A South Carolina woman was arrested earlier this month for allegedly letting her 9 year-old daughter play alone in the park while she went to work at McDonald’s. The mother had given her daughter a cell phone for safety’s sake, but a concerned stranger’s call to Child Protective Services led to the mother’s incarceration and loss of custody. Bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum are outraged over what they are calling a case of helicopter parenting gone mad. On Twitter, stories of “When I was a kid…” abound.
I wholeheartedly share their shock and dismay. (Seriously, couldn’t CPS have merely talked to the mother and helped her find a friend or a caregiver whose home could be a base for the girl during mom’s eight-hour shift?) But I am concerned about the mounting vitriol aimed at those whose jobs it is to protect the child. I grew up among social workers. And these bloggers, while rightfully critical, are failing to acknowledge that the mind-your-own-damn-business mentality they advocate is exactly what prevails in societies where everyone looks the other way when a child is neglected or abused.
Of course there are terrible social workers out there, just as there are those to be found in any profession who should really be working elsewhere. More importantly, it is dangerous to pretend that institutionalized xenophobia does not exist. A 2012 report revealed ableism appears to be a tremendous problem at CPS, with many disabled parents living in fear of being declared incompetent by social workers with a poor understanding of their abilities. In the South Carolina case, it seems reasonable to postulate that two of the American South’s most infamous cultural institutions—classism and authoritarianism—are what led to a cruel and unusual punishment doled out for what was, at best, a misdemeanor by a working mother.
But while attention to this case is warranted, news outlets tell real-life tales of wrongly accused parents to such an extent that one would assume most actions by CPS are unjustified. The media bias tends toward parents because parents are legally allowed to talk publicly about their children. Were a social worker to attempt to tell his side of story, he would be breaking the law. And children and families grateful to CPS for repairing broken homes rarely head to their local news station to rehash their past personal struggles.
We must acknowledge and condemn every instance of misconduct by social workers, just as we must acknowledge and condemn every case of medical malpractice, and of police brutality. But unlike doctors or police officers, social workers do not enjoy a wealth of Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows glamorizing what they do. Most portrayals in film and on television are fiercely unflattering: from the soulless bureaucrat too obsessed with rules to know love when she sees it, to the more sinister instrument of a government conspiracy to threaten political dissidents by taking away what they hold most dear. These stereotypes invariably evoke sympathy for the devastated parents and children, who wish those heartless busy-bodies would just learn to stay out of other people’s business. Rarely are social workers featured fighting the good fight.
And yet, that’s what they are there to do. Not to get a thrill from ripping crying kids away from their distraught parents, but to listen to every member of the family until they understand the source and extent of the problem. While pop culture promotes individual therapy as a path to wellness on par with yoga or meditation, the idea of family therapy tends to be seen as an outrageous invasion of privacy imposed by some glaring ice queen who is just waiting for the parents to slip up. Yet adept social workers know that the parents of neglected children sometimes have significant learning disabilities or were the victims of abuse themselves. When funding allows, parenting courses are available for those who have a hard time remembering how often diapers need to be changed, or that there are often alternatives to screaming and spanking. Adept social workers also know that neglected children are often overly forgiving of an abusive loved one, just as victims of domestic violence often are. And adept social workers know that children are far more likely to be abused, molested, or kidnapped by a member of their family than by a stranger. As with women, the most dangerous place for a child is their own home.
When I was an 11 year-old on Long Island, there was a report that a girl my age named Katie Beers had been kidnapped from a local arcade where I’d attended birthday parties. The perpetrator turned out to be a friend of the family, who kept her locked in his basement for 17 days. When he broke down and confessed to police, Beers was not returned to her mother, but placed in a foster home. I clearly remember the mother’s tearful face plastered across the headlines: “I just got her back and now they’re taking her away from me!” CPS investigators had discovered that, prior to the kidnapping, Beers’s mother had left her for years in the care of her godparents, where she was treated “like a slave” and repeatedly raped by her godfather. Beers writes today that she was ultimately relieved to be placed in foster care and that, had she not been taken out of her home, she never would have graduated high school, let alone college.
When it comes to the legal rights of the child versus the rights of the parent, the court of public opinion will always be fueled by vitriol. Family court, of course, should transcend this, putting reason and research first and foremost. CPS is undoubtedly rife with problems, many due to its miserable lack of funding. But we as a society will never put forth a sincere effort to endow social workers with enough funding to do their job well until we truly value what they do in the first place.
* Please note that while my sympathy for the social worker’s perspective is inspired by what I’ve learned from those I know, the views and conclusions expressed here are mine and mine alone.