When Child Protective Services in Montgomery County says, “Jump!” you are supposed to respond by asking, “How high?” If you don’t, they will try to make your life miserable. I know because I just ended a five-year battle with them. I was reported to Child Protective Services three times. The first time the investigator said there was no credible evidence to support a charge of neglect. The second and third times, she said there was, but she was overturned by an administrative law judge at fair hearings held by the Office of Children and Family Services.
Never in my life have I encountered the level of rudeness, deception, abuse of power and outright lying that I experienced in my dealings with Montgomery County Child Protective Services. Nevertheless, people continue to write letters to the editor of this newspaper accusing columnist Carl Strock of exaggerating and being unfair when he exposes Child Protective Services. I can tell you from experience that Carl Strock has yet to sound the bottom of the child protective cesspool, if indeed there is one.
The final insult from Child Protective Services came at the first part of my last hearing, which occurred in April of this year. When administrative law judge Susan Preston asked each side to turn over the evidence they would be presenting at the hearing, Montgomery County’s Senior CPS investigator, Marsha Benjamin, handed over material that was part of my last hearing, material which had been sealed by the state. The distribution of sealed material is, if I understand the law correctly, a Class A misdemeanor.
My lawyer wrote a letter to the Department of Social Services notifying them that the material was from a sealed case. The department quickly withdrew from the hearing, and we received a letter from the state a few weeks ago notifying us that we had won the hearing.
I’ve written about Child Protective Services a couple of times in the past few years, and the conclusion that I came to in the past still remains: namely, that CPS needs to be overhauled. I’m not alone in that conclusion.
Buried deep in the enormous bowels of the Internet, I found a New York state-appointed organization, the Citizens Review Panels of Child Protective Services. I was amazed to find that there are three panels that regularly hold hearings about CPS, review CPS agencies and make recommendations to the Office of Children and Family Services. I read several of their annual reports and was pleased to find that many of their recommendations to New York State line up with mine.
Their recommendations include eliminating anonymous reporting, letting school districts deal with educational neglect, focusing on prevention, and revising civil service requirements for investigators. I highly recommend an article in the 2007 annual report which asks, “Is it time to rethink our child protection system?”
It essentially argues that in 1979, the child protective system was cobbled together in a hurry, changes over the years have made the situation worse, and only systemic reform will make a difference. Much of the article is summarized in the following paragraph:
“Today, Child Protective Services is a system to receive, investigate, and make determinations of reports of suspected child maltreatment. Originally conceived as a way to protect children by helping families to take better care of their children, the system has increasingly failed to achieve that goal. We pour billions of dollars into our child welfare system. And yet the deaths still come; after four decades, the number of deaths of children due to abuse has hardly changed. Indeed, experience has shown that highly-publicized deaths lead to more reports and more removals. Some observers have noted that greater removals, rather than making children safer, leads to more deaths.”
The panels state clearly that we don’t need any more Band-Aid solutions, such as laws named after dead children that make legislators look good but don’t answer the fundamental questions, which are as follows:
“Are New York’s children and families better off because of contact with Child Protective Services? For far too many, the answer is no. We call for a fundamental review of statute, policy and practice. Can a structure such as CPS really keep children safe? Can families needing help and engagement possibly be served by a punitive, criminal-justice model system? How can we mobilize other institutions to improve the lives of families and reduce maltreatment? And finally, how can we conscientiously separate the good elements of our current system from those that need improvement, and build upon the good?”
It is not just obscure people like me, or columnists like Carl Strock, who are asking these questions. The panels issuing these reports are made up of social workers, lawyers, educators, non-profit child welfare agencies and the like. Each panel is about as close to a blue ribbon panel as you can get.
They are asking the right questions. But is anyone in New York state’s Office of Children and Family Services or in the New York state Legislature listening?
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.