Rescuing Poor Children – Southern Style

-North Carolina

At the time, the mother had four children: a four-year-old, a three-year-old, and two-year-old twins. She was also approximately five months pregnant. The Department of Social Services became involved with her family after receiving a report in March of 2009 alleging that she was “subjecting her children to unsanitary and unstable living conditions.”

Social worker Barbara Griffith was assigned the task of “investigating” these horrific accusations of child abuse and neglect. The mother’s mistake was that of holding back the four aggressive-looking dogs that guarded the entrance to her home, so as to allow the caseworker in. That was when Griffith began recording her observations, among them that “the yard contained excessive clutter, including piles of boxes, toys, and trash.”

To be sure, conditions inside of the home were far from ideal – but they are seldom ideal for the estimated 14,000,000 children living in homes beset by poverty and despair in these United States.

While our society expends precious little to ameliorate the social conditions leading to such extremes, we expend billions to police the poor, to “monitor” and “supervise” their families, and to remove their children – only to warehouse them in state care.

“In the kitchen, dirty dishes covered the counter and sink and there were piles of trash on the floor. A kitchen window was broken. Boxes were piled high in the back area of the home and in the living room. Respondent-mother explained that these items belonged to her mother. The floors in each room of the house were dirty. The twins were present on the day of this visit. They were dressed in shirts and diapers, their feet were dirty, and their hair was uncombed,” the Court of Appeals of North Carolina explains.

The mother, her boyfriend, and the four children all slept in one small bedroom. The bedroom held a full-sized mattress, and one twin-sized mattress. The mother explained that she and her boyfriend slept on the full-sized mattress and that her four children slept together on the twin-sized mattress. The bedroom also reportedly contained an uneaten plate of food, and there was a large amount of clothing strewn about the room. But there was more.

“Ms. Griffith also discovered that the home contained little food. She found a small amount of milk in the refrigerator, but little else. Respondent-mother claimed that she received a minimum of $600.00 in food stamps each month, in the name of her mother and her children. Respondent-mother claimed that her mother still lived in the home and had taken the food stamp card, but she was not present on the day of the visit,” the court explained.

The mother apparently made some efforts to clean things up, as the court explains: “Ms. Griffith made a second visit to respondent-mother’s home, and she noticed visible improvements. The broken window in the kitchen had been repaired, much of the clutter in the bedroom had been removed, and several of the boxes had been removed, which made walking through the home easier. Additionally, respondent-mother had more food in the home.”

Ms. Griffith discussed the improvements with the mother, and reportedly suggested additional improvements. She also instructed the mother to contact her before leaving or vacating the home, and to stay in contact with the Department.

Soon thereafter, the family found themselves evicted – a situation that the Department of Social Services could presumably have averted by offering some meager assistance in the form of an emergency stipend. But assisting the poor is anathema to such Departments, the lip-service paid to making “reasonable efforts” notwithstanding. As John Hagedorn, who tried valiantly to reform Milwaukee’s troubled child protective services agency explains: “The myth that social services provide ‘services’ is still useful to state legislatures who must provide funds, to a concerned public, and for internal morale.”

Conditions at the family’s next residence were hardly ideal, as the court explains: “Once inside the house, Ms. Griffith observed a large dog chained up in the living room. Additionally, Ms. Griffith noticed a strong pet odor throughout the home. The house had only a dorm-sized refrigerator, and its only contents were some condiments and a forty-ounce beer. The only other food in the house was a partial jar of peanut butter, some pieces of bread, and three cans of tuna. The house did not have a stove, but had a microwave on top of the refrigerator.”

The home also had a number of safety issues, as the court explains: “The bathroom contained a light switch with exposed wiring, which was within reach of the children. The kitchen and bathroom had septic issues, which caused waste to gather in the sinks and bathtub. A septic repair company was outside attempting to fix the problem. Additionally, the paint in the bedroom and bathroom was peeling.”

The family shared one bedroom, as they had before. The mattresses the children slept on appeared to be crib-sized mattresses, two to three inches in thickness. Moreover, as the court explains: “The house was very hot and only contained one small window unit air conditioner in the bedroom. However, the air conditioner was not very effective in cooling the room. At the time of the visit, respondent-mother was very close to her delivery due date, but had only a bassinet and one outfit for the baby. She did not have any other supplies necessary to care for a newborn.”

The mother and her boyfriend made some repairs to their new residence, but again they fell behind on their rent, and they reportedly engaged in some minor altercations, one of which resulted in a bruise. This, not surprisingly, was branded as their having engaged in “domestic violence.”

In October 2009, DSS filed a petition alleging that the mother’s five children were (1) neglected, in that they did not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from the mother and lived in an environment injurious to their welfare and (2) dependent, in that the mother was unable to provide for the juveniles’ care or supervision and lacked an alternative child care arrangement.

The petition alleged: (1) that the family had lived in two residences that were cluttered, filthy, and lacked adequate furniture and food; (2) that respondent-mother had a volatile relationship with her live-in boyfriend and the two engaged in domestic violence; and (3) that respondent-mother was unable to maintain suitable housing, had been evicted from a previous residence, and was facing eviction from the residence she lived in at the time.

The mother had entered into a voluntary placement agreement with DSS, and her five children had been in Rowan County foster care homes since 10 July 2009. However, the petition also alleged that during the interim 90-day period, the mother “had not achieved the stability needed to keep her children safe.” Thereafter, “the children were taken into DSS custody pursuant to a nonsecure custody order, but remained in their same foster care placements.”

At some point, the mother managed to secure an attorney, to contest the dependency finding, which she managed to appeal. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling, explaining: “Although the trial court failed to make a finding of fact that the children had been impaired or were at substantial risk of impairment, we find no error in the order, because the uncontroverted evidence support such a finding.”

Citing an earlier case with a similar result, the Court noted that: “The inability to maintain secure living arrangements is relevant to a determination of whether there is a substantial risk of injury to the juvenile.”

Several times over the years, I have been asked by advocates to recite what I would consider to be a “typical” child removal case. This one would would handily qualify. There is nothing in this narrative that a rational individual could reasonably consider as “child abuse,” and to the extent that the children could be considered as having been “neglected,” they are among the estimated 14,000,000 children living in conditions strikingly similar to the ones described herein.

These children, now separated from their family, are among millions of such children of the poor in a nation of plenty. Our nation’s preferred “solution” to their plight is to tear them from their homes, whether by force or through the subtle coercion of a “voluntary” placement agreement, and to warehouse them in state care.

This family’s foster care nightmare has only just begun. Sure to follow is the “reunification plan” that will no doubt consist of such things as parenting classes, therapy sessions, anger management counseling, along with the demands that the family attains “suitable” housing, presumably with three or more bedrooms, and without any help from the Department.

I hope that Judge Robert C. Hunter, who wrote the opinion for the Court of Appeals of North Carolina, along with Chief Judge Martin and Judge Beasley, who concurred in the result, find their air conditioners most effective at cooling off their homes so that they can sleep well tonight, notwithstanding that whether the siblings – who may fairly be presumed to have been separated from one another while in state care – have air conditioning in their foster homes is anyone’s best guess.

I also extend to caseworker Barbara Griffith of the Rowan County, North Carolina, Department of Social Services my wishes for an air conditioned, uncluttered, and altogether restful night.

Not to worry, Barbara. So long as there are children living in homes with peeling paint and exposed electrical fixtures, you’ll have job security. Be sure to get plenty of rest. Tomorrow’s another day.

In the matter of: I.L., A.M., C.M., P.M. & A.M., No. COA10-175. Court of Appeals of North Carolina. Filed July 6, 2010.

By contrast, see: Norman v. Johnson, 739 F. Supp. 1182, Dist. Court, ND Illinois 1990.