Matthew Ponomarenko dropped his naked one-year-old son, Jax, in the middle of a highway. Fueled by PCP and crystal meth, Matthew chased after cars, screaming at the drivers as they drove by. Despite his father’s addiction, Jax was returned to his father’s home where he was later bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat.
Kaylee Messerly tested positive for meth when she gave birth. Child protection knew of the meth addiction and encouraged Kaylee to make “positive changes.” Kaylee, high on meth, walked her two children, Emma Mae and Alena, outside for two days and nights in a Colorado winter. Alena had both feet amputated due to frostbite. Emma Mae died of hypothermia.
These two stories have more in common than their tragic outcomes — the children’s cases were initially categorized by child protection agencies as “neglect.” These types of cases, and the growing sentiment that neglect is just a proxy for poverty, have convinced me that this term does not suffice, and we must move toward a bigger vocabulary in child safety.
Child protection systems become involved with a family after reports of abuse, neglect or both are lodged. Current laws boil every harm and potential risk to a child into one of these two categories.
We know what child abuse is. Abuse is tangible. It leaves marks and scars as evidence of assaults and batteries perpetrated on children. No one argues with moving infants and children from homes where they are physically or sexually abused.
But if you believe the reams of news articles I’ve read in the past few months, a neglected child is a child from a poor family. The implication is that these children do not need the temporary safety of foster care.
For example, Lenette Azzi-Lessing, clinical professor of social work at the Boston University School of Social Work, provides many valid points about foster care in her piece in The Hill, but then generalizes the real dangers facing children by asserting: “Much of what is classified as child neglect, lacking adequate food, housing or other essentials, is symptomatic of family poverty.”
I understand the temptation to discount child neglect from the list of real concerns. The term itself sounds soft. And to be sure, poverty is sometimes mistaken for neglect, which must not happen.
But at last count, only 17% of the children entering foster care were placed because of abuse. And the vast majority of the other 209,000 children entered for some type of neglect.
Were there children unnecessarily placed into foster care? I have no doubt. Were all of those children removed from their homes simply because their parents are poor? No.
I worry that in the present discussion, neglect is becoming synonymous with poverty. And that simply isn’t true. Alena didn’t lose both of her feet because her mother was poor. She’s an amputee because her mother was on meth.
The term child neglect has become foster care’s misunderstood catch-all. Under current law, neglect covers the toddler whose diaper is two days old, covered in scabies and sleeping in maggots and feces. It’s what we call the infant born on so much heroin, he will be in the neonatal intensive care unit for eight weeks. The pre-teen girl who is repeatedly left alone with a registered sex offender is neglected, as are the siblings squatting in a vacant building with no running water.
The term neglect needs to be replaced in laws and policies with precise terms. Chronic drug use, serious mental illness, refusing critical medical care, abandonment — these are categories that provide relevant information about the dangers facing a child and provide clear direction toward a course of protective action, if necessary.
Is a child hungry because a parent needs help buying groceries? Or because the parent is intentionally starving the child? The vagueness of the term neglect can result in a hungry child being unjustly removed, and a starved child being left in danger.
Right now, we don’t know the difference. And we need to. The lives of children depend on it.