Angel’s kids come home: Thanks a lot

I’m happy to report that Angel Bishop got her children back.

I’m happy to report that Angel Bishop got her children back. After more than five months of forced separation — legal kidnapping, I call it — during which the three children were sent to live with a family of strangers in another county, Schenectady Family Court Judge Jo Anne Assini unaccountably decided the other day they could come home to their mother.

I say unaccountably because nothing substantial had changed since the children were taken from their mother at the end of last August in response to a medical emergency. Angel had been babysitting for nine kids, including her own three, when her littlest one, age 2, got into a bottle of prescription sleeping medicine, probably swallowed a lot of it, and wound up in critical condition at Albany Med.

The response of Schenectady County’s Child Protective Services was not only to take the little one but also to forcibly take the two older ones, a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, an action that in due course was approved by Judge Assini.

The legal grounds for such a child-taking is “imminent danger to the child’s life or health,” of which there didn’t seem to be any, at least not for the two older kids, the danger being past even for the little one, but that’s how Child Protective Services works and that’s how Family Court works: When there’s a problem, grab the kids and ask questions later. Or rather, don’t ask questions, just spend the coming months trying to justify what’s already been done.

In court the other day, the Child Protective Services caseworker still hadn’t given up but continued to argue for the children to remain in foster care even as she conceded that Angel was a caring mother, that she had a safe home for them to return to and that the children very much wanted to return.

The caseworker, Amelia Mindel, was concerned about long-term stability and about Angel’s ability to get her public assistance restored. “The department feels,” she began every explanation, and again I wish the professed opponents of big government could be on hand to hear these things, when real government as opposed to hypothetical bogeyman-government intrudes into people’s lives.

The department apparently felt this mother couldn’t have her own children until she could guarantee them long-term stability, which she will never be able to do, being an unemployed high school dropout with no job skills.

She is living temporarily with an accommodating uncle in Bellevue after her own apartment suffered a collapsed bathroom ceiling and the building went into foreclosure. (Such is life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.)

I was happy to visit her the day after her kids came home, and happy to see how happy they all were to be reunited. Now the kids have to get over the sense of vulnerability and insecurity they must feel as a result of being legally kicked around like a couple of soccer balls.

Can anyone imagine what it must do to a child’s sense of his place in the world to be at the mercy of outsiders who can take them from their mother when they wish? It’s something I’ve never heard discussed in Family Court.

The whole purpose of the legal proceedings, as far as I can tell, was not to protect the children from any imminent danger but simply to punish Angel for her carelessness. It’s how poor people are dealt with.

I say nothing significant changed during the five months the children were away from her, and nothing did, even though Angel was forced to go through the usual routine of counseling and the children had to go through some counseling and therapy of their own.

They’re all the same people. The court punished Angel, that’s all, by using her children against her. And after five months of it, the judge decided that was enough and let her off the hook with some nurturing and encouraging words.

There was something through-the-looking-glass about it. When we came out of the courtroom, the caseworker who had just tried her best to keep the family separated, beamed at Angel and congratulated her in the sincerest way possible, just as if it was the very result she had worked for.

That was the judge’s attitude also: She was so happy for Angel and so supportive, just as if she had had nothing to do with separating her from her kids.

Well, I’ll give her this anyway: In the end she did overrule the caseworker. The caseworker wanted to keep the game going — more counseling, more hoops to jump through, more separation — and the judge said enough is enough.

It’s what passes for courage in Family Court, I guess, the temptation surely being great to err on the side of taking kids away just to avoid the dread possibility that they come to harm in the parent’s care.

You can imagine that scenario for yourself: A professional caseworker recommends that a child be removed from his home and put into foster care because his mother is somehow unfit, causing “imminent danger.” A judge says, no, I don’t think that’s necessary and sends the kid back home, and a little while later — boom! Something happens. The child is beaten, tortured, killed, and the judge has that on her conscience.

So for the most part judges work the rubber stamp. Whatever the caseworkers want, they get, and often enough what they want is their own bread and butter — counseling, therapy, supervised visits — and they keep it going as long as they can.

Judge Assini went along in the first instance when no reasonable person could have said there was any imminent danger to the two older kids. She kept going along for five months of jerking this family around, but finally, on Thursday afternoon, she smiled sweetly at Angel, as if she had never been anything but a surrogate aunt to her, and told her she could have her kids back, with the usual condition of more counseling.

Game suspended. And we were all so happy. Angel immediately got on a cellphone, called the foster family, got her daughter on the phone and said, choking up, “Go pack your stuff, baby. You’re coming home.”

I choked up myself, and tried not to think about the utility of the whole proceeding.

Categories: Opinion

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