In a field filled with subjectivity and bias, it’s sometimes assumed that one determination is easy: figuring out if a death was caused by child maltreatment.
In fact, that’s often as subjective as everything else. I usually illustrate this with the following hypothetical.
Early one Sunday morning, a young child finds a way to unlatch the back door while his parents are asleep. He wanders off, falls into a body of water and drowns. Accident or neglect? If the body of water is a pool behind a McMansion, it probably will be labeled an accident. If it’s a pond behind a trailer park, it probably will be labeled neglect.
But no hypothetical can demonstrate how much cruelty such subjectivity can inflict on children. For that, only real life will do.
Consider the story of the Wartena family – mother, father, and five children – who were passing through Amarillo, Texas, on their way home to California last month.
Seven-year-old Alexis Wartena, who was autistic and fascinated by water, opened a broken latch on their hotel room door and left the room. She wandered to a nearby lake and drowned.
The Amarillo police, who apparently watch too many episodes of Law & Order, seem to have jumped immediately to the conclusion that the parents must have killed the little girl. So they allegedly browbeat the parents for 12 hours, possibly delaying the search for the child in the process.
The family’s pro-bono attorney, Jesse Quackenbush, calls what was done to the girl’s mother emotional “torture.”
But it was mild compared to the emotional torture endured by Alexis’ siblings, aged 6, 5, 4 and 2. At the worst moment of their lives, the moment when they most needed the comfort of their parents, they were torn away from them by strangers – child protective services workers – and consigned to foster care, with no idea when or if they’d ever go back. The parents talk about the family’s ordeal here.
For children of this age it can feel like a kidnapping; you can’t explain good intentions to a two-year-old. And young children often believe anything that happens to them somehow was caused by them. So these children may well have felt the death of their sister somehow was their fault and now they were being punished. They may carry these scars forever.
For one child, the harm was not just emotional. Child Protective Services admits that one of the children was physically abused in foster care, which one could almost have expected given the high rates of abuse in foster care. And the Wartena children were subjected to the special hellscape that is Texas foster care.
Once the child was abused in foster care, CPS gave all the children back. How did parents who supposedly were a terrible threat to their children instantly become no threat right after one of the children was abused in foster care?
Unless, of course, they never really needed to be taken away at all.
CPS was only protecting itself
The harm inflicted on this family by CPS had nothing to do with protecting children and everything to do with protecting CPS. The workers probably were terrified of having the next high-profile tragedy on their caseload.
What are the odds this would have happened had the tragic accident occurred in that hypothetical backyard pool, instead of a pond behind a hotel where the rooms rent for an average of $67.50 per night?
We don’t need to rely on hypotheticals here, either.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about a Michigan case in which a little boy died and the parents really did kill him. But in the case of Ricky Holland, the murderers were affluent adoptive parents.
During the time after Ricky Holland disappeared but his body had not yet been found, Michigan child protective services not only left Ricky’s siblings in the home, they actually gave the Hollands final approval to adopt another foster child in their care. “This worker has no concerns regarding the safety of the other children,” a CPS caseworker wrote in a report.
One more burden?
Even after all they’ve endured, the Wartena family may have to bear still another burden – if, that is, they live in a community where the latest fad in child welfare, predictive analytics, is taking off. After all, what would an algorithm say about a family in which one child died and the other children already been taken away and thrown into foster care?
Wherever predictive analytics rules, families like the Wartenas will be under suspicion forever.
This column was c0-written with Johana Scot, executive director of the Parent Guidance Center in Austin.