Both of “George’s” children were placed into CPS custody after he reported that they were abused by one of his relatives. His two children are still in state care, but his parental rights have not been terminated. His family income was middle class at the time of the report, and he is still employed although his family income has dropped by half since the incident. I have kept his story as close to verbatim as possible. Readers, be warned of the disturbing nature of his story. His children were placed in foster family care and institutional care.
“I reported the sexual abuse of my four-year-old son to the police, by my [relative]. CPS asked for an interview with my son and they kept him. Then they made me go get my daughter, and CPS ripped my daughter out of my arms. 30 days later, [they] said I did not do anything wrong except report abuse. My children were beat, starved, forced to urinate and defecate on themselves, were hit and forced to take drugs, slapped until they took the harmful handful of pills. My son was help under water until he passed out and CPS would not do anything. My daughter was hit with belts and wooden spoons. My daughter is now handicapped – brain-damaged for life and was close to stroking out when she was returned. CPS refused to place them in any family home and refused to place them according to ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act].”
George did not feel that the system worked on his behalf or that they supported his children. “My lawyer worked for CPS and I ran out of money for my private attorney.” If they had been working in the best interest of the children “they would not have tried to kill my children.” When asked what could have been done that wasn’t in his case, George said that the professionals did not follow the law and should have followed their own rules. He also said they could have been offered family-based safety services (but apparently were not). He thinks for the foster families, “it was about money.” (Presumably, he means they were motivated by money and that is how his children came to be abused while in foster care. I could not follow up with him because he didn’t share his contact information.) What works well in the foster care system? “Money-kids for profit.” That answer is cryptic, but he sounds like he is saying that making money is all the system does well, although not right. What is broken, or doesn’t work, in the foster care system? “My children.”
When asked to describe the social workers and child protective services workers he interacted with, George used only one word, “Liars.” About the other professionals, he said, “The judge is ok. The psychologist is paid by the state to say what CPS wants them to say. I had to hire many of my own just to get all the same good results.”
George’s story, like so many others shared here, portrays the system as the primary abuser. And, it is also rife with accusations of corruption. Not only were his children abused in care, but his federal rights were violated under the Indian Child Welfare Act (which promises families with tribal affiliations that other family or tribal members will be sought first to ensure the cultural sanctity of Indian families and traditions).
But I would like to focus most on an important component of George’s story: he points out the questionability of testimony offered by psychologists and the loyalty of court-appointed lawyers. I am going to discuss both sides of the coin here, to the best of my ability.
In an ideal world, these are professionals who advocate for their client apart from who writes their checks. The psychologist would offer their professional opinion apart from any personal beliefs and apart from whatever the social worker is recommending (also, that may differ from CASA advocate, the child’s desires, the parents’ desires, and so on). Impartiality is the ideal. Naturally, the same is true for the lawyers. Court-appointed attorneys are paid by the government (usually the county) that is also the entity bringing charges against the family. Because most families interacting with the foster care system are impoverished, working-class, or middle-class, the vast majority cannot afford their own lawyer. So the court appoints them one, as their legal right. The American Bar Association recognizes that there is a conflict of interest in some of these cases. For example, consider this commentary on page 9 of the Bar’s standards for parent’s rights: “Although the burden of proof is on the child welfare agency, in practice the parent and the parent’s attorney generally must demonstrate that the parent can adequately care for the child.” If the practice is for parents to demonstrate that they are adequate caregivers, the burden is not actually on child welfare to prove otherwise. The bar also recommends that ideally the parents’ lawyer is actively representing them during the prepetition phase of the case (when CPS is deciding whether to file a petition for removal), but in reality “few jurisdictions permit parents’ attorneys to begin their representation before the child welfare agency files a petition with the court” (pg 10). Perhaps the most critical conflict is with investigation. “A thorough investigation is an essential element of preparation. The parent’s attorney can not rely solely on the agency caseworker reports about the parent” (pg. 19) However, the commentary adds, “In some jurisdictions, parents’ attorneys work with social workers or investigators who can meet with clients and assist in investigating the underlying issues that arise as a case proceeds” (pg. 19). If a parent’s attorney is working with the social workers who represent the state, how can a parent trust their interest is being served by their lawyer?
Even in a case where the parents’ court-appointed attorney is acting with utmost professionalism and serving the parent to the best of their ability, the parent could perceive they are not because of these conflicts. Indeed, a parent has no guarantee their interests are being served. And many parents, like George, insist their interests were not served at all. This can certainly look like corruption to the parents and families.