This piece is about two separate cases in two separate states at two separate times. They reflect two sides of the question that child welfare workers ask themselves every day many times a day – “do I leave the child with the parents or do I place it in foster care?”
The first is here from Utah (ABC4, 11/19/10).
“Thank you for arresting me, I’m afraid I’ll kill my daughter,” words Detective Eric Brown says he’s never heard spoken before by a mother.
That’s what Emperatriz Meza-Reyna told police when they hauled her in back in January of 2008. She had beaten and choked her daughter Karen and was in jail because of it. But in due course, she pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was soon back at home with Karen in her “care.”
It didn’t last long. By July 2009, Meza-Reyna was again behind bars, this time for bludgeoning her daughter with a baseball bat so severely that the child has permanent brain damage. She’ll never walk or talk again.
According to the Department of Human Services in 2009, there were more than 20 thousand cases of reported child abuse. But less than half of those reports were found to be substantiated, DCFS took action on 8505 of those cases. The majority of the time children stayed in their homes. However, in the instances where children were actually removed from their homes, more than a third of the time children were returned.
Utah Director of Children’s Protective Services Brent Platt said that the goal of his organization is to reunite children with their parents. That’s a good idea; we know that, overwhelmingly, children do better with their parents than with anyone else. But what’s true generally isn’t always true in a specific case. Karen’s case was a tragic exception.
This one is from Houston (Houston Chronicle, 11/20/10).
Sixteen-year-old-Michael Owens, who died on Nov. 5 at the Daystar Residential facility in Manvel, was the fifth child to die at Daystar and the fourth child whose death was caused by asphyxiation while being restrained by the facility’s staff. As awful as the facts are about this child’s death, it is equally troubling that the state agency responsible for placing this boy at Daystar knew how serious the problems were at this facility and did little more than monitor them.
Daystar is part of the foster care system in the state. Children who are taken from their parents sometimes go to individual families and sometimes to group facilities like Daystar’s. Everyone who takes a foster child receives a per diem payment, the amount of which is based on several factors. The State of Texas knew Daystar was a bad actor; it has known it since the first child died there back in 2002.
In 2004, the Texas State Comptroller called for a “complete overhaul” of the foster care system and stated accurately that,
The truth is that some of these children are no better off in the care of the state than they were in the hands of abusive and negligent parents.
And some are worse off, much worse. As the Chronicle piece states,
The message is clear. Protection of the commercial foster care industry is more important to the state than protecting children…
It is tragic and more than a little ironic that this boy was removed by CPS from his family two years ago because of concerns about his safety and well-being. Yet, CPS placed Michael in a facility with a history of four child fatalities at the hands of Daystar’s staff, where he suffered the same fate as the four other children: death by suffocation.
And there you have it. Two cases, two tragedies and more than enough blame to go around.
In Utah, the police say that the child welfare system did what police would never do – return a child to a parent who admitted that she had a hard time controlling her violent inclinations toward her daughter. That’s understandable.
Or, it’s understandable until you ask whether the alternative to parental care is likely to be better or worse. Then you look at the Texas case in which an expert who follows child welfare issues says that Texas CPS is in bed with commercial providers of care and that that too-cozy relationship is more important than the protection of children.
That too is hard to argue with. After all, Daystar is now on record as having killed five children.
As horrible, as disgraceful as both stories are, the question for child welfare caseworkers remains “do I leave the child with the parents or do I place it in foster care?” Most of the time the consequences of a wrong answer are not nearly as severe as they were in the cases of Karen Meza-Reyna or Michael Owens. But those are the ones that make the news as well they should.
There is a solution to the problem. It’s the one for which fathers’ rights advocates and many social scientists have been fighting for many years – intact families. Foster care will always be a necessity, as will child protective agencies; even intact biological families sometimes abuse their children. But to a great degree, keeping both parents in the lives of children will serve, among other things, to simply keep CPS out of the loop. That will improve children’s outcomes, save the taxpayers money and reduce the number of articles about the mistakes CPS workers make in placing children in foster care – or not doing so.