Why a recent appeals case suggests we need a new way forward in child protection
My client in a Michigan child welfare case had already suffered from Crohn’s Disease, which hampered his ability to hold a job and resulted in frequent hospital visits, when tragedy struck. He and his wife lost their 22-year-old daughter, the burden of which was both emotional and financial, as they spent thousands of dollars for her cremation.
As this was happening, he struggled to get his other children to school, as they were only able to attend school 75% of the time, compared to a county-wide attendance rate of 85%. Yet, both children remained on grade level and were not behind.
Nevertheless, when Michigan’s child welfare agency investigated a referral about the family due to the school absences, they removed the children from their home, and placed them with strangers.
Going in and out of the hospital, my client struggled to participate in services. A year later, the child welfare agency asked the court to terminate his rights. The trial court agreed.
But last Friday, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the order terminating my client’s parental rights. The court ruled that educational absences alone – without a finding of harm – can never justify a trial court’s decision to separate children from their parents. As a result of the decision, the children will likely return to our client in the near future.
But our appellate victory will never erase the harm done to this family. Our client has not seen his children in nearly two years. During this time, the children formed relationships with other adults, which will now be disrupted. These children may never be able to overcome the trauma created by a foster care system that unnecessarily separated them from their father, placed them with strangers, and needlessly terminated their father’s right, only to have our state’s highest court correct these errors years later.
I’m certainly grateful to our court for addressing a grave injustice. I’m also unsatisfied and want to reimagine a different path for this family, one that might have prevented the immense trauma they experienced and might lead all of us to partner together to build a different child welfare system.
What if – rather than contacting child protective services (CPS) when learning of the children’s school absences – the school had reached out directly to the family with feelings of empathy and compassion, not judgment? If they had sat down with our client, they might have learned that he was struggling with serious medical issues that kept him in the hospital, while also grieving over the recent death of his adult child.
What if – after learning this – the school had connected this family with a social worker, not affiliated with CPS, to support the family, arrange for transportation for the children to attend school, and help them identify public and private resources to address rising medical costs and funeral expenses?
What if this social worker was connected with a lawyer who could investigate the family’s legal rights to public benefits? What if this team of advocates could have linked this family with others in their community who could support them, like clergy, community leaders or even those within the school system?
This family needed unconditional love, not a CPS worker investigating their poverty.
And what if these individuals who surrounded this family and wrapped them up with love and support were not compelled by law to report this family to CPS for being poor? Because unbeknownst to most Americans, CPS can’t address a family’s poverty. They can’t pay medical bills. They can’t provide housing. They can’t get kids to school. They can only investigate parents for wrongdoing and separate families when they believe it is necessary. So referring cases involving poverty to CPS is likely to inflict trauma to a family while leaving underlying concerns of poverty addressed.
We need another way forward.
We must create a world where families will never be referred to CPS for their poverty. This might include universal benefits like those enacted by the federal government such as guaranteed incomes for families or expanding eligibility for Medicaid. It might take the form of community-based advocacy, like lawyers and social workers who can help families access the resources to which they are entitled, but have not received due to racial and structural inequities.
It might require federal and state legislation that makes clear that poverty and neglect are not synonymous, and that the law should only require professionals to report families to CPS in cases of serious and intentional abuse or neglect. Most families need unconditional supporters, not mandatory reporters.
But more than anything else, reimagining child welfare must entail changing the way we think about struggling families. If professionals had approached my client years ago with feelings of kinship and solidarity, rather than judgment and blame, I suspect his children would not have spent years of their lives living with strangers, wondering when they might be able to go home.