November 23, 2016

Why Child Protective Investigations Can Make Parents Fearful and Put Kids at Risk

By Jeanette Vega

I have a friend who recently gave birth and struggles with simple things, like having enough money for Pampers. I told her about a program for low-income families that offers free Pampers, but she denied the help, saying they might call child protective services on her.

I understand her fears. After all, my own son spent time in foster care. I know well the pain that causes to everyone involved.

In many big cities the number of children entering foster care has dropped dramatically while the number of families receiving support services has grown.

But across the country, just as many families continue to be the subject of child protective investigations; across the country, more than three million children are the subjects of such investigations each year. In New York City, there are nearly 55,000 investigations each year, even though only 4,000 children enter foster care.

These investigations are terrifying for the families involved. When we are investigated, we don’t expect it to be fair. So when we hit a crisis, our fear keeps us hiding under a rock.

But it’s not safe for children if parents won’t ask for help. I know, because when my own family hit a crisis a few years ago, a worker had to prove to me that his help came with no connection to child welfare before I would take it.

It had been over a decade since my oldest son had come home from foster care and I had never been investigated since. I had a good relationship with my children’s school, was active on the PTA, and was working as a parent advocate at a child welfare agency.

But no matter how much time passes, the experience of having outsiders judge you as a bad parent just crumbles you up.

At the time, we had lost our apartment lease and become homeless. After five months of staying with friends and relatives we finally found an apartment. True, it was one-bedroom sublet and we didn’t have any furniture or bins for clothes and toys; we’d lost everything in our moves. Still, I was grateful for a place of our own.

Then my son mentioned in afterschool that he was sleeping on an air mattress and that Mommy gets his clothes from a garbage bag every morning. Soon Children’s Aid Society called me for a meeting.

My oldest son was in a rebellious stage. I felt afraid that people would look at our housing instability and his behavior and the judgments would start all over. So when “Mr. B” from Children’s Aid came offering help, I told him we didn’t want it. I also explained that as a parent advocate, I wouldn’t be able to find work if I had any kind of open case.

Mr. B let me know that the help he was offering had nothing to do with ACS (the Administration for Children’s Services, the City’s child welfare agency), and unless I was abusing or neglecting my kids, the child welfare system never needed to be involved.

When he finally convinced me that it was safe for us to accept help, tears rolled down my cheeks. Then the program gave us $1,000 to buy beds for the kids and gift cards to assist with school uniforms and winter clothing. That was a blessing because thinking how to get the boys their coats and boots had me going crazy. I was even considering not paying rent for that month in order to keep them warm that winter.

There are things that can be done that make it easier for families to accept such help rather than be fearful of it. For example, some cities have adopted “differential response.” That means that when agencies get calls about suspected abuse or neglect, they determine whether the first meeting with the family can focus primarily on getting them help rather than mandating services or making a report against the parent or parents. Studies show that as a result, parents are more likely to reach out for help, probably because they don’t feel as scared or angry as parents who’ve been investigated.

New Yorkers are rightly horrified by the recent tragic beating death of Zymere Perkins, a six-year-old whose family had been investigated by ACS. But other families shouldn’t be penalized because ACS failed in that case. The reality is that children can be less safe if parents in crisis feel that reaching out for help makes it more likely they’ll lose their kids.

When you get the help you need once, you’re more likely to ask the next time. We have to keep investing in families in ways that have nothing to do with investigations, and make it easier for families to accept help. To keep children safe, we need to send a message of hope within communities. It’s so important to change our culture of fear.

Jeanette Vega is a parent leader at Rise, which trains parents to write and speak about their experiences with the child welfare system. The proud mother of four boys (with whom she is pictured, above), she previously has been a parent advocate at the Child Welfare Organizing Project and Episcopal Social Services.

Photo by Stephen Reiss