Decades ago it would happen all the time: After the tragic death of a child “known to the system,” advocates would rush to blame a supposed fanatical desire to put “parents’ rights” ahead of “child safety.” After all, the case file had more red flags than a Soviet May Day Parade, so what else could explain it?
Understandably, people would buy it. That would cause a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden increase in the number of children torn from their families and consigned to the chaos of foster care. That would further overwhelm caseworkers, so they’d have even less time to investigate any case with care. So it’s no wonder, in state after state, child abuse deaths didn’t stop – often they increased.
That’s because the real explanation for these tragedies almost always involves caseworkers overloaded with cases that are nothing like the horror stories.
In New Mexico, nearly two-thirds of all entries into foster care don’t involve so much as an allegation of abuse. Nearly two-thirds do not allege drug use of any kind. But 78% allege neglect. Sometimes, neglect can be extremely serious, but more often it means the family is poor. In fully 20% of New Mexico cases, children are taken because the family lacks adequate housing – and since you’re never supposed to admit that, the real figure probably is far higher.
The problem with all this is not that it hurts parents, though of course, it does. The problem is the enormous harm to children. Study after study finds that in typical cases children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. Still more independent research shows appalling rates of abuse in foster care, far higher than what agencies such as the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department admit. Meanwhile, the deluge of false allegations and trivial cases so overloads workers that, when New Mexico opened its statewide child abuse hotline, its director had to beg people to stop calling in so many obviously false reports.
That deluge is the real reason children in real danger are missed.
For all these reasons, in much of the country the child welfare debate has matured. But, not, it seems in New Mexico where Deborah Gray blames “reunification romanticization” and a “blinding infatuation” with keeping families together.
Given the horrible record of child removal, and the enormous harm of needless foster care, one has to ask: Who’s really infatuated here?
Gray is right on two points. First, the system does indeed hide behind confidentiality laws that protect that system, not children. Forty percent of foster children live in states where court hearings in these cases are open. New Mexico should join them, and create a rebuttable presumption of openness for most records. Then people can see all those typical cases that are nothing like the horror stories.
Gray also is right when she says “the safety and well-being of the child should override all other considerations.” But the only way to do that is to get over our blinding infatuation with tearing apart families and stop romanticizing foster care.
Learn more about the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, “The Prius of Child Advocacy,” by visiting www.nccpr.org