Another Challenge of Parenting While Poor: Wealthy Judges

A Connecticut public defender shares his experiences with justices who are often out of touch with poverty's challenges.

Josh Michtom is a Connecticut public defender who represents indigent parents and children. He has observed and participated in lots of cases where the state sought to take custody of kids from their parents. Following recent coverage in The Atlantic of parental rights and responsibilities as they related to Child Protective Services, he sent the following letter with his expert insights. His focus is the role that class and poverty play in a system administered by the middle and upper classes.

I have read with interest your recent articles focusing on child protective services and their impact on children and families. I am a child protection lawyer in Connecticut—I am appointed to represent indigent children or parents and also handle appeals—and I find that much of what you describe rings true to my experience on the ground: Removals are traumatic, even when arguably necessary.
Another element of child protection systems that is worth considering is the role of class and race. Some of the comments to your most recent article suggested that caseworkers come from a very different background from the families with which they interact, and I've found that not to be true. But the lawyers and judges in juvenile court are definitely from another world, and the distance between them and the parents and children who come through the system is palpable and damaging.
To begin with, as you allude to in your article, a lot of what gets called neglect is really, at base, poverty without more. The case of Debra Harrell is a good example of this, but I have seen many many others. In Connecticut, parents whose children are removed leave court with a list of "Specific Steps" that they must follow if they are to have any chance of reunifying. These often include multiple weekly meetings with job counselors, drug counselors, mental health providers, and parenting instructors. The parents, many of whom do not have cars and live in areas with sub-par public transportation, must sometimes attend four or five different weekly appointments in different locations, and then find themselves called to account in court for remaining unemployed.
Judges and assistant attorneys general (the lawyers who represent the child protection agency and prosecute neglect cases) are also frequently woefully out of touch with the realities of the poor families involved in CP cases. Connecticut is a land of economic extremes, and the professional classes, almost without exception, live in the suburbs and look with genuine fear on the very poor urban centers. I've heard state lawyers argue that parents were neglectful simply for letting their children play on the sidewalk during the day in poor neighborhoods, or for leaving a baby unattended in a crib while taking out garbage three flights down—even though suburban parents who take garbage to the bins in their driveway are probably equally distant from a sleeping infants. Judges chide poor working mothers for leaving their children with questionable babysitters, as though childcare, money, and jobs were so plentiful that a parent could just call in sick to work without worry any time a childcare arrangement fell through.
I also get the impression—although it's not something that can likely be proved with data—that judges who must look across the divides of class, race, and sometimes language, have difficulty identifying with the poor, brown families before them. Whenever I look at fact patterns in child protection cases, I find myself saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I mean, raising kids is hard, right? But somehow, from the remove of the affluent suburbs, many of the (mostly white) judges I've appeared in front of, most of whom have raised children themselves, seem to struggle to find sympathy or understanding. I will give you one example:
I can recall a case where a young mother of two went to a probate court to transfer guardianship of her children to her aunt so she could work full time and study for her GED. The aunt and the mother lived close together and had had a similar arrangement a couple years before, so the probate judge approved the transfer, even though the child protection agency objected because the aunt had a twenty-year-old child abuse conviction. Frustrated that the probate judge had ignored its recommendation, the agency sought to remove the children from the aunt on an emergency basis, sending a caseworker accompanied by a state trooper to the aunt's house. As it happened, the children and their aunt were out of the house when the cop and the caseworker arrived, but when the aunt heard they had been there, she assumed that something had gone wrong with the transfer of guardianship and went to give the kids back to their mother.
Eventually, the case came to juvenile (not probate) court: The mother was accused of neglect for giving the children to the aunt (since she had an old child abuse conviction); the aunt was accused of neglect for giving the children back to the mother. The aunt, a middle-aged Jamaican woman, testified that after the state trooper came to her house, she was worried CPS would put her nieces in foster care, so she took them to their mom. The judge, an elderly white man, kept asking her why on earth she would think that.
"Did they every say they were taking the kids?" he asked, over and over.
"No," said the aunt. "I was just worried they might."
All I could do was shake my head: In poor black and Hispanic communities (like the one I live in, by the way), everyone knows what it means when CPS shows up at your door with a cop. Everyone. But the judge acted mystified, and even seemed to imply that the aunt's actions betrayed a guilty conscience.
Anyway, I just thought I'd share some impressions from the trenches. Keep up the good work.
Josh Michtom
Assistant Public Defender
Office of the Chief Public Defender, Juvenile / Child Protection Unit
Hartford, CT