When should a child be taken from his parents? In an August 2017 article in The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar poses this question and illustrates, through an in-depth examination of New York City’s child welfare system, just how complicated the answer might be. She traces the story of one young woman, Mercedes, whose kids were removed from her care seven years ago. Mercedes’s experience highlights the power of the state to intervene in poor families and the ethical dilemmas that arise when accusations of child abuse or neglect are so closely tied to poverty.
On January 25, the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society, the Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law, and Youth and Education Advocates hosted an event around MacFarquhar’s article and the questions it poses about the role of the child welfare system in the United States. MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was joined by a panel of experts: Victoria Ruiz, a mentor parent at Santa Clara County’s Dependency Advocacy Center; Zabrina Aleguire, an attorney who is currently co-founding East Bay Family Defenders, Alameda County’s first interdisciplinary family defense agency; and Michael Wald, a Stanford Law School professor who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on legal policy toward children.
The panelists emphasized the pervasiveness of the child welfare system in the U.S. today, particularly in low-income communities. MacFarquhar reported that nearly 40% of American children are involved in a child welfare investigation prior to the age of 18, a figure that is even higher if we consider only children from low-income or minority families. Wald explained that the system was designed to intervene when children’s basic physical or emotional safety was threatened, though the net of child welfare has widened to capture problems that are often associated with poverty, including unstable housing, food insecurity, mental illness, and drug addiction.
The widespread use of the child welfare system to respond to problems of poverty raises questions about the proper role of the state in the lives of poor families. Mercedes, for example, has experienced trauma, frustration, and feelings of powerlessness in her nearly 10 years of trying to navigate the child welfare system in New York. Despite efforts to prove herself as a qualified parent, it is unlikely that she will regain custody of her three oldest children.
Not everyone, however, shares Mercedes’ negative experience with the child welfare system. Aleguire noted the extreme variation in the implementation of the system from state to state, and even county to county. She has practiced as an attorney in family court for over a decade and explained that each state has a different standard for removing a child from the home. Aleguire’s current effort, with colleague Eliza Patten, to develop an interdisciplinary family defense agency (that represents both children and parents) is in part a response to the system’s variability. Nine states, for example, do not guarantee parents in the child welfare system a right to counsel, and the discretion with which judges interpret the standard of child neglect leads to immensely different outcomes from state to state.
Ruiz provided an example of the positive outcomes that are possible when supportive and integrated services are available for parents who come into contact with the child welfare system. In addition to being a mentor to parents currently involved in the system, Ruiz had to navigate the system herself as a young parent when her son was removed from her care. At the time, Ruiz was struggling with drug addiction and drug-induced psychosis. The initial removal was traumatic, as Ruiz did not fully understand what was happening and she felt shamed by the authorities who questioned her. She described the remainder of her experience, however, as a “blessing.” Ruiz was matched to a supportive mentor parent, established a positive relationship with her social worker, and was able to participate in a Santa Clara County drug court, which provides specialized support for parents who are struggling with substance use. Whereas her upbringing was “chaotic,” the integrated support offered by the child welfare system helped her to gain self-worth, confidence, and hope. Ruiz was ultimately reunited with her son.
The varied experiences of Mercedes and Ms. Ruiz shed light on how the child welfare system might help some families and fail others. The system can work well when parents who may be struggling with a host of problems are provided with supportive services offered without judgment that are, as Aleguire described, “meaningful and consensual.” Fundamentally, the system must also guarantee that children are safe, whether in the care of their biological parents or foster parents. Although scholars and legislators can draft legislation to this effect, Wald noted that competent and caring judges and advocates are needed to implement these laws on the ground.
When does the child welfare system fail? It seems nearly universal that parents and children alike experience trauma when they are separated from each other. The system fails when it introduces this trauma without proper justification or when the process of navigating the system makes trauma worse. When parents, like Mercedes, feel policed or surveilled rather than supported, or when they are asked to take on so many appointments and classes that they have no time to search for work or stable housing, it seems they are provided with little chance to keep their family together.
So do we do too little about child abuse – or too much? Over the course of the evening, the panelists seemed to agree that both understandings of our response to child abuse are true. The child welfare system is now so vast that millions of mostly poor families are ensnared, and in the process, we lose sight of the most serious cases of child abuse and neglect. Wald proposed shrinking the system to focus only on the most serious cases where children’s safety is imminently threatened. Resources could then be diverted to universal programs, such as housing assistance, early childhood education, and community-based clinics, that are better designed to address material hardship and may prevent families from ever coming into contact with the child welfare system. Most importantly, as Aleguire argued, children need to be raised in a loving home. A renewed child welfare system would recognize that even flawed parents – across the class spectrum – can provide loving environments for their children.
Catherine Sirois is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. Her research examines the relationship between social policy and poverty in the United States.