The Right to Parent, Even If You Are Poor

Sarah Jaffe July 16, 2014

Carolyn Hill speaks at a June 15, 2012 protest at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. (Every Mother is a Working Mother Network)

Car­olyn Hill still remem­bers the night, two years ago, when the Philadel­phia Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices (DHS) came to take her nieces away. The girls, ages 1 and 2, had been placed with her about a year ear­li­er, after being removed from their moth­er’s cus­tody due to her men­tal health issues. Hill thought she’d begun the process of adopt­ing the girls: She’d tak­en par­ent­ing class­es at the request of the agency and had begun paper­work so that she could go for­ward with adoption.

But on Tues­day April 3, 2012, Hill got a call from the Luther­an Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Ser­vice (LCFS), a non­prof­it that had tak­en over her case the pre­vi­ous fall (Philadel­phi­a’s DHS farms out its care­tak­ing ser­vices to a num­ber of non­prof­its). The caller said that she need­ed to speak with Hill that day. The social work­er who had called Hill arrived at her home after 5pm and, with­out pri­or warn­ing, took Hill’s nieces away. She did­n’t even let them fin­ish eat­ing — I had stopped to get them some food, but she just took them right on out,” Hill tells In These Times. (LCFS did not return a request for comment.)

When Hill called DHS to find out why the girls had been removed from her care, she was told that every­one was on East­er vaca­tion (East­er would fall on the fol­low­ing Sun­day, a full five days away). It felt like it was a set-up for them to come get the kids [at a time] when I can’t get in touch with any­body,” she says. Hill went to court the fol­low­ing Mon­day. She says she was not informed by the agency of how she could fight the removal: I was sup­posed to go with­in 30 days [of the court hear­ing] and file an appeal — file for stand­ing — but nobody told me about that.”

Two years lat­er, she still isn’t sure why the girls were removed from her cus­tody. The answers, she says, keep chang­ing. The agen­cies brought up a drug con­vic­tion for which she served six months’ pro­ba­tion in 1999 — some­thing the city knew about when she first took cus­tody of her nieces, she says — and accused her of hav­ing men­tal health issues because she pos­sessed Ambi­en to help her sleep. They also com­plained that she did not have a GED.

Hill began to seek ways to get her nieces back, and soon found an ally: Every Moth­er is a Work­ing Moth­er Net­work (EMWM), a Philadel­phia- and Los Ange­les-based group that works to com­bat the deval­u­a­tion of par­ent­ing labor, par­tic­u­lar­ly as done by low-income women of col­or. Mem­bers of the group have advised her, helped her find a lawyer, and will be avail­able to tes­ti­fy that she would be a fit par­ent for her nieces.

EMWM sees Hill’s case as an exam­ple of an ongo­ing prob­lem not just in Philadel­phia, but also across the coun­try and around the world: Pover­ty and a lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty become an excuse to sep­a­rate chil­dren from their families

How dare they say that she can­not have the chil­dren because she does­n’t have a high school diplo­ma?” asks Sel­ma James, author of Sex, Race and Class, cofounder of the 1970s Inter­na­tion­al Wages for House­work Cam­paign and coor­di­na­tor of the Glob­al Women’s Strike, an inter­na­tion­al net­work that aims to val­ue the car­ing labor dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly per­formed by women, of which EMWM is a mem­ber. James con­tin­ues, The class bias that says that any­body who does­n’t have a GED there­fore can’t be a par­ent is so bla­tant that it’s terrifying.”

Pover­ty is con­fused with neglect,” says Phoebe Jones, a mem­ber of the EMWM who has been work­ing close­ly with Hill on her case. Indeed, pover­ty-relat­ed prob­lems like a lack of access to hous­ing rou­tine­ly result in chil­dren being tak­en away from fam­i­lies. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Coali­tion for Child Pro­tec­tion Reform, some 30 per­cent of fos­ter chil­dren could be home now if their fam­i­lies had hous­ing. Jones says that it would be cheap­er, cer­tain­ly in Philadel­phia, to pro­vide hous­ing assis­tance than to pay for a child to go into fos­ter care. If you are a moth­er, you don’t get any [finan­cial] help. But if your kid gets put in fos­ter care, that per­son gets help.”

To James, the fact that care work remains unpaid or under­val­ued sets the tone for the treat­ment of care­givers. The car­ers, the clean­ers, the nurs­es, the teach­ers, espe­cial­ly of the lit­tle ones: All of us are either unwaged or low-waged. Either we are not respect­ed at all or we are mar­gin­al. The repro­duc­tion of the human race has been degrad­ed to a mar­gin­al activ­i­ty, and it opens the door to all kinds of brutality.”

Pri­va­ti­za­tion problems?

Hill says her cus­tody prob­lems began in the fall of 2011 when LCFS took over her case from anoth­er sub­con­tract­ed agency, sev­er­al months after the city placed the girls in her care. LCFS, she says, came out to con­duct a par­ent capac­i­ty eval­u­a­tion of her and get a GED. She was told she had until July to enroll in the GED pro­gram; but, she says, the social work­er came to col­lect the kids in April.

Since then, she says, it’s been a series of shift­ing goal­posts and mis­in­for­ma­tion. The DHS, accord­ing to Jones, said in writ­ing that they’d sup­port the chil­dren being returned to Hill, and then reneged. Even with a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing her and the sup­port of her com­mu­ni­ty and EMWM she has­n’t been able to see the chil­dren since January.

Philadel­phia has one of the high­est rates of child removal in the coun­try. Its DHS has a his­to­ry of prob­lems — and a his­to­ry of pri­va­ti­za­tion. In 2008, after the high-pro­file 2006 death of dis­abled 14-year-old Danieal Kel­ly, crim­i­nal charges were brought against two DHS case work­ers and two employ­ees of a pri­vate agency hired by the city to over­see chil­dren in the child pro­tec­tion sys­tem. The head of that agency was even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed, accord­ing to the Philadel­phia Inquir­er, of invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter, child endan­ger­ment, reck­less endan­ger­ment, per­jury, crim­i­nal con­spir­a­cy, and four charges involv­ing what pros­e­cu­tors called a forgery fest’ to cre­ate a case file to fool inves­ti­ga­tors into think­ing Kel­ly actu­al­ly got in-home services.”

In a 2008 arti­cle for the Philadel­phia Dai­ly News and WHYY’s It’s Our Mon­ey” blog, Ben Wax­man traced the flow of fed­er­al, state and city dol­lars through DHS to pri­vate con­trac­tors, often reli­gious, and asked, How sound is the pol­i­cy of hav­ing the wel­fare of chil­dren in the hands of pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions that are not account­able or sub­ject to pub­lic scruti­ny? Should DHS be con­sid­ered a social ser­vices depart­ment when in fact its real job is the man­age­ment of a stag­ger­ing num­ber of con­tracts, worth over a half-bil­lion dollars?”

And yet the city has dou­bled down on its use of pri­vate agen­cies since then. Its Improv­ing Out­comes for Chil­dren (IOC) process, the plan­ning for which began in 2008, explic­it­ly aims to “[shift] the man­age­ment of child wel­fare cas­es from the city to com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions.” Even Frank Cer­vone, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sup­port Cen­ter for Child Advo­cates, an agency that works with the city on this pro­gram, expressed some hes­i­ta­tion as the pro­gram began. We remain cau­tious about the locus of respon­si­bil­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty,” he told a reporter. (The DHS com­mis­sion­er is step­ping down in August to take anoth­er job — it is unclear if any­thing will change under her replacement.)

Jones con­sid­ers the use of mul­ti­ple pri­vate con­trac­tors part of the prob­lem in Car­olyn Hill’s case. “[The agen­cies] are not act­ing like pub­lic ser­vants. They’re act­ing like pub­lic mas­ters,” she says. Part­ly that’s because a lot of it is privatized.”

It’s not just Philadel­phia that has had prob­lems with social ser­vices and pri­va­ti­za­tion. Indi­ana attempt­ed to pri­va­tize a chunk of its health and human ser­vices in 2006 and wound up con­sid­er­ing ban­ning pri­va­ti­za­tion of Med­ic­aid and food stamp man­age­ment because users had so many prob­lems get­ting ser­vices. Back in 2000, a Den­ver Post inves­ti­ga­tion found that Col­orado was spend­ing mil­lions on pri­vate agen­cies that over­saw more than half of the state’s fos­ter chil­dren and pock­et­ed more than three-quar­ters of the mon­ey spent on fos­ter care. And not far from Philadel­phia, a scan­dal rocked Luzerne Coun­ty, Penn­syl­va­nia, in 2008 when juve­nile court judges were found to be accept­ing kick­backs from pri­vate juve­nile deten­tion cen­ters in exchange for fun­nel­ing kids into their facilities.

Pun­ish­ing the poor

Dorothy Roberts, pro­fes­sor of law and soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, attrib­ut­es the cur­rent puni­tive trends in social ser­vice to a neolib­er­al ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work that believes pri­vate solu­tions are the best answer to social prob­lems. Roberts has spent decades research­ing child wel­fare sys­tems. Her 2001 book, Shat­tered Bonds: The Col­or of Child Wel­fare, argued that cur­rent pol­i­cy reflects a polit­i­cal choice to pun­ish fam­i­lies rather than address the soci­etal caus­es of black pover­ty. She has not­ed that about one-third of chil­dren in fos­ter care are black, despite black chil­dren mak­ing up only 15 per­cent of the nation’s children.

In a 2012 arti­cle in the UCLA Law Review[PDF], Roberts wrote:

The end to the wel­fare safe­ty net coin­cid­ed with the pas­sage of the Adop­tion and Safe Fam­i­lies Act in 1997, which empha­sized adop­tion as the solu­tion to the ris­ing fos­ter care pop­u­la­tion. Both can be seen as neolib­er­al mea­sures that shift­ed gov­ern­ment sup­port for chil­dren toward reliance on pri­vate employ­ment and adop­tive par­ents to meet the needs of strug­gling fam­i­lies. This con­ver­gence marked the first time the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment man­dat­ed that states pro­tect chil­dren from abuse and neglect with­out a cor­re­spond­ing man­date to pro­vide basic eco­nom­ic sup­port to poor fam­i­lies. Both the wel­fare and fos­ter care sys­tems, then, respond­ed to a grow­ing black female clien­tele by reduc­ing ser­vices to fam­i­lies while inten­si­fy­ing their puni­tive func­tions. The main mis­sion of child wel­fare depart­ments became pro­tect­ing chil­dren not from social dis­ad­van­tages stem­ming from pover­ty and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion but from mal­treat­ment inflict­ed by their mothers.

This is the same point made by Jones and James; instead of fix­ing pover­ty, Roberts notes, the state address­es fam­i­ly eco­nom­ic depri­va­tion with child removal rather than ser­vices and finan­cial resources.” It stereo­types and pun­ish­es low-income African-Amer­i­can women as aggres­sive” and cog­ni­tive­ly delayed” with­out ques­tion­ing those labels. Offi­cials are often bla­tant in their assump­tion that black par­ents, par­tic­u­lar­ly black women, are incom­pe­tent. Women like Car­olyn Hill.

Mean­while, Wax­man point­ed out (using 2008 num­bers), If the DHS bud­get were divid­ed by the num­ber of chil­dren it serves, each one would get a check for $34,000 every year.” That might do more to solve the prob­lems caused by pover­ty than remov­ing those chil­dren from their homes.

EMWM points out that when the state is over­stretched in tak­ing chil­dren away from fam­i­lies whose only prob­lem is pover­ty, it can miss the cas­es in which a child actu­al­ly is in imme­di­ate danger.

That dan­ger, James says, can come in part from women being eco­nom­i­cal­ly unable to leave dan­ger­ous cir­cum­stances — women who face domes­tic vio­lence, she points out, some­times have their chil­dren tak­en away because they them­selves have been abused.

And right now, in Detroit, as water is being shut off to thou­sands who were late on exor­bi­tant bills, par­ents fear that if any­one finds out they don’t have water, the Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices will take their chil­dren. The fear of los­ing one’s chil­dren then becomes a bar­ri­er to ask­ing for need­ed help.

An uphill battle

On June 11, Car­olyn Hill went to Fam­i­ly Court for the lat­est hear­ing in her two-year fight to adopt her nieces. She had lined up 12 wit­ness­es to come tes­ti­fy on her behalf, includ­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers, friends and neigh­bors, the pas­tor from her church, who used to see the girls with her every Sun­day, and five mem­bers of EMWM. They were all on a list pro­vid­ed to the court by Hill’s lawyer.

Only one of them was allowed to tes­ti­fy, Dr. Steven Samuel from Jef­fer­son Hos­pi­tal, who had eval­u­at­ed Hill and found her able to care for the chil­dren. Mean­while, accord­ing to Hill and Jones, the rel­a­tive with cus­tody of the chil­dren had no one list­ed to tes­ti­fy. The only per­son to tes­ti­fy on her side was the children’s ther­a­pist, who had not seen the girls since August of 2013. And yet Hill lost her case.

Every time they asked me a ques­tion and I went to answer, they’d tell me to just answer the ques­tion yes or no,” Hill says.

Because fam­i­ly court is closed, all kinds of mis­in­for­ma­tion can go on, we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors,” says Jones.

Hill has filed a new appeal. Mean­while, she has­n’t seen the chil­dren since the end of Jan­u­ary. First I was see­ing them four times a month, two hours every time, four hours in my home and four hours at the agency,” she says. Then they said when the kids would come from my house they would act up, so they cut the vis­its down to two hours at the agency.” Then they cut them down to one hour, and then none at all.

The only rea­son she can think of that the chil­dren remain with the oth­er fam­i­ly is that they have more mon­ey than she does. The chil­dren may be spend­ing more time in day care with the new fam­i­ly, accord­ing to Hill, but the time she spent car­ing for them is seen as less valu­able because she is poor. James says, They’ve made absolute­ly clear that a good moth­er is one who dumps their kid in some child care or oth­er and gets a job. Stack­ing super­mar­ket shelves, any­thing you do is bet­ter than tak­ing care of your child or chil­dren. In oth­er words, if you’re not exploit­ed you’re nobody.”

Since the 1996 wel­fare reform bill, low-income women get lit­tle finan­cial help rais­ing chil­dren, and then their pover­ty is used as a strike against them. They are pushed to find work because, James says, the soci­ety does­n’t see the care work they do as wor­thy of finan­cial sup­port. Mon­ey, it seems, is everything.

We’re fight­ing so hard because it can­not be the case that income is the deter­mi­nant of whether or not you’re a good fam­i­ly,” Jones says. If that’s the case half of Philadel­phia would lose their kids.”

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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