Over at the Nation, Michelle Goldberg lays out another issue area where progressives and limited-government types should be able to find some common ground — the overreach of child protection agencies and the disproportionate impact that has on the poor.

On July 29, 2013, a Latina mother in Illinois named Natasha Felix sent her three sons, ages 11, 9, and 5, out to play with a visiting cousin, a young girl, in a fenced park right next to her apartment building. The oldest boy was charged with keeping an eye on his siblings, while Felix watched them all from the window. While they were outside, a local preschool teacher showed up at the park with her class. She saw the 9-year-old climb a tree. Felix’s youngest son fought with his cousin over a scooter and, at one point, ran with it into the street. Based on this, the teacher called the child-abuse hotline, and Felix received a visit from the Department of Children and Family Services.
According to legal filings in the case, the investigator, Nancy Rodriguez, found that Felix’s kids “were clothed appropriately, appeared clean [and] well groomed,” and that Felix “appeared to be a good mother.” Felix’s oldest son seemed like a “mature young boy” who “certainly could be allowed to go outside by himself to the park next door.”
However, when Rodriguez asked Felix if the boys had any special needs, Felix replied that the 11-year-old and the 9-year-old had been diagnosed with ADHD. On the advice of their doctor, they were off their medications for the summer. Rodriguez later wrote that “based on the mother not knowing that the kids were running into the street with the scooter, based on the children having ADHD,” she recommended that Felix be cited for “Inadequate Supervision” under the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. As a result, Felix was placed on the state’s child-abuse registry, which led to her losing her job as a home healthcare aide and ended her dreams of becoming a licensed practical nurse.

Goldberg correctly points out that similar to issues such as police militarization, mandatory minimum sentencing and other overreaches of the criminal justice system, the child protective services (CPS) issue is finally getting some national attention not because these stories haven’t been going on for years, but because they’re finally starting to affect people who have the social capital to speak out.

Advocates for families caught up in the child-welfare system hope that the national debate sparked by the free-range parenting movement will draw attention to the threats and intrusions that poor and minority parents endure all the time. Child-neglect statutes, says Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor and codirector of the school’s Family Defense Clinic, tend to be extremely vague, giving enormous discretion to social workers. “The reason we’ve tolerated the level of impreciseness in these laws for decades,” he notes, “is that they tend to be employed almost exclusively in poor communities—communities that are already highly regulated and overseen by low-level bureaucrats like the police. For somebody like me, the ‘free-range’ cases that are hitting the paper today are a dream come true, because finally people who otherwise don’t care about this problem are now calling out and saying, ‘Aren’t we going too far here?’”

This is an unfortunate reality of politics. We tend not to take notice when bad things happen to classes of people with whom we have little in common. It’s when they happen to us, or a relative, or a neighbor. But it’s still the poor who get the brunt of it, because they’re always going to be disproportionately targeted, because what’s seen as “neglect” is often simply a product of not having money (for example, to hire a babysitter) and because they don’t have the resources to fight back. Getting entangled with a CPS agency can often present some of the same challenges for low-income people as, say, getting an inflated fine for a traffic violation. It isn’t that they don’t want to comply. It’s that they simply can’t. And so when they don’t, the problems and punishments multiply.

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Sometimes parents can’t comply even if they want to. Kristen Weber is a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a DC think tank that hosts the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, a coalition of groups working to reform the system. Recently, Weber says, she’s been looking at cases of migrant farmworkers ordered to comply with “services,” such as parenting classes, for which they have no transportation. “They have to make a choice: ‘Do I lose a day’s pay and then not be able to pay my rent and food’”—which, Weber notes, can also be grounds for child removal—“‘or do I [refuse to] go and do this ‘service’ that will take all day for a two-hour parenting class?’”
Even if the demands of CPS are unreasonable, advocates say that deference—if not outright servility—is often required from the parents, much as it is in encounters with police. “By resisting their efforts to help you or, God forbid, talking about your rights to parent in a specific way, it usually means that everyone concludes you’re beyond help, because you haven’t accepted that you need their help,” Ketteringham says. “Usually, you’re telling your client that the fastest way to have your children returned is to cooperate with the investigation.”

It’s also important to acknowledge here that CPS officials have impossibly difficult jobs with enormously high stakes. And it isn’t difficult to see why they might err on the side of perceiving abuse or neglect when it isn’t there or overreacting to minor parenting gaps that everyone has been guilty of at one time or another. The consequences of those decisions may be destructive and at times even devastating, but from the perspective of the social worker, the consequences of overlooking or not seeing abuse are much worse — a beaten or sexually abused kid. Or a dead one. (Indeed, Goldberg quotes critics who maintain that the biggest problem with CPS agencies is that they aren’t aggressive enough.)

This isn’t to excuse the abuses that go on. But it is a call to pay more attention to these issues. Should drug use really be a reason to lose custody of your kids? Which drugs? Should an upper-income suburban parent who has an addiction to Percocet or OxyContin face the same consequences as a poor parent addicted to heroin? What about marijuana? What about medical marijuana? What about states where recreational marijuana is legal? What about alcohol?

CPS officials have tough jobs, but so do police officers and prosecutors. They’re not immune to the same biases, errors in judgment or public choice problems that plague any other position of state authority. So the policies and procedures that guide them need just as much scrutiny and oversight. We shouldn’t just defer to them. More broadly, we need to start asking questions about what sorts of situations should require state intervention and carefully consider the consequences that intervention can have on the very children it’s meant to protect, including consequences that weren’t intended.

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