Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] Criminalizing caregivers
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Comment: Don Lash
======== CRIMINALIZING CAREGIVERS ============================================
Don Lash reports on the recent indictment of child protective workers and
what it says about the child welfare system.
March 31, 2011
ON MARCH 25, unionized workers at the New York City Administration for
Children's Services (ACS) demonstrated outside the agency's headquarters to
protest the indictment of a child protective investigator and his supervisor
for criminally negligent homicide.
The charges followed the horrific death of a 4-year-old child with severe
disabilities who had apparently been beaten, bound and starved. Her mother
has been charged with murder.
Prosecutors allege that, during the approximately eight months the child was
subject to monitoring by ACS, the child protective worker assigned made
inadequate attempts to gain access to the home, and that he falsified entries
into a computer database indicating visits he had not made.
His immediate supervisor is alleged to have provided inadequate supervision.
It's not clear what facts will emerge, and the attorney for the child
protective worker has stated that the worker was instructed by superiors
higher up the chain to make the false entries. Both the child protective
worker and his supervisor have since resigned from the agency.
In New York City and beyond, media sources have reported that the indictments
are historic in being the first time homicide charges have been brought
against child welfare workers for negligent performance of their duties.
Front-line child protective workers do an incredibly demanding and stressful
job, with high standards for success and tragic consequences for failure.
It's entirely possible that the worker in this case did not meet
expectations, and that his supervisor failed to properly monitor his work.
It may also be that systemic failures contributed to the breakdown, and that
these need to be investigated and addressed. It is far from clear that the
criminalizing the failure of child protective workers to prevent a tragedy is
a sensible response.
Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has made two unsuccessful
runs for higher office, made an extraordinary admission in his statement
announcing the indictments. He said that the child "might be alive had these
ASC workers attended to her case with the basic level of care it deserved."
In other words, after asserting through the indictment that the negligence of
the workers was the proximate cause of the child's death, he undermined the
assertion by admitting that he can't prove his case.
Perhaps he wants quick pleas to lesser charges, or cooperative witnesses who
will name other city employees (or both), or perhaps he wants to draw
attention away from a lawsuit filed against his office in federal court last
Jabbar Collins, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995, filed
an action against Hynes, his top prosecutor and his office for withholding
exculpatory evidence and perpetrating a 15-year cover-up which kept him in
jail, until a judge vacated his conviction and Hynes quietly dismissed the
Bringing an historic prosecution against line staff at a city agency allows
Hynes to appear as the protector of children rather than as an official who
stolidly defended a false conviction. There are issues that go far beyond the
motivation of the district attorney.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE CHILD welfare system--including foster care, preventive services and
juvenile justice services--is an elaborate safety valve for a city in which,
according to the Citizens' Committee for Children, 29 percent of black
children and 35 percent of Latino children lived in poverty in 2008, before
the depths of the recession.
The numbers are even more shocking for younger children. A year earlier, 66
percent of black infants and 71 percent of Latino infants were born into poor
families. In 2008, black and Latino children accounted for 86 percent of
children entering foster care in the city.
At a time when the city's children are poor and getting poorer, and ACS is
poised for a further round of budget cuts, the criminalization of child
welfare workers seems consistent with a theme.
Just as teachers are being blamed for the failure of urban schools to close
testing gaps, social workers must be to blame when a parent causes the death
of her child. The fact that the parent had mental health needs that may have
been inadequately met, and that she had a history of substance abuse that may
not have been adequately treated can be forgotten, because there is a city
worker available to take the blame.
Not surprisingly, New York's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been
unwilling to criticize the action by the district attorney. In his statement
in response, he said that when someone gets indicted, "everybody thinks about
The mayor, along with the Democratic governor, supports the expiration of the
"Millionaire's Tax," a surcharge on taxpayers with over $1 million in taxable
income, because, he states, it will cause wealthy New Yorkers to leave. The
fact that the tax is already in place and what is being proposed is its
extension doesn't faze the mayor.
He has yet to explain why they haven't left yet, and are apparently waiting
for the tax to be extended to do so. This comes at a time when brutal cuts
are contemplated to education, housing, children's services and Medicaid.
It's noteworthy that at the Left Forum on March 18-20, New York City's
largest gathering of people involved in struggles for social justice, there
were more than 200 panel topics. Not a single one directly engaged the child
welfare system. There were discussions of housing, health care and education,
among many others, but not the child welfare industry.
The fault for that lies not in the Left Forum, which can only facilitate
discussion of what is happening, but it means that those of us who are in the
system are not doing nearly enough to connect with broader discussions of
childhood poverty and the growing income inequality.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THERE HAS been progress in child welfare in New York, and a great many people
are working to improve the system's performance, in terms of enhancing child
safety, preventing kids from languishing in long-term care, promoting school
stability (decreasing the likelihood that entry into care or a change of
homes will result in a change of schools), and in using real-time data to
identify gaps and flaws.
At least in the short-term, that work will continue, budget cuts and
indictments notwithstanding. These efforts are vital, and should be
respected, but that doesn't diminish the fact that they are simply attempting
to make the safety valve operate as efficiently as it possibly can.
Those who work in the child welfare industry are isolated from the broader
social justice movement, and segmented from one another by division into
systems within systems. The real constituency of the system--children and
families--are similarly isolated and segmented.
Where organizing occurs, it has become institutionalized within the system,
as a "deliverable" under a government contract. A certain amount of money is
paid to "organize" birth parents, a certain amount for foster parents (the
unpaid labor of the system), a certain amount for youth.
These programs can and do perform a valuable function in bringing the
perspective of these groups into improving the system, but they can't bring
their participants into discussions of the radical change needed to address
the cause of the existence of the industry in its current size and form.
Perhaps the threat posed by the criminalization of child welfare work will
encourage workers in the industry to seek to connect with those similarly
threatened and embattled in education, health care and affordable housing.
Perhaps the youth and challenged families the system is supposed to protect
and nurture, and the foster parents who provide the homes to those children
for whom the city has taken responsibility, will see that it's in their
interest to connect for radical change with their neighbors struggling with
homelessness, unemployment and the threat to public education.
If the Brooklyn indictments are a catalyst for the beginning of this
discussion, some good will have come of an all-too-familiar tragedy.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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