Families and the Department of Children and Family Services
Dear Beachhead,
I am writing in response to “An Unnamed Writer on the Beachhead,” November 2014 issue, who wrote an article concerning the plight of a family with whom she is friends. She focuses her moral outrage on the Draconian methods used by Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to “kidnap” these children from their mother. While my heart goes out to the children involved, I’d like to offer a larger, but perhaps less popular perspective on child welfare.
I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching teenagers under every circumstance imaginable, including as a volunteer writing teacher working with incarcerated minors in Los Angeles. I want to make it clear up front that I do not and have never worked for any government agency, including DCFS. However, many of my incarcerated students are in that system, some their entire lives. In case after case, their removal from biological parents or other so-called guardians was really for their own protection. “Unnamed Writer” mentions that her friend’s daughter, “a victim of domestic abuse”, left her baby in the care of a drunken, abusive boyfriend. This was her choice, knowing full well what he was capable of. When her son’s school wanted to speak with her about the fact the boy was cutting himself, she didn’t make the school interview. Then her children were removed from the home – as they should have been. Until she can demonstrate parental responsibility, like the choice of a kind and loving partner and showing some concern for her son’s emotional state, her children are at risk. Unless there’s a trusted relative or friend to take those children in, DCFS must step in.
While it may seem heavy-handed to whisk children away from their homes, DCFS does not do this merely to make money, as “Unnamed Writer” suggests. I agree that it isn’t a perfect system. Cases of severe abuse have gone unchecked, and children have been harmed, even killed. I’ve worked with a very small number of indifferent social workers, but by and large, they are professionals with big hearts and boundless patience. One social worker specializing in runaways works tirelessly to locate and provide safe haven for her kids. She worries about them when their own parents are too high, drunk, or otherwise unable to care for them. DCFS social workers are also horribly understaffed and over-worked; they are required to keep tabs on far too many abused and neglected children who, if they make it into their teen years, become increasingly at risk for substance abuse, sexual trafficking, rape, pregnancy, gang involvement, and mental illness. The “mass incarceration of little kids” which “Unnamed Writer” accuses DCFS of is just plain inflammatory. I have students in juvenile hall who, without this agency’s involvement, would have no money for clothes, food, educational testing, birthday celebrations, or a roof over their heads. If neighbors, pediatricians, teachers, and other adults who live around or with children don’t report suspected child abuse, how can anyone realistically just blame social workers for the occasional abuse and deaths of children? When people refuse to get involved in cases of suspected child endangerment or abuse, we are all diminished. We are all connected.
While a few hours a week allotted for monitored visits with young children is not nearly long enough, it’s better than no contact at all. Young mothers without the resources to look after their children, in abusive relationships, fighting addiction, or the allure of gang life all need our compassion and our support, but certainly not any more than their children. People complain about juvenile criminals, and indeed Los Angeles is home to tens of thousands of gang members. However, are those complaining willing to do anything to change the horrendous circumstances under which children are presumably educated, housed, and cared for? The city also has a shameful problem with sexually trafficked minors. These are girls in our fair city as young as 10 and 11 abducted from bus benches or en route to school, forcibly hooked on drugs, and put out onto the streets by their traffickers. Some may have already been removed from their homes, others should have been and weren’t for whatever reason. Some simply fell through the cracks of a society too distracted by social media, pop culture trivia, and its own woes to care.
It is just untrue that the individuals who work for DCFS have “no training in child development or how to talk to a child.” The basic requirement to become a social worker is a Bachelor’s degree in social work, sometimes a Master’s, some facility with a second language, certification, internships, and so on. The agency does not “steal” children. They are working against a tidal wave of social problems so overwhelming it’s a miracle that any one of them lasts more than a year in that profession.
I would urge “Unnamed Writer” to spend a day volunteering in a battered women’s shelter or in a shelter for homeless teens. Or go on-line to such sites as Saving Innocence, Girls & Gangs, InsideOut Writers, or Alliance for Children’s Rights and educate herself about the larger issues of child abuse. It’s never just one “evil” governmental organization’s fault, never just the Probation Department or even LAPD’s “fault” for why children are removed from their homes and separated from their parents. Entering with guns drawn into a home with just women and children is undoubtedly excessive. To be fair, police don’t always know what kind of danger they’re walking into. I understand “Unknown Writer’s” anger – but it is largely misdirected. DCFS doesn’t just “kidnap” children. That’s absurd. One student of mine – in and out of incarceration for unknown crimes– struggled to regain custody of her baby, and DCFS, as well as her own attorney and mother, did all they could for over a year to facilitate that, but at 16 she just wasn’t ready to be a mother. The foster mom was poised to adopt her son, a much better option, at least in this case.
“Unnamed Writer” is correct that states offer social agencies financial incentives for adopting children, when they need to do a much better job at family reunification. And yes, there are far more children of color in the foster care and juvenile justice system than there are white and Asian children. We are a racist society, and not even the youngest American child of color can escape that insidious poison.
There are no easy solutions, and unfortunately children get caught in the middle as adults continue to mud sling and shirk personal and collective responsibility. In an ideal world, both parents should raise their children. But more importantly, they should be with those adults who unconditionally love and care for them, regardless of biological ties, skin color, or sexual orientation.
Criminal behavior usually bears a direct correlation to how criminals were treated in their early years. How can we demand civilized behavior (which must include compassion for the Other), when we don’t model it ourselves? This is an awful lot to swallow if you’re on the firing end of a gun held by a juvenile offender. A proper sex education, access to birth control, decent neonatal care, and parenting classes go much farther to stem the abuse of children than raging against a struggling government agency. I know it probably feels better to react with moral outrage and strike out at the nearest and easiest target. Truly understanding the complexities involved in child welfare, juvenile justice, and family dynamics requires patience and a desire for the truth, regardless of whether it supports your assumptions or not. There isn’t just one truth here, including my own.
Who has the presence of mind to connect the dots between an unstable home life, absent, addicted, or violent parents/guardians, and the shuffling game of where next to place minors no one really wants? Imagine growing up with that hanging over your head. Imagine devoting your life to trying to help track and find a caring home for these children.
– Nika Cavat
Venice resident for 22 years
Research sites: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/fostercare/inside/roberts.html
Families and the Department of Children and Family Services: “Unnamed Writer” responds:
In defense of the victim, in this case and many cases:
  Do you think people consciously pick a guy that will beat them up, wreck their lives, destroy their property, terrorize their families? do you really believe that?
If so, you are blaming the victim.
  Those social workers have no hearts, they are cold, arrogant women who sup at the government’s trough. They lap up their money while judging and condemning the people they are supposed to help.
  You tell me to go volunteer somewhere and I will learn more about this problem. Excuse me, I have lived this experience. I was with a man who beat me, followed me around Venice so he could beat me some more. Stole my kid & disappeared with her. Why did this happen to me and not someone else? You would have to go back to my upbringing – I was terrorized by a rage-filled father who got drunk and verbally and physically abused me and everyone else of the family.
  This was a guy who was well-respected in the art world and no one really knew what was happening – “behind closed doors”. So I split. I finally got the idea to get the fuck out of Virginia and ended up here, in Venice, CA, 1971. I was twenty years old.
  So you’ve spent 22 years in Venice? I’m sorry – but there is no requirement for length of time of living in Venice for any special wisdom.
  You think you’ve got the answer to domestic violence? 40 years ago – there were no shelters for women and children. It was the 70’s & Venice was pretty wide open – everybody was doing drugs, having children, getting evicted, had problems with drugs and alcohol, etc., etc. –
  It was extremely difficult to get into a rehab. It was not how it is now – rehabs are a real money-maker now. Insurance companies pay for rehabs and you can stay there really long times, in some cases. They are saving lives. Back in the 1970’s, people quit using drugs because they died. People would drag people’s dead bodies out into the alley, so no one would get arrested. It was a grim, toxic, scary dangerous place – to live with a drunk , a junkie, or a speed-freak. The drugs came first – little girls were put out on the street by opportunistic bastards who would beat them if they came back with no money.
  Wow, it’s really great you know enough about me, the “unnamed writer” to offer me advice. I lived this lifestyle, and I came back from the dead. I went to A.A., C.A., & N.A. And I met one of the best friends of my life in N.A. I choose to remain anonymous because I am in the middle of this – and it’s not over yet, until she gets the kids back.
  I lost my daughter 40 years ago. My social worker told me it would take 5 to 8 years to get her back. I said, “OK, I’m putting her up for adoption.” The social worker told me I couldn’t do that. But I did. And that was that. I was not going to watch from the sidelines, as the social workers and the foster care system destroyed my daughter. She went to a really good household and I have never regretted it.
  You, in your casual cruelty, saying that some little children end up damaged, beat-up or killed – you say that with such casualness – how can you live with yourself and express such cruelty?
  I would really like to know.
  You, educated woman – has this ever happened to you? You don’t know what terror is until some drunk-out-of-his-mind bastard is beating you & no one helps. Back in the 70’s, if a man’s name was on the lease, you could not legally kick him out. You (the woman) would have to get up (in the middle of the night) gather you & your kids clothes together and sneak out of there.
  It’s a fucking nightmare and you: are you a mother? Because if you’re not, I don’t really want to hear from you. You have made all your judgments on the victim, and you base it on all the bull-shit that this society has drilled into your head . . .
  Women always say: “why didn’t you leave?” If you have nowhere to go to, where are you going to go? Do you want to be homeless with your kids? I did that. That’s how I lost her.
  My kid did great. She landed in a loving family who saw her and fell in love with her. I did not do so well – I continued on, for years living a dangerous and scary life. I was on the streets of Venice, from 1978 to 1984. In 1984 my brother Karl came out here and got an apartment with me. I stayed in that apartment for 26 years. I had the kindest woman in the world as my landlady, Mormie Jamerison.
  Did I miss my daughter? Yes, always. But I gave her the best gift I could ever give someone: a kind, loving home. I got to talk to her a couple times on the phone and she sends me Christmas cards every year. Most people never get to talk to or see their children again.
  It hurt so much I had to drown it with alcohol. I really didn’t care if I lived or died. Then I finally got clean and called my brother up and he said he would help me and he did. I started writing poetry in 2006. And I do oil pastels, which makes me really happy. It is never too late to start over. This whole case is just a bump in the road, and we will get over this.
– Unnamed Writer