I could not handle working for child protective services.  I could not be a social worker making decisions on whether to put children back into their homes or deciding whether to remove them in the first place.  Or choosing foster homes.  I admire and respect the people I have met who do this valuable work.  I believe absolutely that all children deserve a safe and happy home.

But I want to talk about parental rights termination from the perspective of a parent who was not abusive herself, but simply unable to protect her children.  Because in spite of all the hard work and good will and good intentions, the overall system, once it hits the courts, can be overwhelmingly burdensome on victims of domestic violence, especially immigrants and the poor.  And I think some of the problem is based on our misguided ideas of what a “good enough” parent should look like.

In a criminal case, in simple terms, you are charged with a specific crime on a specific time at a specific place.  If found guilty, you are sentenced, and the judge signs off on your conditions.  Those conditions are set in stone and you know what they are.  But in termination of parental rights cases, it can be a case of shifting sands.  You are accused of poor parenting, your children are removed, and then the court orders you to complete remedial services, but the services keep changing, the requirements keep changing, and no matter how much you comply, and how many hoops you jump through, you are not done until the state decides you are done.

Let’s take a family with several children in the system.  The mother was abused as a child, left her homeland, moved to the US, and ended up in a domestic violence relationship.  Like many people without any family support, raised with abuse being normalized, it was hard for her to even fathom that she could in any way protect the children from Daddy hitting Mommy, and Daddy hurting them.  But in the US system, it is absolutely each parent’s legal duty to proactively protect the children from abuse, even from the other parent.  Which is good.  Child Protective Services investigates this and can refer these cases to the courts for “failure to protect”.

One parent goes to jail and the other is now caught in the system and under intense scrutiny.  She has been a bad mother in part because she had bad parents and a bad partner.  She was abused twice – both as a young girl and now as a wife – and never got the skills to be the fierce maternal protector and lioness we demand, and that the children deserve.  And of course her financial situation has gotten much worse, as she just lost the “head of household” income.  So what can the state do to make her protective and whole, and “good enough” to parent her children?

Take the children and put them out into foster homes, and keep them there until the court decides the mother is sufficiently improved to deserve the children back.  Take time to investigate, evaluate, test, interview, and assign classes, therapy, drug testing, and more.  Have the mom attend domestic violence prevention programs twice a week.  Order individual therapy, after a psychological evaluation reveals just what kind will best serve.  Keep checking, reading the reports, and deciding on next steps.  This may involve upwards of a dozen paid professionals.

This isn’t a television movie where all the kids are sent to a loving, two-parent middle class foster care household that will later adopt them, where they will have plenty of love, extended family, money for sports and music, and can still have open visitation with their suddenly healthy biological parents, who are wonderfully recovered and even get sober and get good jobs and good parenting skills.  In the actual situation, the kids are split up.  And months go by, a year goes by, in this limbo.

The mother I am thinking of lives way out of town, because it is cheaper there.  But services tend to cluster in urban areas.  It takes her close to two hours on three buses to get to her lawyer’s office.  Because she needs services in her language, she has been ordered to appointments in other far-flung towns and cities around the county.  She spends a couple hours a day on travel, and another couple in appointments with her case worker, her social worker, her group therapist, her support group, her counselor, and others who come and go and write reports about her.  She also meets with a court-appointed special advocate who is assigned to “look out for the best interests of the child” during the court process.  And she goes to her supervised visits, of course.

Now after several delays and continuances, a hearing is coming up and the defense attorney is preparing a declaration with lots of exhibits proving compliance with all prior court orders.  Time has passed, and Mom is really close to completing everything she was asked to do.  She has graduated from her domestic violence prevention course.  She has come to understand her vital role in protecting her own children.  She continues with her weekly therapy.  She has one more appointment with her overall case manager who has been looking over all her other tasks and even inspecting her house once a month for the last six months.  Her house is clean and orderly.  She has tested clean, as always, for drugs.  She has two part-time jobs.  She has visited with the children, supervised, as often as the state has allowed.

All systems are go for reunification.  In the best interests of the children, the defense attorney is going to ask for a gradual return, starting with unsupervised visits, then overnight visits, then reunification.  Mom has got all the skills she is going to.  She is doing her very best.  So it is the right time to reunify.  Not with Dad, of course.  He was physically abusive and there is a ten-year protection order, so he is out of the picture.  But the kids can all live with their mother.

The state can save who knows how many thousands a month on this family, adding up the cost of foster care placement and all the services the state is paying for so that this mother can be a safer, better parent.  Money well-spent, that can now be used to help another family in need, and keep other children safe.  All that is left is the final report from the court-appointed special advocate for the children.  Let’s take a look at that.

The children’s advocate has some new recommendations in his final report.  He asks the judge to order a new neuropsychological evaluation, to see if the mother has some kind of intellectual limitations that would preclude her from ever being an adequate parent.  When he talks with her, she seems slow.  The advocate also asks the judge to order another psychiatric evaluation, because last year’s report was inconclusive.  No specific mental illness diagnosis, beyond post-traumatic stress and depression.  He thinks there may be more to it.  These two new evaluations will really help.  The advocate also demands signed releases so he can talk directly with all of Mom’s counselors, case workers, supervisors, doctors, and others.  He is getting some positive reports about her, and from her, but he wants to find out more.  He is not convinced.

The lawyer tells the mother they will need to argue against these new evaluations and the release of information.  “They are just doing what the state always does, which is bait and switch.  Every time you finish, they find new hoops for you to jump through.”  She adds that the only purpose of the additional evaluations and the releases of information are to “dig up more dirt on you so they can keep your kids.”  The lawyer is really frustrated about how the state seems to set an impossibly high standard – unfairly expecting the parents she represents to be close to perfect, in order to win back their children.  She finds it unrealistic, unfair, and extremely biased.

“The standard should be – are you better than foster care?  Or even – are you as good as foster care?  Because kids are 14 times more likely to be abused in foster care than at home.  That’s just the facts.  So it really makes me angry that the state wants you to somehow become this perfect parent before your kids can get out of foster care.  I am going to start my hearing brief by reminding the judge that you have a fundamental right to parent your own kids!”

The mom is nervous about refusing to do the further services.  She is afraid of the authorities.  She doesn’t want to get into trouble.  She has been steadily compliant throughout this long process, now over a year.   She wants to do anything they ask, she tells her lawyer, so she can have her kids back.  She cannot really process the idea that they are asking her to do more so they can keep the kids from her.  That doesn’t make any sense to her.  It makes her anxious that the lawyer is going to tell the judge she won’t do what the state tells her to.  She feels trapped and helpless.  She wants her kids back.

Now, the state can and should do whatever it can to keep children out of harm’s way.  But given the documented higher risk of physical and sexual abuse in foster care, the state must be extremely careful about removing children from homes like this, where Mom has no record of abuse, but simply poor parenting skills, poor education and poor language skills.  Because the standard for return cannot be that the parent in question must suddenly become a white, educated, middle class, soccer mom complete with a well-employed steady partner and an SUV, a large backyard, and a friendly dog.

Every child deserves a safe and happy home.  But to what degree will removing kids from a not-that-great home – where there is no ongoing abuse – improve their lives?  And given that parenting is a fundamental right under our legal system, we have to make some very difficult decisions about how good “good enough” is in the parenting department.  All families are not going to look alike, act alike, or share the same religion or core values.  Or even the same hygiene.  All families are not going to have the same income and education.  These disparities are reflections of our economic and social inequities, but we will not solve them by demanding that poor parents stop being poor, or that all families must look exactly alike, before they are allowed to raise their own children.

Again, I have the utmost respect for those workers who can handle being in the trenches, visiting homes and having to make that critical decision on whether to remove the children.  And for the judges, who with limited information, must determine whether to reunify the family, or terminate parental rights, or just drag the case on and on in the hopes of future clarity.  I sympathize with the individuals involved.

And yet I still feel compelled to conclude that the state, through its court system, has a huge responsibility in deciding how to carry out its mandate to protect children while respecting a parent’s fundamental rights.  Erring on the side of protecting the children does not necessarily equate with removing the children in every “failure to protect” scenario.  And once removed, the system itself  should be as free from class prejudice, gender prejudice, and race prejudice as humanly possible.

Most importantly, we need to understand that parents do not have to be perfect in order to be a better choice than foster care.  Because this understanding is in the best interests of the children we are trying to protect.