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As I write this, I am sitting in a small damp room in Plantation, Florida. I’m from Seattle, and I hardly know anyone in that neighborhood, but I can’t leave. It is because my three and four year old daughters were taken from me by the state last April. Until this case is called off, or my parental rights are restored, this is where I will stay.
When most people hear “the state took my children” their minds jump to the worst conclusions. These cases are quiet and the courtrooms are closed, so I don’t blame you for assuming that I was beating them, or looking the other way while they were being abused, or some other nightmare scenario than you. see on Lifetime Channel. This kind of thing does happen, but much more common is where parents are doing their best but still lack the money for heat, rent, or a licensed babysitter. My case is one where a little more money and sympathy would have kept my daughters with me.
Three-quarters of substantiated child abuse cases are related to neglect, and the type of neglect that triggers a case of PCS is almost always the result of poverty. While each state can define its own specific definitions of neglect, they typically focus on the deprivation of things like food, shelter, clothing, or medical treatment, which are problems almost entirely exclusive to the poor.
The charge that brought children’s services to my family was related to drug use. My mother-in-law, who I never really got along with, called the child abuse hotline and told them she suspected I was using heroin while she was watching the children. After a series of urine and hair panels tested negative, child welfare services expanded their investigation. They raised concerns that I was living with my in-laws and was not able to go to trauma therapy for a month while I waited for my new public insurance to take effect.
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The investigation led to an addiction lawsuit, where the investigator made it clear that my daughters showed no signs of abuse or neglect. I lost anyway. There is no jury involved in child protection cases, and the burden of proof is lighter than in criminal cases: it only requires a “preponderance of evidence”, which means that the judge’s decision depends on his personal opinion. In this case, the judge didn’t think I was a credible witness, so she ruled against me.
This means that my daughters are now living with my in-laws, and I am legally prohibited from being home after 8 p.m. and trauma-based therapy – details of which are reported to my social worker, state attorney, my daughters’ ad litem guardian, and trial judge – with the goal of regaining custody.
If I had been to another city or state, things might have turned out a lot differently. Child protection services are an umbrella term used to describe individual local agencies. They are governed by federally set standards but operate independently in each state, and city-level jurisdictions set their own policies for handling reports of neglect or abuse. This means that location plays a huge role in the response of the CPS. Families who live in an area experiencing an economic boom are more likely to receive support, such as help reopening the water if it has been cut off for non-payment, while families in poorer areas are less likely to have resources available to them. Due to the subjectivity of these cases, it is likely that the politics of judges and social workers also play an important role.
I have experienced this difference firsthand. At this time last year, I was living in Seattle. When I overdosed in a brief relapse in 2016, the King County Child Protection Agency inquired about my family’s financial difficulties. After learning that the relapse was caused by legal difficulties with my abuser – for which I could not afford representation – they referred me to an agency which was eventually able to provide me with a pro bono lawyer. When I revealed that I was having difficulty accessing trauma therapy because I couldn’t afford child care, they helped me find a placement for my two daughters in full daycare and free. And when I told them our utilities were on hold, CPS paid the portion needed to run them. My daughters haven’t been away for a day and our lives have started to improve.
But Seattle is a very wealthy region, with a high cost of living. When my husband had a mental health crisis that prevented him from working, we had to move to a more affordable place that was closer to his family. That somewhere ended up being Broward County, Florida. The economic differences are stark: Seattle’s median household income is almost 50% higher than Broward’s, and his minimum wage is almost twice as high. While it can be difficult to catch your breath in Seattle if you’re poor, there is more scope for help than at Broward, and the CPS ‘response between the two areas reflects that. In Seattle, we were given a chance to recover. At Broward, it was assumed that we wouldn’t be able to do this.
The investigator made it clear that my daughters showed no signs of abuse or neglect. I lost anyway.
Josh Michtom, a Connecticut public advocate who represents parents and children involved in child protection, says poor families struggle the most when they come under CPS review. “Starting at the beginning… the poor as a rule live a little closer to the edge. Rushing to and from daycare, rushing from job to job or work at home, living in more precarious housing or less well-maintained housing … this does not mean that all the poor are careless or abusive, but run the simulation a hundred times and it’ll come out with more things that raise an eyebrow for a teacher or educator or hospital worker [who are mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect to CPS]. “
According to Megan Martin, vice president of public policy at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the “vast majority” of child protection cases are linked to poverty. Martin also points out that the numbers may not even fully capture the extent of the relationship between poverty and participation in child welfare. She says the official figure, which links 47 percent of cases to poverty, measures families who are financially unable to meet their basic needs. (For example, a parent who cannot afford to heat their house in winter.) But that does not include other problems related to poverty. She uses the example of inadequate supervision, a common factor in children’s movement that has attracted media attention in the past.
“If you can’t afford to look after your children and you don’t have other resources like family to look after your children, you could end up with a nine-year-old caring for a two-year-old.” , says Martin. “When children are taken away due to inadequate supervision, that is not necessarily included in that 47%. “
In his practice, Michtom also grapples with the huge cultural divide that often exists between forced journalists and many parents living in poverty. He describes how something like a parent straying from the typical upper or middle class vernacular can cause a teacher or pediatrician to subconsciously distrust the parent and therefore attribute malicious intent to something like a bruised knee or neglected clothes.
Even the use of this vernacular can weigh on parents who don’t seem to be. At the end of my trial, the judge cited my “language skills” as a reason for not believing my testimony, adding that I could “sell ice cream to an Eskimo”. My advanced education and ability to communicate clearly should have been beneficial for me, but coupled with my diagnosis of poverty and substance use disorders, it led her to read me more as a con artist.
“People in the middle and upper classes have a language and a way of talking to professionals who seem ‘good and responsible’,” Michtom observes. “When a child has an injury that is absolutely unrelated to abuse and the school nurse calls the parent and says’ can you explain this? And the parent may not speak English as well or just seem less trustworthy to this middle class nurse in a way the nurse may not be able to quantify, then the nurse says: “I have a duty to report this. “
Once the investigation is opened, the life of the family is turned upside down. Even if the original claim turns out to be unfounded, a myriad of other factors – issues that may not have been enough to trigger an appeal on their own – can be used against the parent. In my case, the state was obsessed with not having my own home, despite more than a third of adults living with their parents in 2015.
I remember the shame and anxiety I felt doing something as simple as going to the playground.
Michtom believes that cultural differences between investigators, judges, and others involved in the corroboration process directly affect how even the smallest discrepancies are viewed. “If you don’t know what it’s like to be poor and you don’t know what it’s like to make the compromises poor people have to make,” says Michtom, “the bad social worker calls them deplorable. or dirty even if it was just messy or cluttered, and this increases the likelihood of it leading to a lawsuit [for the child’s removal]. “
As I say this, I remember the shame and anxiety I felt doing something as simple as going to the playground, where my daughter’s coats, while surely quite warm, felt dull. and stained next to the kids running around in clothes so absurdly shiny they looked like something out of a cartoon. My anxiety was not just based on embarrassment; it was also framed in visceral fear that people would assume I was a bad mother because of something as simple as dressing my daughters in worn coats.
Being a parent in poverty creates a cycle of factors that combine. For my family, the inability to pay for child care or legal aid in 2016 created a snowball of stressors that ultimately led to a relapse and almost killed me. This year, as we managed to pull ourselves out of this, a sudden and unexpected health emergency spiraled us back into the system.
As I continue to fight for the return of my daughters, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a one-size-fits-all child welfare system that recognizes these kinds of complexities. Maybe my daughters would be with me now. Maybe my husband would be on the road to well-being instead of struggling with me to find permanent accommodation. Maybe the other 3 million families involved in CPS would thrive and prosper. Maybe being a parent in poverty would stop being so difficult.