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.”
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 Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is 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.