When Child Protective Services Fails to Protect Children, Is More Government the Answer?

It’s a sad, sad tale: A twenty-year-old mother has her toddler children taken away from her by child-protective services because she did a couple of dumb things—and eight years later, she still can’t get them back. That’s the substance of an 11,000-word story by Larissa MacFarquhar in a recent issue of the New Yorker. MacFarquhar’s argument is that the Administration for Children’s Services (A.C.S.), the child-protection agency in New York City where the mother, “Mercedes” lives (her name and that of her children are pseudonyms), removes far too many children from their parents’ homes on slim pretexts in the name of keeping them from harm, and then makes it far too difficult for the parents to prove that they are fit to be allowed to reunite with them. MacFarquhar seems to take the line of the Bronx Defenders, the legal-aid office that has been representing Mercedes in family court: Instead of, say, requiring delinquent mothers and fathers to take parenting classes and submit to other forms of supervision in order to have their kids back, the system ought to give them “material assistance—housing, childcare, medications, food.”

But let’s take a closer look at the cast of family-court characters in Mercedes’s case. We’ll start with Mercedes herself. In 2009, she ran the water for a bath for her two-year-old son and eleven-month-old daughter—and also plugged in her curling iron next to the tub so she could curl her hair while the kids were bathing. She then left the bathroom to get towels, and while she was gone, Leslie, the baby daughter, pulled out the curling iron by its cord and badly burned her leg. I was all sympathy with Mercedes at this point, because when I was nineteen, while I was babysitting two little boys, I did something almost as stupid while giving them a bath. I stuck them in the shower and then turned on the hot water instead of getting the water to the right temperature first. Fortunately, the boys weren’t injured, but their mother fired me the next day, as well she should have.

But then Mercedes did something even dumber: She refused to take little Leslie with her blistering burns to the E.R—her justification was that an aunt had told her that the medics there would call child services. Then Mercedes had a huge fight with her mother, who did call child services, and both kids ended up in a foster home. (It’s also worth noting that each of Mercedes’ children had a different father, neither of whom had any presence in his offspring’s life; and she didn’t seem to be much of a housekeeper—two different home inspections had yielded a grade of “unsanitary”).

In fact, Mercedes didn’t even have a home most of the time, oscillating between her mother’s apartment and homeless shelters (MacFarquhar doesn’t get into the question of whether Mercedes has ever held a job in her life). Mercedes also refused to participate in drug treatment despite admitting to smoking marijuana whenever she got “the urge,” and was consistently late—if she got there at all—not only for court dates, but for visits with her own children. And, then she got pregnant again—twice. Shortly before the third baby’s birth, she actually secured custody of the two older children for a short time, but then Leslie and the baby developed medical problems that the A.C.S. thought could be traced to Mercedes’s neglect. There were more fights with Mercedes’ mother, there were fights with foster parents, there were fights with caseworkers. All three older children disappeared into the system apparently for good, although Mercedes has never had any legal problems with keeping her fourth and youngest child. Her oldest child, a boy named Camron, became violent and suicidal, developing such severe mental problems by age six that he was placed in a long-term residential treatment facility.

That’s Mercedes. But no one else in this sorry drama seemed very sympathetic, either: Mercedes’ hysterical and trouble-making mother; the hostile and ham-fisted A.C.S. caseworkers who accused Mercedes of deliberately burning Leslie and also tried to get her third child taken from her even before she got sick; the foster parents who allegedly persuaded Camron and Leslie to falsely accuse Mercedes of physically and sexually abusing them during visits; the family-court judge who seemed to like to play Judge Judy, scolding Mercedes in open court and exacting detailed and exhausting conditions before she and other mothers could see their own children.

The conclusion that MacFarquhar draws is that the government does a terrible job when it steps in and takes over the care of children from their parents. But her implicit solution seems to be more of the same: more stepping in and more taking over. Why was it the government’s job to supply proper “housing” for Mercedes? Would free “childcare” have inspired her to spend less time smoking weed and more time hunting for work? I felt sorry for Mercedes’s traumatized children, and I felt sorry for Mercedes, too, grieving their loss, but such sorrows are the natural consequence of expecting the government to substitute for the family and turning both adults and children into helpless—and ultimately angry—dependents.

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