In “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow‘,” published on July 21, The New York Times drew attention to “a troubling and long-standing phenomenon: the power of Children’s Services to take children from their parents on the grounds that the child’s safety is at risk, even with scant evidence.”
There is no doubt that unnecessary removals of children by child welfare agencies have been a problem in New York and around the country for decades – perhaps as long as these agencies have existed. However, the Times’ biased and incomplete reporting makes the article almost useless to anyone who cares about improving the system.
Most importantly, the Times ignores the equally long-standing phenomenon of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) failing to protect children victimized by chronic, severe, and sometimes deadly abuse and neglect. The reporters’ only reference to the recent beating deaths of Zymere Perkins and Jaden Jordan, who were both being monitored by the ACS when they were killed, was to assert that these deaths may have given rise to the alleged spike in child removals.
Reporters Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg began with a description of Maisha Joefield, a mother who “splurged” on her daughter even when money was tight. For example, the reporters added helpfully, Ms. Joefield “bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could.”
It is odd to me that the authors seem to consider splurging on brand-name diapers, sneakers, or apparel to be an indicator of good motherhood
One night, Ms. Joefield was so exhausted that she put five-year-old Deja to bed and took a bath with her earphones on. Her child was found wandering the streets of Queens alone at midnight. Not knowing where her mother was, she had decided to go to her grandmother’s house. She was removed to foster care, and returned home four days later by a judge’s order.
The reporters quote legal aid attorney Scott Hechinger as saying, “In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s … a story to tell later … In a poor community, it’s called endangering the future of your child.”
I don’t know where Mr. Hechinger lives, but I have never heard of a friend or neighbor alone with a small child putting on earphones and listening to music so loud with the bathroom door presumably closed that her child could not hear her.
Ms. Joefield committed a serious error in judgment that suggests a certain degree of dysfunctionality and need for assistance. While it may not have justified the child’s removal, some intervention was required to ensure the child’s future safety.
The reporters’ fixation on child removals ignores the overall trend in New York City away from placing children in foster care and toward providing supportive services to families while the children remain at home. The total number of children in foster care in the city has fallen from an average of 16,031 in 2007 to 9,041 in May 2017, according to data provided to this writer by ACS.
In the wake of Zymere Perkins’ death, ACS investigated 27,549 allegations of maltreatment in the first five months of 2017, 2,000 more than in the first five months of 2016.
This has coincided with an increase in foster care placements: the number of children placed in foster care in the first five months of 2017 was 21 percent higher than the number placed in the first five months of 2016, according to data provided by ACS.
But the increase in allegations and investigations has been met far more often with family preservation services than with child removals. Between June 2016 and June 2017, the number of families placed under court-ordered supervision to keep children safe while they remain at home went up 69 percent. In dealing with the upsurge in maltreatment reports, the agency appears to be continuing to emphasize in-home services rather foster care.
The Times article illustrates what some have called the liberal dilemma in child welfare reform. As I argued in a previous column, “liberals are reluctant to further penalize parents whose problems in parenting ultimately stem from poverty and racism by taking away their children.” But as another columnist put it, “it’s not racist to save minority kids’ lives.”
The New York Times had the opportunity to write an important story about the difficulty of avoiding unnecessary removals while at the same time protecting children who are in very dangerous homes. Instead, the Times chose to publish a polemic with suspect numbers, old anecdotes, and slanted language. Too bad for the Times, and for its readers.
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