Emma Ketteringham of the Bronx Defenders wrote a powerful piece about poverty and parenthood in the New York Times last week.
Eline’s children feared going to sleep in the closet of their studio apartment, but it was the only place they would be safe from the rats. Covered in blankets from neck to toe, Eline would keep an eye on the kitchen entrance and followed the sounds of the rodents rummaging in the cupboards.
I represented Eline (I can’t disclose her real name), a mother of two, in Bronx Family Court when she was charged with neglect. Her younger son had been deemed undernourished because of faltering weight. Eline had struggled to keep up the feeding regimen prescribed by the kids’ pediatrician. Doctors are required by law to report suspected neglect, so the pediatrician reported her to the Administration for Children’s Services. The agency filed a case in family court, and the children went into foster care for three years.
When I met Eline, she described how the rats made it impossible to store fresh food in the apartment. She was a single mother with no family members who could help her. She struggled with depression and a chronic health condition that often required her to go to the hospital. She needed assistance. Instead, the city tore her children away from her and provided more than $1,000 each month to a foster family. After this, she turned to alcohol.
As we’ve pointed out in a number of related stories here at The Watch, parents who try to work then face the burden of finding child care. And when they can’t, or can’t afford it, you get cases like that of Debra Harrell, who was arrested and jailed for leaving her 9-year-old at a nearby park (with a cellphone) while she worked her shift at McDonald’s. The problem of arresting parents for leaving kids alone for even short periods of time has at least received some national attention, but that’s mostly because it has started happening to parents who aren’t poor. (And because of the work of people like Lenore Skenazy.)
This point is particularly important:
There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.
The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.
See also this Michelle Goldberg piece from a couple of years ago, which makes the same point.
I don’t envy people who work in child protective services offices. The fine line they have to walk must be maddening. If a kid gets abused or worse because you’ve misjudged a family, you’re a pariah. But erring on the side of removal also does violence to struggling families, and it seems to be far more common.
Most of us would rightly recoil at a law that bars poor people from having children. But if poverty alone can be justification for removing children from their parents, we’ve basically achieved the same result.