When the State Takes Kids Away From Parents: Three Perspectives

A former child protective services worker who took kids from parents, a woman who was abused as a child, and a wrongly accused father tell their stories.
A. Strakey/Flickr

In the reader correspondence that follows, a former child protective services worker shares her perspective on the system, the difficulty of working within it, and its paternalistic excesses. A woman who says the system saved her from an abusive father doubts the narrative that CPS is overaggressive at protecting kids. And a father investigated for child abuse says that the experience radicalized him.

First, the experiences of a woman whose job included taking kids away from their parents:

It seems there is always some sort of story in the media regarding one form of child abuse or neglect or another. Recently, I came across two such stories, one about a working mother who allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised at a playground near her work and was subsequently arrested and her daughter put into foster care; and another, actually, about the mass shut-off of water services in an underprivileged Detroit neighborhood which brought up the fact that many don’t complain about the issue due to fears of having their children immediately removed from their homes as lack of water service is, allegedly, grounds for this in the city. These stories always hit home for me. Besides being a parent, I previously worked for Children’s Protective Services in Ohio. 

Opinions usually fell into one of two predictable camps: as a CPS worker you were either accused of doing too little to protect the children involved, or of being too invasive, at best another mindless bureaucrat and at worst a power-happy sadist that got off on telling others how to raise their kids. In truth, both are often correct. I’ve seen them personally. And it’s a problem. Most workers, however, fall somewhere along the wide spectrum in between, and where they fall will be influenced more by their local inter-and-intra-agency culture than any statute.

Thinking of the mother of the 9-year-old, I realize I am not privy to the details of the case. I understand there is a lot I don’t know. Things like, does this mom have a history of abusing or neglecting this child or other children? Did the child have any special needs that made her especially vulnerable to being unsupervised? Did the child have any other signs of abuse like severe bruising or physical injuries, or of neglect such as obvious malnutrition or chronic head lice, or any other incalculable number of things? These would no doubt make a huge impact on my opinion of the situation, but as it stands what I read is this: a 9-year-old girl was left with a cellular phone at a playground near her mother’s workplace with adequate shade and access to water. Upon learning that her mother was not present, an adult called the police. So far, I vilify neither the caller for calling nor the police for responding. It is what happens next that I strongly question. 

Apparently, the best answer to this case was to remove the child from her mother’s custody, put her in foster care, and arrest the mother. I’ll be blunt: this is insane.

I agree that an investigation to ensure the child is being cared for adequately isn’t an entirely bad idea, and I would even agree that other arrangements for the daughter’s care while mom is at work would be better. This, however, can be accomplished without removing the child from her home and certainly without arresting the mother (which, honestly, just seems asinine to me). In fact, depending on whether any other signs of abuse or neglect were present, it might not be strictly necessary to carry out a full investigation. CPS (dependent on that specific state’s statutes) may have been able to warn the mother and offer her help in finding affordable or even subsidized childcare. CPS workers generally have some latitude. Depending on the state, however, this is not always an option.

Yet even when an investigation is opened, if a parent says that they have no access to childcare while they are at work, guess who can help? Children’s Services. Or did we forget that they are, in fact, services? That workers are Social Service Workers, not mini-cops or pseudo-judges. It’s a lot of power, to be able to remove a child from their home and family, to prohibit or require supervision of contact between family members, to legally terminate a parent’s right to their child. 

CPS workers and their supervisors have a staggering breadth of power, power that must be wielded with the utmost care, judiciousness, and perhaps most importantly, humility. My old boss, a man wiser than his chronological mid-thirties, laid it out for me the first week on the job. He told me that removing a child from their home is the juvenile justice system’s equivalent of the death penalty, the most extreme thing a worker can do. It’s true. There is no higher sanction in family law.

This is why it was so personally disturbing to read about the Detroit water shut-off crisis affecting upwards of 100,000 lower income residents with past-due bills. As tragic as it is, the point that hit home for me was that so many don’t mention their problems or ask for help because they are afraid their children will be removed from their home for lack of water. Superficially this sounds, well, sound. You need water for living. But think about it more deeply and you see the ridiculousness of this policy.

I come from a rural area of Ohio where there are lots of Amish folk. The Amish, as human beings tend to do, procreate. And they live with those children in homes without any running water. I guess if they lived in Detroit their children would all be subject to removal and placement into foster care. And that would be just plain stupid. Yes, it is Detroit. There are no wells or water pumps in the front yards. But there are neighbors. Friends. Extended family with access to water. If all else fails I bet the local Target or Wal-Mart sells jugs and jugs of fresh, pure spring water just ready for the drinking, or heating and washing up in, or to use for cooking. There are also community centers, schools, and friends’ and neighbors’ homes just chock full o’showers. Heck, you can use the gas station’s toilet if you need. (Just not to shower in, please.) And no, it is not ideal. It is not what we would all wish for our children. But I’ll tell you what, it’s better than being torn out of your home and away from everyone and everything you know and love. You see, ideal and adequate are worlds away, and one of them is a culturally propagated myth that no parent, that includes you and me, lives up to. I think it’s time we take stock of that and stop persecuting other parents because we feel inadequate, or want to assert our way of parenting as the only correct way, or just want a new scapegoat towards which to point our existential rage. Whatever. 

Frankly, when it comes to parenting a child other than your own, your opinions don’t matter. That is a lesson the public, parents, police and CPS workers all need to take to heart.

It’s something no law can fully address. Perhaps all laws are unevenly and haphazardly applied, but I can’t help but think that we really need to get this one right. The gaps in both opinion and execution of child removal laws that I see between states, counties within states, and even between a single county’s law enforcement, prosecutor’s office, and CPS workers is not only unacceptable, it’s hurting families. It’s hurting children. It’s hurting parents. It’s hurting taxpayers, foster families, and CPS workers as well. (You think it’s easy to take a screaming child away from their sobbing mother, even when it is warranted? Try it.)

Child removal law, policy, and execution are there to provide for the best possible protection of children when the parent cannot or will not. But it cannot become the standard answer to every questionable situation or expected to prevent every instance of child harm. No law can do that, even one this powerful. And that power must be countered by defending and maintaining a parent’s right to raise their child in the manner they see fit. I might not like it. You may not like it, but ultimately it’s not our call. And it shouldn’t be.

Next, a woman who says that Child Protective Services saved her life:

Your series on over-aggressive CPS responses continues to intrigue me, even if it also makes me concerned that you are feeding into a wildly popular and, I feel, inaccurate narrative that non-abusive parents ought to be paranoid about being investigated. Many years ago, I was removed from my parents custody. I spent some time in foster care where I was an advocate for myself and other foster kids. I continue to participate in the foster and former foster alumni community. From my experience, the direction your articles take seems somewhat prejudicial and misinformed.

Both my parents were physically abusive, and my father was sexually abusive as well (I later found out he also sexually abused my older half-sister, who moved away when I was two). The first time I made an outcry to an adult about my abuse, I was 4. CPS was called, they made a visit, nothing happened. Over the next several years, CPS was called several more times: a doctor who noted that a pelvic infection in an 8-year-old was not right; a teacher who observed bruises and erratic behavior. When I was 14, I called them myself because my father choked me until I passed out and I was frightened he would kill me. Sometimes they sent someone to look into it, sometimes not. I only found out about the other calls when I got to look at my file later on. Between ages 4 and 15, there were a total of 5 calls made to CPS on my behalf. Nothing was ever done. That's 10 years of my life.

Do you know what 10 years looks like to a child who doesn't know when or why she will be beaten next, just that it will likely be soon? To a child who, night after night, dreads her bedroom door opening? I could have, maybe (foster care is no picnic either) been safe all that time, if there really was the problem of over-aggressive CPS response that you describe. You know how I got out? A teacher helped me run away to a youth shelter. I had a great deal more support than the average child in foster care. Eventually, the state terminated my parent's custodial rights. And here I am, alive, so many years later, with a family of my own. Grateful. Was everyone I encountered in CPS awesome? No. But as a whole, they saved my life.

It would be one thing if that was just one example. But almost everyone I knew in foster care who suffered real, unrelenting abuse, described how difficult—not how easy—it was to get CPS to do something. And maybe I grew up in a rough place (Is Maine a rough place?) but more than half of the people I know who never went to foster care also suffered real, unrelenting abuse, but never got out until they became an adult. That's the one thing you are missing in your graph. How many children are abused, but for various reasons (oh, that nice family wouldn't do that, everyone else is doing it), never get reported? Never show up on the radar? Never even get a CPS visit? An Every Child Matters Education Fund report on national child abuse and neglect deaths in the U.S. estimates that approximately 50 percent of child deaths reported as “unintentional injury deaths” are reclassified after further investigation by medical and forensic experts as deaths due to maltreatment. That's a heck of a lot more kids getting hurt and dying than is included in the data in your article. (So what about the kids I knew in foster care who were taken away under little to no pretext? All Native American. What is the predominant difference between kids who are taken away for very little reason and kids who are ignored, like myself? The former are often African-American, Native American or other minorities. The latter are most frequently white with charming or manipulative abusers. Here's a decent report on that.)
 
The reason I am writing this email is because I feel that the impression you are giving is that the problem is that CPS is checking on too many children, when the problem is clearly institutional racism with a side order of classism. If you address those issues, the children unnecessarily removed would plummet. To raise the bar for CPS to act to protect children would only cause the number of fatalities among victims to rise. Furthermore, the tone in your article seems to empower those who would seek to discredit CPS altogether. What child protective agencies need is more funding and better, more-educated staff, not less.

I don't agree with what was done to Debra Harrell or the many other parents who have had CPS act in an unwarranted fashion. As a mother I can sympathize. As someone who seeks to end discrimination and racism, I am appalled. But as someone who grew up facing horrors that a little more action on the part of CPS (or, anyone else, for that matter) could have prevented, I can face the relatively unlikely possibility that one day I might be investigated needlessly for the sake of the many kids out there who need help. All I am trying to say is I would appreciate a little more attention to the root cause of the segment of CPS investigations that are overzealous, instead of making it seem as if they are the Big Brother on the shoulder of every parent in the country. I feel I should add, after all of that, that I do greatly appreciate the increased attention The Atlantic has been directing at these issues, and I have shared at least one of your articles with the foster care groups I belong to. 

And finally, comments from a father who struggled with accusations about his fitness as a parent:
When my wife and I were investigated in 2011 after I took our son to a redi-med facility in for an earache. It was the most traumatic experience of our lives.  He was fortunately not removed, but when the agents of CPS show up at your door, it is a shock you cannot imagine unless it's happened to you and your family.  The case was closed after his follow up visits, but my conclusions about the "system" have lead me to become almost radical in my views on Child "Protective" Services and government in general.
 
From all the stories I've read and information I've looked at, including your excellent piece, private conversations I've had, etc. it is my conclusion that as one person told me, there's the FBI, the CIA, and then there's CPS.  Today, we might add the NSA. 
 
The point is we have an unaccountable bureaucracy with the power to take people's children from them operating (necessarily) below the radar and parents like us who have been terrorized but have nowhere to go or to even register meaningful complaints.  (Believe me, we tried.)  If it's done in the name of "the children" and "the law," there's no way to fight back.  There seems to be no way to change the progressive tendency to take parenting away from parents.  They always know better.  
 
My wife and I were not just insulted, we were assaulted as our home was invaded under threats of police and child removal.  They had to interview my kids (we had three then, now four) without either of us present. I honestly feared for their well being and prayed hard they would not be abused somehow by these creepy strangers. The whole thing went on for a couple months, leaving us uncertain each day as to what would happen, despite our phone calls and requests for information. They do this to you intentionally, not giving you any assurance that you and your kids will be ever left alone. My son had an earache, he's had others and other doctor visits over his 10 years. We handle our kids' medical, educational, nutritional and every other need perfectly well but in this case, a rent a doctor we'd never met at the redi-med thought it was a good idea to report me for "neglecting" my son. Yes, the same son I'd brought in for help with his earache.
 
I've become callous, I'm afraid.  
 
I really don't give a sh** about other people's kids anymore.  Your article says x number died of abuse and neglect.  Some will use that as an argument for more CPS agents.  I will do everything I can by voting and not supporting them to de-fund and reduce their agency. They are evil and make people's lives immeasurably worse by spreading fear and terror. I love my four kids more than anything but was made to feel like a criminal.  Everything I believed about social work and "social service" was changed.  It's sinister and I'm not above entertaining conspiracy when it comes to taking kids away, especially when these agents beliefs are liberal/statist meaning the state can raise your kids better than you.

Email your stories to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com. 
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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