

But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child’s] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”

Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.

Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.

What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”

And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.

So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?

Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.

Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.

Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.

What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.


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