“Saved” By the System

Why are so many kids of color taken into the child welfare system? Akiba Solomon finds out what happened to one black family.

By Akiba Solomon Sep 15, 2002

It’s been awhile since Rhonda* climbed out of the quicksand of child protective services. But the Washington, D.C., mother and wife is still reeling from the six months she was separated from her two-year-old daughter and her newborn twins.


For starters, Rhonda, 21, is plagued by self-doubt. Any mother would be if she dropped a seven-week-old preemie fresh out of the hospital. “In retrospect, I wish I had just left him laying down and went and got his bottle out of the kitchen,” she says in an exhausted monotone. “I was used to picking him up but I think I held him wrong. I should have just left him and then we wouldn’t have had to deal with this.”


Besides the terror of rushing their infant to the emergency room and finding out he had a fractured skull and femur, what Rhonda and her husband “had to deal with” was the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS).


On paper, Rhonda’s case seems simple enough. As required by law, Children’s National Medical Center reported red-flag injuries. Twenty-four hours later a D.H.S. intake worker arrived at Rhonda’s one-bedroom apartment in Southeast to collect her children. Pending an adjudication hearing, the kids were placed in the “kinship care” of their maternal grandparents. Six months of bureaucracy later, a dependency court judge dismissed the case in 15 minutes.


If only Rhonda had ink from the Government Printing Office running through her veins. If only her children were made of manila and her husband were a checkmark in a “non-applicable” column. If each member of this family were a page of a training manual, their chapter would be titled “Caution is a Necessary Evil.” But how can we truly assess what’s necessary in a system built on classism and fortified by racism? For black, poor families like Rhonda’s, how protective can the system be if it transforms a human error into a cataclysm?


The Numbers Game


For the uninitiated, foster care is a system designed to save critically abused children. They envision a baby such as Atlanta’s Octavious Sims who in 1996 was starved, submerged in boiling water and beaten to death by his mentally ill mother.


In this portrait, innocent kids, concerned bystanders, and children’s rights crusaders are on one side. Poor, crack-addicted psychopaths and ass-covering bureaucrats are on the other. Few question why most of the children in this picture are black and brown.


More folks should. According to the federal government’s most recent available national total, 39 percent of the 581,000 children in foster care are black, yet African Americans comprise 17 percent of the youth population. These cases aren’t concentrated in a few hot spots. All 50 states have a disproportionate number of black children in care. In 37, the foster care percentage is twice that of the state’s youth population.


Latinos seem to be faring better than African Americans. They make up 17 percent of foster children and 18 percent of the nation’s youth. But read the fine print. Latinos are counted as an ethnic group. So unless the federal government starts tracking data using the One Drop Rule, we can’t pinpoint how states tabulate dark-skinned, kinky-haired Latinos.


What is clear is that “White Non-Hispanic” children are underrepresented in the foster care pool. They comprise 64 percent the youth population but only 31 percent in care.


It’s Racism, Stupid


Despite the alarming disparity (which is not new, by the way) news media tend to treat racism as a red herring. Investigative reports of child protection have probed bureaucracy, poverty, children’s rights, politics, and the kitchen sink. Racism is relegated to articles about select studies and books such as Nina Bernstein’s The Lost Children ofWilder and Dorothy Roberts’s definitive Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.


Count on Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly to articulate the unspoken. On a mid-May segment of “The O’Reilly Factor,” he discussed Rilya Wilson, an African American foster child who was missing for 15 months before Florida’s Department of Family Services noticed. O’Reilly, a self-proclaimed advocate of this “pure, innocent baby,” announced, “I don’t see this as a black-white case, by the way. I see it as a little baby four years old when she disappeared not being protected by the state of Florida, and the state not being all that forthcoming in telling the people what happened to her.”


Granted, O’Reilly is far right of the “mainstream.” Most media outlets simply avoid systemic racism. Consider the coverage of Elisa Izquierdo. In 1995 New York’s Bureau of Child Welfare returned the 6-year-old to her mom. By 1996, Elisa was dead. Under pressure, BCW opened her confidential file, revealing details of a crackhead mother force-feeding her daughter feces and watching her die.


There have since been thousands of local and national stories about Elisa and the systemic flaws exposed by her death. But a search of the exhaustive LexisNexis database using the terms “Elisa Izquierdo” and “racism” only yields about 19 hits.


Without context, this kind of coverage magnifies individual pathology and reinforces intransigent stereotypes of poor parents of color. This, in turn, justifies what Dorothy Roberts calls “political decisions to address the problems created by racist institutions by blaming families and by using punitive means.” In other words, if we can pin the tail on poor, sadistic crackheads, we don’t have to examine how the twin isms affect people like Rhonda.


Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition of Child Protection Reform, refers to a more tangible effect called foster care panic. “A panic occurs after a child who is ‘previously known’ to child protective services dies in his or her own home,” the reporter-turned-advocate explains. “The reaction of politicians and often media is to say, ‘See, that proves states are doing too much to keep families together.’ So [caseworkers] get terribly scared. They rush to tear huge numbers of additional children from their families and it overloads the system.”


Wexler says panics make at-risk kidsmorevulnerable. Among other examples, he cites a 50 percent spike in New York City child fatalities during the two-year period following Elisa’s murder.


Neglect Equals Poverty


To be sure, cases like Elisa’s deserve front-page treatment. Ignoring them wouldn’t protect kids from physical abuse, which accounts for 21.3 percent of verifiable reports. However, along with intelligent analysis of systemic racism, cases that fall under the sweeping category of neglect need equal play.


The National Association of Counsel for Children generally defines neglect as “a failure of caretakers to provide for a child’s fundamental needs.” Although emotional needs fit this description, child protective policy “typically concerns adequate food, housing, clothing, medical care and education.”


Few states make a distinction between parents who choose to neglect their children and parents who can’t afford food, clothing, and shelter. Essentially, a state can take someone’s child because they are too poor. Is it any wonder that nationwide, neglect accounts for a whopping 58.4 percent of verifiable maltreatment cases?


Child neglect policy is still in the 19th century. In 2002, however, it’s socially unacceptable to call poor people inherently inferior. Instead we use the “medical model” of child abuse. Wexler notes, “In this model, poverty is in itself a character flaw or mental illness. But the model fails to recognize that the cause of poverty tends to be rooted in both class, social, and racial inequality.” This widely applied “science” makes poor parents more likely to lose their children–and middle class and rich parents free to mistreat theirs.


Show Them the Money


What should we do? After all, neglected kids can face bodily harm whether their parents are evil or just plain poor. Caseworkers face this question every day.


Take Benjamin Kenner, a decorated three-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. As a “generic caseworker” Kenner determines who needs permanent foster care, who can go home and who doesn’t need to be removed at all. As if that’s not enough pressure, he has an average caseload of 44 kids.


“All I’m doing is pushing paper, keeping the courts satisfied by filing reports on time,” Kenner laments. “Sometimes I have to [visit] 10 kids in one day. Other times I’ve seen 15 kids in a week. It forces you to prioritize [certain children].”


Perhaps the job would be easier if he was just searching for bruises and cigarette burns. But most of his cases involve neglect, and (surprise, surprise) all of his clients are black. To gage the severity of maltreatment, Kenner says he considers parental drug abuse and mental illness. In the same breath, he mentions cramped housing and lack of running water.


As a typical scenario, Kenner offers the case of a 30-year-old mother of seven children by several different men. Five lived with a man who fathered only three. “He stayed in the back of his mother’s house in a one-bedroom apartment,” Kenner recalls. “There were four girls sleeping on one queen bed, including a 13- and a 12-year-old. There were filthy clothes everywhere, and [the father] couldn’t provide any proof of recent medical or dental care for the children. During visits, roaches would crawl up [my] legs, and the father had to use pliers to turn on the stove.”


Kenner says he did what he could: give the unemployed father “extensive referrals” for free medical and dental care and a bus pass. The situation didn’t change significantly in six months, and the children were removed.


Kenner, who is African American, rules out personal bias, insisting he “treats everybody the way I’d want to be treated.” It’s almost a moot point. Without enough material resources to offer poor families, caseworkers can’t begin to prove how fair or helpful they are.


Sure, federal law requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to keep at-risk children in their homes. But the federal government has vastly underfunded intensive “prevention,” “family preservation,” and “reunification” efforts since they were mandated in 1980.


Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent under $300 million for Child Welfare Services “directed toward the goal of keeping families together.” But it provided an open-ended entitlement to matching funds for foster care, which amounted to about $5 billion. States also received cash bonuses for each child adopted.


There is no such incentive to keep kids out of foster care, which is rife with its own well-documented mental and physical health risks. Meanwhile caseworkers don’t have the tools to avoid or minimize give people like Rhonda generic “services” from caseworkers who don’t have the tools to avoid or minimize the trauma of separation.


DHS Family Values


Somehow a fractured femur and skull became child neglect. At least that’s what D.C.’s DHS “indicated” Rhonda and her husband for. This opened their home to the scrutiny of a kinship care worker. Incidentally, Rhonda says she had a healthy relationship with the middle-aged black woman who stopped by twice to search for danger signs. She didn’t find any, but there was still the matter of “compliance.”


Unlike many others, Rhonda didn’t follow her court-appointed attorney’s advice to speed things up by “stipulating” (pleading guilty). Her husband also ignored the lawyer, separate counsel assigned to prevent “unfair representation” appeals.


Rhonda believes no one–not their attorneys, the court nor DHS–could accept that they were a unit. “They just were not used to dealing with a young family, married and healthy except for one freak accident. It was like, ‘This can’t be true. This can’t be possible.'”


Perhaps that why the couple had to keep a “family log” of their quality time. They did so without protest. “I was told I had to do it and I did it. I was like, ‘Whatever y’all say, as long as I can get my children back.'” Rhonda recalls with a sigh. “I didn’t go into detail though. I wrote when we went to a movie, a dinner, or just a bus ride to see our children.”


For the first month, those bus rides were daily since they weren’t allowed to spend the night with their babies. The commute was an hour each way, and Rhonda’s husband, who does clerical work and plans to join the military, couldn’t make it as often.


While daily visitation wasn’t a requirement, a weekly parenting class was mandatory. Rhonda had to attend although she was two years into a human development and early childhood education major at Howard University and missed the previous semester because she was on bed-rest with the twins.


The couple didn’t have to comply with two big-ticket items: adequate housing and therapy. Rhonda says her caseworker didn’t press those because they weren’t specifically court-ordered. Hypocrisy, she calls it. “If they were doing like they say they’re doing, they would [provide it] anyway.”


With all of the “services” her family received, you’d think Rhonda would be clear about her six months in the system. But there are lingering questions. Like where did DHS keep her babies on their first night in custody? Why did Rhonda have to resort to a psychiatric evaluation to strengthen her case? Why were Rhonda’s parents the only ones who warned her that she and her husband could lose Medicaid coverage and food stamps without the children under their roof?


“Mostly throughout we thought we weren’t going to get the children back because we really didn’t know if we were coming or going,” Rhonda recalls. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next. Even the day of trial, I still didn’t know what was going to happen. All I could do was pray and hope for the best.”


Officially out of the system, Rhonda stops short of calling it malicious. But she says class-bias shaped the outcome. “[DHS] may have looked at it slightly differently if we were self-sustaining in the aspect of private health care. Also, if I had the money to pay for an attorney, things would have been done in a much more concerned fashion.”


Rhonda also sensed subtle racism. “Even though most of the folks involved were black, just from their characters you could feel it,” she says. “They stereotype all black families because we’re black. They don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, we have families that can do and make ends meet and not be corrupt.'”


The system hasn’t robbed Rhonda of her diplomacy. She has, however, been fleeced of her faith in it. It didn’t take statistics or reports full of “reform recommendations.” Just 184 days away from newborn twins and a daughter still in diapers.


“I don’t think it should have taken six months for me to get my kids back,” Rhonda remarks in the monotone she’s maintained throughout her story. “I don’t think they have enough staff, honestly, to do what should be done, which is, if they’re going to take people’s children, if they’re going to try to make things better, then they have to be 100 percent. I think they try, but it’s nowhere near where it should be.”


Rhonda is a little too kind.