A Public Education II: When Should the State Separate Children from Family

A Public Education: Part II by ChronicleofSocialChange

On Thursday nights during the spring semester, Fostering Media Connections Director Daniel Heimpel teaches a course called Journalism for Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. Journalism for Social Change explores how solution-based journalism can drive public and political will to advance positive reform in the child welfare system.

On March 13, Holly Kernan, the news director at KALW, a public radio station in San Francisco, led a thoughtful conversation on the big issues children who experience foster care face.

In the second of this two part series, Holly queries Jennifer Rodriguez, director of the Youth Law Center, Miriam Yarde, a student at UC Berkeley, Heather Matheson, a student at San Francisco State University and Ricardo Ramirez, a member of the California Youth Connection, on their thoughts about when the state should intervene to split a family apart, and if there are not other methods that can help both the child at-risk, and the family as a whole.

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Credit: Yanthy Yayha
Holly Kernan leads Jennifer Rodriguez, Miriam Yarde, Ricardo Ramirez and Heather Matheson through a thoughtful conversation about the foster care system during the March 13 session of Journalism for Social Change.

You can read the transcript of this section of the conversation below.

Holly Kernan: I want to ask all of you, and I think I’ll start with you Jennifer, about this question of ripping apart a family. Like you say, and all of you, when do you think the state should intervene in a child’s life, in a family’s life? What crosses the line? What’s right? And I know this a really complicated question, but…

Jennifer Rodriguez: Well, I don’t think there is a single answer for when the state should intervene. I mean, it’s an individual decision that get’s – that needs to get made family by family,  and situation by situation.  And that’s part of the problem – is that you need people on the frontlines who are able to think.

Holly Kernan: And the front lines are these social workers?

Jennifer Rodriguez: They’re the, yeah, so when there’s been a report of abuse or neglect it goes to a child protective agency, and a front line social worker and an emergency response worker is the person who goes out and investigates the complaint. And they make, they decide what to do in that situation. If they’re going to provide services to the family, if they’re going to remove the child from the home, if they’re going to get the court involved, and that’s a lot of decision making power to give to one person.

And so what I mentioned earlier, they’ve been trying to develop tools so that everyone makes the decision the same way, but what it is is exactly what you described; it’s a checklist where people can go through, and my personal opinion, on this is that we need like the best, the brightest, sort of the best thinkers, the most empathetic people to be making those decisions. Our most highly trained skill workers should be making those determinations to the people that are most creative because when folks go into family’s homes – I mean, all of our families probably had so many problems. I mean, I just think of my own family and my mom was paranoid schizophrenia, there was substance abuse in the house, my dad was incarcerated, there – we had a really, really dysfunctional family, but it just wasn’t one issue, it was like fifty issues on top of each other.

So, you, I would have really needed a social worker who would look and been creative about what our family needed and who would listen to me, the child that was involved in the situation. So, typically what ends up happening is that you have counties, and I am just going to generalize, most counties are sort of either at one end of the spectrum or the other end of the spectrum. So, either they’re at the spectrum of “we preserve families and we do everything possible not to remove a child.” And in those cases they will bend over backwards; and that’s a lot of times those stories you hear in the media about children dying and the system not intervening. Typically, when you look they’re counties that have policies of you know, they will go out to a home twenty, thirty, forty times and investigate abuse and not remove a child. They’re really trying to keep families.

And then at the other end of the spectrum, you have counties where they will remove over any little thing. And so these are kids where you hear stories about sort of the family could have really cared for the child; maybe they just needed help getting stable housing, or mom needed to get into substance abuse treatment, but there was nothing wrong with the parenting in the house. I mean, somebody who is on my board was just telling me that he has a number of cases in a Southern California country where they removed because somebody had a medical marijuana card. And they were concerned that there was marijuana in the house. So, you know, if we go on that standard you could remove because somebody had alcohol in the house, or because, you know, they had prescription medication in the house. So, these were cases where the parenting wasn’t at question, it was just maybe under some convoluted, something could happen to the child. So, you know, it’s really when does it need to happen? It needs to happen, the removal needs to happen and the government needs to intervene when a child is at risk of being hurt.

And, so that is a complicated assessment to make. And we don’t have very good tools, and I’ll just say from a policy perspective one of the biggest problems we have in the system is that when that worker goes in to investigate a complaint, all, the only information she has is what the child protective agency has. So, the caller, the person who called in and said, “I am concerned that this is happening,” and any previous calls, that’s all that worker has. So, if Dad yesterday was arrested for domestic violence and there’s a law enforcement inquiry, that worker has no idea. If Mom three months ago was in the hospital for health issues, that worker has no idea that happened. If the family is getting mental health treatment, they have no idea. So, you are really sending someone in to do the impossible with no information in this fish bowl. They’re making the biggest decision for both those parents and for the child. And it’s just unacceptable. In a day and age where I can sit and like, Google just about anything, and I can find anybody that I grew up with, and I can look on Street View at look at the security cameras at my house and see what’s happening there from, you know, two hours away —  there’s no reason that we can’t have data so that when a worker goes in, they’re armed with having a better perspective of who is this family and what do they need to help and how at risk is this child in this situation?

Holly Kernan: Are there the kinds of tools to intervene in ways that aren’t just taking a kid away, out of the house like you were saying? Like maybe Mom needs drug treatment or something along those lines. Like does the front line responder have those tools to look at the situation and respond differently?

Jennifer Rodriguez: It’s again, it’s such a county and city dependent question. I mean, the question is: Are there substance abuse treatment services available? Are there good mental health services available? Are there housing resources? Those are the big issues I think for families. But then there are lots of other things like, do we have, like, super nannies for families, that if parents are struggling somebody can come in and help you? No, we don’t. Because nobody considers that to really be something that — I mean, there are other countries where they’ve looked at the model, instead of removing a child and placing them in foster care, instead they take the whole family, and put the family in foster care. They move a foster parent into the home. Somebody who is sort of an expert parent. Not these bad foster parents, but somebody who is actually a really empathetic, trained foster parent.

And in my mind, that is really important because foster parents to me, they are the intervention in our system. They are the only thing that say, if you go in and remove a child, you’re saying, “We are going to give you a family that is better and more capable of parenting you than the family we removed you from.” So if we supposedly have these expert parents, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be going into these families homes so you don’t have to rip apart instead in circumstances where you have a family who really needs an intervention. And there are going to be those families where that has to happen, but that’s probably a much smaller population than the population of kids we have right now.

Holly Kernan: And Heather in your case, you believed that the decision was right to remove you from your home?

Heather Matheson: Yeah. I think that in my situation there was a lot of drug use going on and a lot of physical abuse and, like, emotional abuse. CPS actually got called three times before I actually gotten taken out of my home, including one time where the social worker, like, had me put on a bathing suit to see if I had bruises, and I had bruises, and I still didn’t get taken away. Those three times the social worker came and talked to me inside of my house with my parents just a little bit away in another room with the door open. So, you can imagine being pretty scared and, “Yeah! My parents are really bad.” Like what if I didn’t get taken away? No adult has ever really helped me before. So, that was, that was not good. But when I did finally get taken away, I confided in a teacher in my high, in my middle school, and she called CPS and they said that because I was not in immediate danger, because I was at school, they couldn’t come out for another couple of weeks. Which was ridiculous. And that night I went home and my dad was, he had a gun and said he was going to kill me and my mom and shit hit the fan. And the next day I was taken away. But had they just come one day earlier I wouldn’t have had to deal with that.

Holly Kernan: How hard was it for you to decide to confide in this teacher?

Heather Matheson: It was pretty hard, I’d say, considering I waited until eighth grade to talk to a teacher about it, but my mom was about to make me move with her to Idaho and I knew that that was going to be a really bad situation. And I figured, what did I have to lose telling her what’s going on? And she was actually my running team coach, and so she had seen a bruise on me wearing, like, my running outfit. And was like, “Hey, is everything okay, you know?” And I ended up telling her everything that had happened or that had been happening, and then, yeah, she called CPS and they said that I wasn’t in immediate danger, so they couldn’t do anything.

Holly Kernan: So when you were finally taken away from your home and placed in a foster home; even though you believe that was a good decision it must have been really emotionally wrenching for you. You were taken out of your house, this was your parents. Are you – is there counseling that happens at that point? Like, what – you’re laughing at me like this is the stupidest question, right? But, I mean, even if its the right move it seems like that must be a horrible experience for a kid.

Heather Matheson: Yeah, it was. It was a pretty bad experience, but they did have me go to mandatory therapy, and the idea was that I would go to therapy and eventually have group therapy with my parents after they took classes and yada yada. And, you know, working towards reunification. Which, rather my parents being like, “Yeah, we’re bad parents. We’re going to go handle it,” decided to say that, “we’re not bad parents, and you took away my kid for no reason.” And so they refused to go to their classes, and refused to go to their therapy, and so the reunification never happened. And I eventually stopped going to therapy.

Holly Kernan: Okay, thank you for sharing all of that. Ricardo in your case did you think that being removed from your family, your sisters and brothers, was that the right decision?

Ricardo Ramirez: At the time I was taken away, I didn’t, because I was told at that time, I spent some time with my family, and while we had our problems, and everything we had: domestic violence in the house, we had a whole bunch of stuff. And at the time, that was all I had ever known. I didn’t know families were all happy and sat around the dinner table talking about what happened that day, I didn’t know none of that stuff happened, you know? That’s T.V. family, what the hell? So, it was the only family I knew, so when they took me away from all of that — me and my siblings, we kind of — when you get taken in Stockton, you’re taken to the Children’s Shelter. So we got placed there, and we were only there for about two hours, but while we there my siblings and I made a pact that it was us against the world. It was like nobody is here helping us, taking us away from everything we’ve know, you know? We can’t go back to the same school, we can’t go back to our family, we’re not allowed to see them, we’re not allowed to speak to them, we’re not allowed to call them, we’re not allowed to have visits. They took us from a whole life and put us into a new one. By that time I had an extreme hatred of the whole system, everything; towards foster parents in general, I just hated every part of it. And that influenced a lot of my decisions early on.

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