Child Abuse and Neglect

Horrific child-abuse cases make headlines, and we are thankful that those children were saved from the horrors in which they lived and will hopefully get set up for a brighter future. But not all cases of abuse or neglect are so clear cut. Of course, when authorities suspect a child is in danger, they must remove her from her home while the situation is assessed and sorted out. But what happens next? Should a child be returned to her parents? Or should she be kept in temporary foster homes until her parents can be trusted to resume custody safely? And when is it appropriate to take that ultimate step of severing permanently the ties between a child and his parents and having him adopted by new parents?

A recent article in the New Yorker highlighted some of the difficult issues facing social workers, judges, and others who must make these life-or-death decisions. Rachel Aviv, the article's author, also raises serious questions about some of the assumptions under which this system operates. "What's best for the child" is, of course, the goal and the argument both sides invoke in these disputes. But what is truly best for the child is not always clear.

Aviv traces the historical shifts in how child-welfare experts have approached this issue: Originally, the goal was to keep families together in nearly all situations, but over the past 40 years, authorities have put increasing emphasis on moving these children permanently to new homes via adoption. This policy was encouraged through various governmental policies, including the 1997 Adoption and Safe Children's Act, which sped up the timeline for adoption and gave states financial incentives to boost the rates at which children were adopted from foster care.

By delving into a single, powerful case study, Aviv illustrates many of the thorny issues and deeply problematic assumptions under which the system currently operates and gives credence to those, like Coupet and Guggenheim, calling for a new approach.

This argument is not in any way to defend abusive parents at the expense of their innocent children, who we must continue to protect with every weapon at our disposal; the effects--physical and psychological--of severe or chronic abuse or neglect are dramatic and horrific and can last a lifetime. But for the many kids removed from their parents' homes that are not victims of abuse like this, that nagging question of what is best for the child might not be as clear-cut as the reigning system has made it seem.

Niveen Ismail, an immigrant living in California and a single mother, did the unthinkable: She left her 3-year-old son home alone while she went to work, worried that she'd lose her job if she missed another day because of child-care problems. Someone heard him screaming for his mother and called police, who took him to a home for abused children. Niveen was allowed only twice-weekly, 90-minute supervised visits, during which caseworkers observed and took notes, her interactions during these moments crucial to the decision on whether she'd regain custody of her son.

The boy was put into foster care, with Niveen re-evaluated every six months or so to see if she was fit to resume custody. During this period, she attended parenting classes, started therapy and antidepressants, hired a parenting coach, and navigated the legal system. Niveen called it learning to "parent American style," since she was raised in a more hands-off manner than the court and caseworkers were looking to see from her.

However, caseworkers' criticisms of her parenting skills mounted, with a list of complaints that, quite frankly, many of us could be guilty of: "Niveen offered Adam (the pseudonym Aviv uses for the boy) too many toys to play with...  She failed to assemble a telescope before presenting it to him as a gift. She didn't carry a purse, her pants were wrinkled, her hair was uncombed, and her sweater had rust-colored stains."

There were other strikes against her: Niveen often had a combative attitude toward caseworkers, kept her house a mess, initially lied about the circumstances of the original incident, and was accused of not taking her situation seriously.

In the end, Niveen lost custody of her son forever. He was adopted by the foster family with whom he lived for several months. Niveen's request that he be placed with a Muslim family, to preserve his heritage, was denied.

I've greatly condensed her story, which Aviv recounts in great detail, and caseworkers and the judge deciding her case no doubt had an extreme challenge in figuring out what was best for this boy and so many like him. But Niveen certainly comes off as a woman who needs help, not the permanent loss of a child. She was an overwhelmed single mother trying to hold down a job to support herself and her child; she lacked family, a partner, and a social support network. That's not to excuse her decision to leave her son alone, and authorities were correct to remove him from her home at first. But she seems like a prime example of the push for adoption gone too far, and a situation where we can reconsider the dominant thinking in light of the new research Aviv outlines.

The case raises several difficult issues, in my mind:

  • Where was the baby's father? Why wasn't he offered custody of his child, or required to pay child support? After all, Niveen's horrible decision could have been avoided altogether had she been able to afford a more reliable child care situation.
  • So much seems to have rested on the observations caseworkers made during Niveen's supervised visits with her son, during which every interaction between them was analyzed, and more often than not, used as evidence that she was unfit to resume custody. Niveen was forced to speak English instead of her native Arabic with her son, so that caseworkers would understand her. But how can we draw any reliable conclusions from these artificial situations? If I saw my child once or twice per week for 90 minutes at a time in an unfamiliar location in a less-familiar language, I would also be indulgent of my child and let her act in ways I wouldn't at home.
  • Over the course of 18 months in foster care, Niveen's son grew attached to his foster family and began preferring them to Niveen, another issue cited as a reason to make the arrangement permanent through adoption. But is there any wonder that a young son began to love a family that cared for his daily needs and offered him a loving household—and that he grew distant from a mother he saw infrequently, in strange situations, and who was barred by law from having a deeper relationship with him?

Putting a child up for adoption against parents' wishes is an irreversible decision. Of course, there are cases where this is necessary, and the foster parents who take in these children and the adoptive parents who give them a new life are heroes for doing so. And let's not forget how overworked, overwhelmed and underfunded most child-welfare agencies are. Or that one wrong decision, one child left at home, can lead to horrible tragedy. I don't envy the decisions that need to be made; they must be agonizing for everyone involved.

But I can't get Aviv's article or Niveen's case out of my head. In cases like hers, there must be a better way than having that child grow up with a new family. We should be offering parents like her the help they need and pushing for policies that support working families and ensure affordable child care for all. Thankfully, the experts Aviv highlight point to a new way of thinking that may bring a fresh approach to these matters, one that will benefit kids and parents alike in the long run.

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