Reprise: The Ominous Parallels

The following was published in a number of national and regionally distributed sources in January 2000. It provides a critical historical perspective, and it is as timely today as the day it was written.


We enter the new millennium with well over 500,000 of our children in one or another form of state-provided alternative care. An estimated 365,000 of our children are removed from their homes for their “protection” each year in these United States. They find themselves warehoused in foster homes, group homes, and institutions. When there is no room for them at the proverbial inn, they find themselves warehoused in prisons.

By all accounts, an ever-increasing number of our children are joining the ranks of what I have come to call “The Disappeared.” The term derives from Argentina, where a brutal political regime propped up for years by the United States provided for hundreds of thousands of innocents removed to destinations and fates unknown–their homes having been invaded by agents of the state during the darkest hours of the night.

The victims of this politically oppressive regime often found themselves interrogated, stripped naked, bound and shackled, starved, imprisoned, and beaten, often to the extent of mutilation. The whereabouts of many remain unknown to this day.

Once the helping facade of child protection is penetrated–its masquerade of benevolent intent stripped away–the parallels between these historical events and the current state of affairs in child protection are too striking to ignore.

In Sacramento, California, during 1997, Child Protective Services caseworkers were removing children from their homes at an estimated rate of 400 per month–up from a previous level of 200 per month during the previous year. Authorities were reviewing cases, which in some instances stemmed from five-year-old reports, and conducting random sweeps of homes late at night, without search warrants. The majority of the children removed in these midnight raids were not necessarily abused or neglected, rather they were determined to be “at risk” of abuse or neglect at some point in the future. The Sacramento Bee uncritically reported on these events as if to suggest that they make for sound public policy, having sent reporters to cover the raids in the company of police and social workers.

Similar trends are everywhere to be found. From Waco, Texas, comes a report that the number of children in state care has tripled over the last decade, with fewer people coming forward as prospective foster parents despite intensified recruitment efforts. In Ohio, State Auditor Jim Petro threatens a systematic review of foster care operations, his system swamped with nearly triple the caseload it had a decade ago. In Kansas, after privatization of foster care was undertaken in March of 1997, monthly court statistics reviewed a few months later show nearly double the number of “children in need of care” filings as compared to the previous year. In Wisconsin, the number of children needing regular foster care in Racine County has more than doubled in the first nine months of 1998 compared with the same period during the previous year.

The Oklahoma State Senate reports that the number of children living in foster care has increased by 46% since fiscal year 1990. A 12% reduction in the number of available foster homes has children spending more time in shelters, emergency foster care or group homes. The Naples Daily News reports that in the wake of a recent rash of child deaths, caseworkers in Tampa Bay are rushing to remove children who may be “at risk” of abuse. In Pinellas County, about eight times the normal number of children have been placed in shelters, while child removals in nearby Hillsborough County are up about 20%.

“Last year the number of children removed from parents due to severe abuse and neglect doubled from the previous year,” says Nancy DeWees, a former social worker with Child Protective Services and now as an assistant district attorney in the Tarrant County, Texas, Crimes Against Children Unit. “And we’ve continued that trend this year.” When pressed for answer as to what is responsible for the increase, she can’t venture a guess. “I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t account for it, but it’s not just a local trend. It is statewide.”

While paid apologists among the child protection lobby maintain that these children have been removed for their own protection, the reality is that the vast majority of these children have been removed from their homes without legal excuse or justification. As psychologist and author Seth Farber explains:

    Only a small minority of these children have been separated from parents who are dangerous to them. The overwhelming majority have been separated from loving and responsible parents. One does not need to be a child psychologist to realize the devastating effect of removing a child from parents with whom he or she is deeply bonded.

A closer look at the numbers bears this out. Dana Mack, an Affiliate Scholar with the Institute for American Values and author of The Assault on Parenthood, notes that a 1986 federal study evaluating child welfare caseworkers found that up to two-thirds of “substantiated” cases of child maltreatment involved no actual wrongdoing on the part of parents. Many removals of children into foster care are “capricious actions of ‘preventive intervention’–undertaken on a caseworker’s presumption that though a child’s home situation poses no immediate dangers or deprivations, it might sometime in the future.”

In examining studies conducted by the American Humane Association during the mid-1980s, Mack found that half of the families child welfare agencies compelled to undergo therapeutic services for child maltreatment had never mistreated their children at all.

A recent report from the state of Oregon reveals a similar trend. Fully one-half of the children in its foster care system have been removed from their homes not because they have been abused or neglected, but rather because they have been deemed “at risk” of abuse or neglect at some point in the future.

This is not to say that the remainder has necessarily been removed for legitimate reasons. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation points out that only 3 percent of the children in foster are there for reasons related to allegations of physical abuse.

A brief history

During the 1970s, critics charged during Congressional hearings that a foster care “industry” had developed. Stories were told of children shipped hundreds of miles away from their homes, only to be warehoused in large institutions and other inappropriate settings. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which at the time was charged with the task of providing oversight, admitted that it had no idea where the majority of the then estimated 500,000 children in foster care were. Thus came to be enacted Public Law 96-272, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act.

This federal legislation had been painstakingly crafted to address the unnecessary removal of an excessive number of children from their homes by child welfare agencies.The legislation provided, among other things, that “reasonable efforts” must be made to prevent the removal of children from their homes.

The legislation enjoyed wide bipartisan support, as the Boston Globe explains: “Religious conservatives were denouncing the breakup of families. Libertarians were attacking ‘child-snatching’ agencies that invaded homes. Liberals were accusing agencies of taking away poor minority children instead of giving their families needed services.”

Followed thereafter a series of legal actions against child welfare agencies, the majority of which were based on systematic violations of the Act. As of 1990, Congressman George Miller and the members of the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families had counted over 45 lawsuits, which had been won by child advocates based on violations of the Act. As of 1996, class action lawsuits had been filed in 31 states, with 36 consent decrees overseeing the operations of child welfare and foster care systems. The most common complaints focused on noncompliance with family preservation requirements, while procedural safeguards, case planning, and placement quality were also frequently cited for noncompliance.

Few know the child welfare system as intimately as does former-Congressman Miller, who presided over the Congressional hearings leading to the passage of the Act. Miller explained that the child welfare system is a system, which “removes children without cause,” adding that reviews of their status are “perfunctory if not non-existent.” Children placed voluntarily frequently did not recieve reviews of their status, and they continued to be moved time and time again without determining if this was for their benefit.

It was precisely these conditions the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was enacted to address. Yet, child welfare administrators and their judges, to the continuing detriment of children and families, have routinely disregarded the law. “Reasonable efforts are not made in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases across the country,” explained Marcia Robinson Lowry of Children’s Rights, Inc., (formerly the Children’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union) during Congressional hearings held during the mid-1980s.

In pursuit of meaningful reform, advocates such as Lowry have scored many promising victories in the courts. In a legal action brought by Children’s Rights against the District of Columbia’s child welfare system, LaShawn A. v. Kelly, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the agency had “consistently failed to provide services or otherwise use ‘reasonable efforts’ to prevent placement. The result has been an increased risk of arbitrary or inappropriate placements as well as an increased cost to the District.” Based on the case records of children in foster care as of December 1989, whose goal was to return home and who had entered into care through voluntary placement, the Court found the agency “had failed to provide services in 77% of their cases.”

One need look no further for evidence of the abysmal lack of service provision than to an Arkansas case of recent vintage in which a juvenile court judge ordered a caseworker to provide aid to a family in getting the utilities turned back on in order to prevent the otherwise unnecessary removal of a child from the home. The caseworker refused to provide the needed services, as it was against the policy of her agency to do so. As sociologist John Hagedorn 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.”

Returning once again to the District of Columbia, frustrated by lack of progress after years of litigation, child advocates succeeded in placing the District’s child welfare system into full receivership in 1995, making it the first child welfare system in the nation to come under the direct control of a Court.

How is it that a federal law to provide services to prevent unnecessary child removal may be so routinely disregarded? After all, judges oversee the removal of children from their homes by child welfare agencies. Sadly, the juvenile court judge in Arkansas who ordered that services be provided to a family in financial distress is something of an exception.

Professor of social work Duncan Lindsey explains that the special relationship between the juvenile court and the agency must be understood. “In many jurisdictions, the court and agency work hand-in-glove in the disposition of abuse and neglect cases. What the agency recommends, the court approves with minimal review, becoming, in essence, little more than a rubber stamp to the policies of the child welfare agency.” As a result, argues Lindsey, the juvenile court has become “a corrosion of the legal system that is slowly undermining the rights of poor families and undermining due process. “A recent review by the Office of the Legislative Auditor in California would bear this out. In 1995, the Los Angeles juvenile court went along with agency recommendations in 98 percent of the cases it heard.

At the heart of the ills afflicting child welfare agencies are perverse federal incentives that favor the continued removal of children from their homes and the destruction of families. As Kenneth A. Visser, Director of Family Preservation in the Michigan Department of Social Services explained to a Congressional Committee in 1991: “The current system of financing rewards us for foster care placement.” More to the point, as Joseph R. Pisani, representing the National Conference of State Legislators explained some years earlier: “You are paying us to do the wrong thing, and providing us with federal disincentives to do the right thing.” As a Santa Clara County, California, Grand Jury most succinctly explains: “the agency benefits, financially, from placing children in foster homes.”

Perverse federal incentives and the bureaucratic imperative for expansion and survival are not the only dark forces at work. “Influenced by moral beliefs, political ideologies, or child-saving fantasies, those with decision-making responsibilities sometimes fail to consider the psychological consequences to a child of removal from his family,” the Children’s Defense Fund explains in its comprehensive assessment of the child welfare system.

Kenneth Lanning of the FBI explains that many child protection workers may themselves have been abused as children, and that they carry the torch by welcoming other young women into “the sisterhood of the abused.” Marie Parente, a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Foster Care recently told Massachusetts News reporter Ed Oliver about a child protection caseworker who was so obsessed with the issue of child sex abuse that not only did she bring brochures on the topic of sexual abuse into her office daily, passing them out to co-workers, but virtually every case to which she was assigned resulted in a founded disposition of sexual abuse.

Many family advocates speak of encounters with caseworkers who are clearly dysfunctional–so obsessed with issues of child abuse that they see abuse everywhere they look. This point was not lost on a 1985 New York City Grand Jury, which went so far as to recommend that psychological testing be administered to all child protection workers to weed out those with the more profound psychological disorders.

These forces conspire to produce a variety of symptoms in the patient. Columbia University’s Brenda McGowan points out that the field of child protection is one which has been repeatedly attacked “for its failure to insure permanency planning, its inability to prevent placement, its failure to place children in need of protection, its inherent racism and classism, its anti-family bias, its violations of parents’ and children’s rights, its arbitrary decision-making procedures, the incompetence and inefficiency of its staff, its costs, and its mismanagement.”

The era to which she is generally referring is the 1960s. Little has changed since.

Shiela Kamerman and Alfred Kahn, of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, explain that the permanency planning movement has failed to provide the promise of permanence and stability to foster children, blaming it for adding another bureaucratic layer to an already fragmented system, thus contributing to rapid turnover and uncovered caseloads. Judith Fein and Anthony Maluccio, writing in the industry journal Social Service Review, liken the failures of family preservation and reunification as major components of permanency planning to the outcomes of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. The racist proclivities of the child welfare system are borne out by the numbers, with one out of every ten children in Harlem having been removed into foster care. As recently as 1996, none other than Douglas Besharov, the founding Director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, described the current state of affairs in child protection as “a massive and unjustified violation of parental rights.” A comprehensive study conducted by the Children’s Defense Fund identified “a pervasive, implicit anti-family bias” shaping decisions at all points in the child welfare system. Lowry has testified as to the mismanagement in child welfare agencies being “astronomical” in scope, and the misuse of resources as “staggering.”

Against the backdrop of continued legal onslaughts, the child welfare system has grown by leaps and bounds, ever marching onward in its relentless crusade to destroy children and families. Many decades of time have elapsed over which countless efforts at reform have been made; yet few tangible results have been attained. As Miller observed some years ago: “This system has been sued and sued and orders have been issued and people have just continued on their merry way.”

Providing the appearance of reform-in-progress has itself become something of a game in the industry. Indeed, to the casual observer, the child welfare system would appear to be in a perpetual state of reform. The Children’s Defense Fund handily saw through this ruse, explaining that: “Piecemeal tinkering–a new training program here, some demonstration funds for preventive services there–will not work.”

Professor of social work Leroy Pelton echoes this concern, explaining that the current structure of the child welfare system is dysfunctional, and as such: “A fundamental restructuring of the system will be necessary before it can accommodate any large-scale expansion of family preservation and prevention programs and services.” Lacking such a restructuring, “any incremental approach or tinkering with the system in its present form will not change its focus from placement to prevention.”

The incessant piecemeal tinkering with the system serves only to strengthen it, even as it provides an intellectual trap for would-be reformers. “Just by calling for more workers, more training, better academic credentials, advocates serve to maintain the status quo,” Pelton explains, adding that: “Even radical critics have succumbed to the delusion that more of the same, albeit of higher quality, is what we need.” Family preservation programs “represent reforms that are easily digested by the system, while it grinds inexorably on its way.” The current family-preservation rhetoric in effect “serves as a cloak in which state coercion is shielded from the inconvenience of due process.”

In the final analysis, efforts at reform have failed because the core tasks of the child protection system–investigation of families and child removal–remain unchanged. As sociologist John Hagedorn explains: “Investigation of poor families and removal of children into foster care have crystalized as the core tasks of social work, those tasks which define what line workers do on a day-to-day basis.” It is precisely these core tasks that must be altered if any meaningful reform is to be attained.

The ominous parallels

When the police came looking for them, they were hiding in a closet buried in clothing in fear of being found. But find them they did. In April of 1998, “three youths, who committed no crime beyond their failure to testify against their father, were jailed in juvenile hall for 12 days and brought to court in handcuffs and leg chains,” the _Los Angeles Times_ reports. They had been so bound because they were considered a “flight risk,” having already fled from their state-appointed foster home. The allegation being raised to which they so bravely chose not to capitulate was a claim that their own father had sexually molested their sister.

Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell explains that of those child abuse reports accepted for investigation about half are eventually dismissed, “but not before children have been strip-searched, interrogated by a stream of social workers, police officers, and prosecutors, psychologically tested, and sometimes placed in foster care. Such actions usually occur without search warrants, parental consent, court hearings, or official charges–and often solely on the basis of the anonymous telephone call.” These are the lucky ones.

For many of the children unfortunate enough to have been randomly drafted into being more permanently “rescued” by the state, the day-to-day conditions they are forced to endure are often comparable to those endured by The Disappeared of Argentina. Mark Soler, of the National Youth Law Center, describes some of his experiences in litigating against the foster care industry:

“We have seen children in an Arizona juvenile detention center tied hand and foot to their beds, and a Washington State facility in which two children were held for 5 days at a time in a cell with only 25 square feet of floor space.

“We have seen children hogtied in State juvenile training schools in Florida–wrists handcuffed, ankles handcuffed, then placed stomach down on the floor, and wrists and ankles joined together behind their backs. In the training school in Oregon children were put in filthy, roach-infested isolation cells for weeks at a time.

“In the Idaho training school, children were punished by being put in strait jackets, and being hung, upside down, by their ankles.”

“The day-to-day tragedy of the foster care system, children languishing in care for years without ever having a permanent home or a chance for stability, goes on everywhere,” he explained.

Over the course of the last few decades, some few millions of children have disappeared into the black hole of foster care, only to find themselves “emancipated” into a life of poverty, homelessness and prison. A New York study found that between 25 to 50 percent of those living in shelters had spent some time in foster care. A Canadian study found that an astounding 90 percent of those living on the street were former foster children. The National Association of Social Workers found that 80 percent of those in prison in Illinois had spent some time in foster care as children. While I would not argue that the current child welfare system has been deliberately designed to increase homelessness and swell the prison populations, I would argue that if a system were to be designed with these objectives in mind, it could hardly improve on the model currently in place.

All wars have casualties, and the war against child abuse provides no exception. In the state of Georgia alone, 433 of our children have died while in the hands of the state over a period of some several recent years. Even a cursory review of recent press accounts reveals: In Peoria, Illinois, the state’s child welfare agency “rescues” Donte May from a neglectful and possibly abusive mother, only to place him in a foster home where he dies suspiciously from bleeding in the brain; a Pennsylvania foster mother charged with fatally beating a six-year-old girl in her care; New Jersey officials announcing that they are awaiting autopsy results on an infant who suffered rib fractures and a broken leg in foster care; Oklahoma prosecutors filing murder charges against a foster father who allegedly beat to death his five-year-old ward; a Wisconsin man charged with injuring a foster child in his care so severely that doctors had to use bone grafts to repair his damaged skull; a two-year-old Brooklyn boy beaten to death by his foster mother, who viciously battered the child with her fists–then took him to an all-night card game. He had been beaten with such force that his heart split, one of his lungs was punctured, his liver ripped and his ribs cracked.


Douglas Besharov warned over a decade ago that if changes were not made, public confidence in Child Protective Services would surely erode. Neither the Congress nor the child protection industry heeded his warning. Many decades worth of litigation and polite discourse in academic circles have failed to provide meaningful solutions. Recent legislative changes, such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which offers federal financial incentives to terminate parental rights absent so much as a showing of parental unfitness, threaten only to make matters worse.

That the child welfare system is in need of top-to-bottom reform is without question. The Midwest American Assembly, a diverse group of conservative and liberal officials stated categorically: “This system must be overhauled.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation found the need for social service reform “urgent.” The John D. Rockefeller-led National Commission on Children ominously concluded: “if the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child welfare system.”

Seth Farber explains that under the guise of helping groups in need, the child welfare bureaucracy seeks above all to perpetuate its own existence. “It is a monstrous social parasite whose overriding objective–no matter how well intentioned its individual staff members–is to capture vulnerable individuals, transform them into its clients, foist its ‘services’ upon them, undermine their autonomy, and ultimately incorporate them into its own parasitic body,” he writes. Farber concludes that the child welfare system is “a dictatorial state within the state that gives the appearance of benevolently serving its clients’ needs, even when it is totally destroying their lives.”

By fanning the flames of hysteria with questionable statistics, radical organizations such as the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, a leading proponent of “universal home visitation services” in which social workers, according to the plan, will visit the homes of “all new parents,” have contributed in their own way to the escalating abuse, neglect, and exploitation of our children in state care. They, along with other, even more radical organizations, have contributed to the growth of a clandestine and self-perpetuating bureaucratic empire, which feeds like vultures on the flesh of our children.

The time has arrived to unite and to allow our voices to be heard as one against this dictatorial state with the state. We hope our entry into the new millennium will mark a new era for us, one in which we will heed the call, one and all, to set aside the minor differences of opinion which have otherwise kept us divided against a common threat to the very existence of our families–lest more of our children disappear in the night.