I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If the people who profess a principled antipathy to government wanted to do something useful they could start by monitoring the doings of their county departments of social services and family courts. In my experience that’s where the real, practical intrusion of government into private lives occurs, as opposed to the theoretical kind.
Case in point, my old friend Angel Bishop, who was back in Schenectady County Family Court last week trying to recover her kids after yet another contretemps. Maybe you remember her from a few years ago, when her kids were taken from her on the flimsiest grounds of neglect and she had to jump through multiple hoops over the course of months to get them back.
She is a young single woman with three kids [two back then], a slender education, no job skills, little family support, no employment. In other words, the standard profile for the kind of person that comes to the attention of the Department of Social Services and its child-protection workers.
She screwed up this time, no question about it. She was babysitting for nine kids, including her own three, at a friend’s house in Colonie, and in the midst of the predictable chaos, her 2-year-old and another child got into a bottle of medicine that had been left within reach and gobbled some unknown quantity of pills. The medicine was Clonidine, a product designed to counter the side-effects of stimulants like Ritalin which are prescribed for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. (Thus does the pharmaceutical industry see to its own market.) It supposedly helps kids sleep after they have been stimulated.
Angel had actually given her own kid half a pill, even though it was not prescribed for him, because one of the other kids was getting the same, by prescription. She thought it would help him sleep. Half an hour or so later the two kids got into the bottle, with the result that both kids had to be rushed to the emergency room. I don’t know the details of the second kid, but Angel’s kid was in critical condition for a while at Albany Med, and a nurse said, “It could have gone tragic.”
What would be a reasonable response to this near-disaster? What would you do about it if you were in a position of authority?
Well, the response of Schenectady County’s child protective services was not only to take the 2-year-old away from Angel, in the hospital, and turn him over to a foster family of strangers, but also to go to Colonie and take the 9-year-old daughter and the 14-year-old son and turn them over to a foster family too.
They are empowered by law to do such a thing only if there is “imminent danger to the child’s life or health.”
Three days later we were in court theoretically to determine if there was such imminent danger. In fact the question scarcely came up — which is just as well, since it would be hard to imagine any such danger to the older kids, and a stretch to imagine it for the younger one, too. The danger even for him was in the past, and Angel was much sobered by it.
But there we were up on the fifth floor of the Schenectady County Office Building, in Family Court, with caseworker Amelia Mindel and supervisor Jane Reimann solemnly walking through the sorry facts of the case without mentioning any pending danger from which the children needed to be rescued, indeed with Ms. Reimann even acknowledging that she had made no determination as to whether Angel had any prescription medicines in her own home.
Did Angel’s court-appointed lawyer, young John Lockwood of the Public Defender’s office, jump all over this omission? Not at all. In fact, before going into court he advised Angel that the county had a strong case against her because she had admitted giving her child that half pill. As for the imminence of any danger, which I had the boldness to inquire about, well, that was subjective, he said.
Then surely the law guardian, Rosemary Hoag, appointed by the court to represent the interests of the children, raised the question? What is the danger going forward, especially the immediate danger that could be considered imminent? But no again. Not a mention.
And the judge, Jo Anne Assini, likewise. She barely mentioned it except for quoting the relevant words of the law, “imminent danger to the child’s life or health,” as if that were that.
What’s worse, she read her lengthy and seemingly reasonable decision immediately after Angel herself finished testifying, meaning it had obviously been written ahead of time, and without taking into account anything Angel said. She didn’t even seem to understand that the child must have been sickened by the large quantity of pills he got into on his own rather than by the half-pill that his mother gave him.
“She gave the child a pill that was not prescribed, and he became so sick he lost consciousness,” the judge said.
Did it matter that “Angel and her family are a very close family … The family really does love each other,” as the caseworker testified?
No, it didn’t.
Did it matter that the law guardian, theoretically advocating for the children, said in her summary, “My clients desperately want to go home with their mother … I’d like them to go home.”
No, again. The judge asked her incredulously, “You want them to go home now?” And Ms. Hoag responded defensively, “I’m advocating for the children,” as if to say, I’m just passing along what they say, it’s not what I really think.
And of course it didn’t matter that the 14-year-old boy physically resisted being taken away to the extent that it took several police officers to subdue him.
No, a “removal” — the official word — is a removal. It’s what government knows how to do, to put this back in government terms.
There are studies showing that except in the most extreme cases of abuse, children do worse in foster care than they do in their own homes, but in my experience, caseworkers and judges take no notice.
Their knee-jerk reaction when there is trouble in a family is to do a “removal,” at least if the family is poor and low class.
Imagine for yourself what the effect must be on a child to be legally kidnapped like that.
In this case clearly it’s punishment. The children are not being rescued from any imminent danger, there being no imminent danger. They are being used to punish Angel for her carelessness, and to force her into the usual smorgasbord of counseling sessions, which she may or may not pass.
If the people who get agitated about government health-care would get agitated about government agencies using children as a cudgel like this, and if they’d show up to picket in front of Family Court or in front of Social Services offices, I would take them a little more seriously.