There was much hubbub a couple of weeks ago over an extremely dumb incident in Michigan. The facts are not in dispute and here they are. A guy took his seven year old son to a Detroit Tigers game. Not knowing that it contained alcohol, he bought his son a Mike’s Hard Lemonade at the concession stand. Security saw the kid drinking it, the cops showed up, the kid was taken to a hospital(!) and then placed in the custody of the state – away from his father and the rest of his family – for a couple of days. Eventually, and with the help of some very heavy lawyers from the University of Michigan (where the parents are professors), the boy was returned. The story made a few local papers and then became internet famous as various people decried the lunacy and stupidity of the authorities.
I’m not going to disagree with any of that, but let’s not kid ourselves here, this is how child protective services works: badly. The only reason that this particular story merited any kind of attention is because it was one of the rare instances where a respectable middle class family was caught in the trappings of the state’s bureaucracy. The scary part is that no one in this chain of events had the authority and the common sense to simply put a stop to it. Setting aside everything else what that tells us is that the system is stressed and broken. In this particular instance no serious harm was done. The family was mightily, and unjustly, inconvenienced but there aren’t any real lasting effects. What’s disturbing about this story is that it raises frightening questions about how the system deals with other, less able, families.
A child is wrongly taken and real harm is done because the parents lack the resources to ably contest it, or a child is rightfully removed from an abusive environment and placed in the care of an obviously sick bureaucracy, either way there’s no reason to believe that the right things are being done as often as possible.
This article from the New York Times two months ago is about the trouble the city has hiring and retaining child service workers and it highlights exactly what I’m talking about. According to the article the average caseworker in New York City lasts less than two years on the job, including five months of training. The work is so unpleasant and screwed up that the average caseworker is only able to carry on for a year and a half! The work is doubtless very stressful and very depressing (dealing with kids in awful situations has to be), but police officers and hospital workers have to deal with many of the same things and they last a lot longer than two years. That should tell us something.
While I’m sure there are differences between Michigan and New York, the rapid rate of personnel turnover goes a long way toward explaining something as preposterous as a child being confiscated over a harmless mistake at a baseball game. If the frontline people get replaced every two years it’s no wonder that no one had the confidence to just give the boy back to his father.
The inescapable conclusion is that the system is fucked and it’s going to stay that way until it gets sustained high level attention from political leaders and the public. Of course that isn’t going to happen anytime soon for exactly the same reason that the story out of Detroit was news. Middle class people aren’t often affected by the broken system; it’s a poor people problem. That “poor” is often synonymous with “not white” goes almost without saying.
Long established state bureaucracies generally only get serious attention in one of two ways, either they fail spectacularly or they start costing too much money. In the case of child services the spectacular failures are usually along the lines of the state ignoring egregious abuse that results in death. In this case the system failed without killing anyone and while the easy reflex is to point and laugh at dumb civil servants it doesn’t do any good. Those people are all well intentioned (who would be doing that work otherwise?), what they need is better support.
The blame is not on them, it is on the rest of us, for allowing the system to decay and for allowing the perpetual problems of children to fester – out of sight and out of mind.
Side note: This has nothing to do with the story at hand, but one of the articles linked above originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press. It is no longer available free on the Free Press website though; it has been moved to an archive and if you want to read it you’ve got to buy it. The WZZM (which is a television station on the other side of the state) link I used is still live though. Just another little example of the bind newspapers are in when it comes to on-line content.