Friday, December 3, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part III

This week's installment on improving the foster care system boils down to one sentence:

Child welfare investigations should be handled more like the way criminal investigations are supposed to be handled.

What I mean by this is very simple. When someone is accused of a crime, the accused:
  • is presumed innocent until proven guilty
  • has a right to counsel
  • has the right to face his or her accuser
  • has a right to confront the evidence
  • is entitled to adequate notice of the charges
  • is entitled to a hearing before a neutral judge
Sadly, these fundamental rules of due process do not apply when the child welfare system is handed a report.

When a social worker shows up at your doorstep:
  • She has already assumed that guilt is likely, or she wouldn't be there in the first place.
  • She will demand entry to your home and access to your children. If your kids are at school, she will question them there without notifying you first and without an attorney present.
  • She will not tell you who made the complaint.
  • She will not reveal the evidence against you.
  • She may not fully explain of what you have been accused.
  • She will make a decision regarding the removal of your children before you have your day in court. If she decides to take your kids, they may very well spend several days in custody before you will have the opportunity to have your say in front of a judge.
Not only does the system lack proper due process in terms of the care, custody and control of children, it also has the power to disrupt someone's career without any due process. If an abuse allegation is deemed to be true, even if it doesn't result in removal of the kids, the parents can be listed in the state's child abuse database. Once a person's name is there, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appeal or challenge a listing.

Don't believe it? Look up Humprhies vs County of Los Angeles, and you'll find an ugly tale of a couple that was cleared of child abuse, yet the county refused to remove their names from the child abuse database. Since the county refused to remove the listing, both parents' ability to work and volunteer was negatively impacted.

It is not right that someone's ability to work should suffer without due process.

Beyond the issues of due process, another alarming problem with child welfare investigations is that very little screening is done to determine the credibility of witnesses or complainants. Angry children make false allegations, and their word is taken as gospel. An pissed-off ex-wife can accuse her former husband of sexually molesting her children, and her allegations will be treated seriously.

Does anyone remember the hysteria of the McMartin preschool trial in the 1980's? People's lives were ruined, the accused spent years on trial, and after six years, not a single criminal conviction was made. One of the accused spent five years in jail without ever being convicted of wrongdoing.

Now the McMartin case was clearly not just a failure of the child welfare system or the failure of the individual social workers investigating the case. It was also a failure of the criminal justice system and the media. Still, it's a brutal example of how "the system" can get carried away without any real evidence or facts available to support guilt of the accused.

A recent fact-finding mission revealed that our particular county is especially prone to investigating nearly every child abuse referral. Only 10% of referrals are tossed out on their face. The other 90% result in at least some investigation, which explains why we were investigated for such silliness as changing our daughters' name when she was adopted.

The good news is that of the cases that are investigated, roughly 70% are determined to be unfounded or unsubstantiated. This means that if you are investigated, the odds are in your favor you will be cleared if you haven't done anything wrong.

But the fact that families are being investigated for stupid things like insisting their foster kids eat their vegetables*, changing a child's name or religion after an adoption, or deciding to send their kid to a summer camp is pretty ridiculous. That these investigations make it out of the Department's front door indicates that there's a pretty significant problem.

It's appalling.

If Children's Services is going to investigate a family, maybe it's worth doing a little checking before they knock on their door and traumatize their kids. Maybe it's worth asking a few questions. Is the allegation even considered abuse? Are the witnesses credible, or perhaps do they have an axe to grind? Is an angry kid whining to his teachers at school because he's unhappy with the size of his allowance or the length of his chore list?

Police have to have probable cause to arrest someone. Social workers don't even have to have that. They just have to have a "concern," and then they are allowed to harass people as much as they like.

* Believe it or not, I once spoke to a former foster parent in our area who quit because her two foster children, who had a history of making false allegations, complained that they were being forced to eat their vegetables. The foster mom's birth children were removed, questioned and promptly returned, while the foster kids were immediately moved on to another home. After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that the foster family had done nothing wrong, and they were offered a reinstatement of their foster care license. Needless to say, the family declined the offer, deciding that if the could be investigated in such an alarming way over vegetables, they were worried that far worse would happen if a more serious allegation were ever made.

1 comment:

  1. You once wrote that you believed that your daughter initially came into care because her living situation raised strong "that doesn't look right" alarms, even though, at the time, there wasn't a huge amount of concrete proof (aside from lack of school attendance, and nowadays anyone who says they're homeschooling is treated mostly hands-off, at least where I am). Do you think her story might have taken a different turn under your proposed rules? Would that have been good or bad?

    I realize you may not want to publish this comment, as you took your old blog down for a reason. But it's just something I thought about.


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