In her early thirties, all five of “Kate’s” children were placed in kinship care and foster care. Her parental rights were terminated after 11 months. Kate was unemployed at the time and her partner worked as a skilled-craftsman. Between them, their annual income was considerably below the poverty line for a family of seven. She believes that if she had known her rights as a parent at the time, she would not have lost custody of her children. “My constitutional rights were never enforced. They used my ignorance to my rights against me and led me to believe that they had just cause. By the time I learned my rights, it was too late. Their lies were in place and since I was a drug addict, I was below their opinions.”

She admits to using drugs at the time (but did not say what type), but also that her children were “in school every day, clean, ate 3 hot, cooked meals and were involved in extra curricular activities. They had friends and playmates over every day. I am not denying my problem, but it did not interfere with my kids’ everyday life.” Because of this, she feels CPS interference was unjustified. When asked about whether any professionals advocated on her behalf, she replied, “No!  I was tricked into signing an admission statement so my newborn could come home. From there, they fabricated and twisted everything around. I never had a chance!”  She also disbelieved that the system worked on behalf of her children, “My kids were nothing but a paycheck. I believe that they [social workers and child protective services workers] have too much power and they prey on people who do not know their rights. And if they are like I was, they believe these people were going to help, when in reality they were just assuring a paycheck.”

However, her experiences with the foster parents who cared for her children were positive. “Praise the Lord. The foster parents treated my children well. Thankfully, I was blessed with wonderful foster parents who loved my kids and they loved them as well.”  But overall, she feels her children were treated badly by the system:  “CPS workers and counselors told my kids they couldn’t cry for us. They were even placed in time out for crying to come home. They were not allowed to express feelings and they would be threatened with cutting off visitation with us if they cried at the end of visits. They were not allowed the court-ordered phone calls or make-up visits when caseworkers cancelled visits. I believe it’s a corrupt system. It’s not about helping families. Judgment is passed as soon as CPS becomes involved. We were treated like we were lowlifes that had no ability to change. We were never even given a fair chance to.”

For Kate, the system completely failed her family. She believes that the purpose of the system is to “help families be stronger and get help whether it’s for drugs, abuse, mental disorders. They are supposed to help find a better way to improve quality of life KEEPING FAMILIES TOGETHER.” But she also feels nothing in the system works. “None of the outside corresponding agencies, nor CPS themselves, upheld or worked together to help my family reach reunification.”

Insights:  Kate clearly believes that other parents struggling with addiction had similar circumstances to her—and low opportunity for reunification. This is has been supported by other social workers and court workers I have worked with. If the drug ab/use is alcohol or marijuana, there is often a good chance for reunification if the family income and household are stable. Conversely, when the drugs are meth or heroine, parental rights are generally terminated quickly because there is little expectation of fulfilling parental requirements to regain custody by the state-mandated timelines. We don’t know which drugs were in use in Kate’s case, but if they less addictive drugs, the quick termination of her parental rights is uncommon. It is also strange that if Kate’s kids were clean, healthy, fed, and involved that they would have had so unfavorable a court decision. If we take Kate at her word (and I think we should), she did not get a fair shake at all. It is probable that the very low income for a family of such considerable size played a large part, perhaps unspoken, in the decision.

This raises an important social and political question: should the state be able to take children from their families based on poverty? Or, perhaps more accurately, should poverty be a justification for loss of custody? Should the state be able to take one’s children away because a family is impoverished?

If you think they should be able to, you probably put the welfare of the children above all other considerations and believe that the state can do a better job than a truly poor family at raising those children. (I would question whether or not the state can be a viable parent, but that is another question.)  If you think the state should not be able to, you probably air on the side of personal rights and the sanctity of family, which is ostensibly upheld by the Constitution, as Kate argues. In 1977, U.S. Supreme court decided the case of Moore v. East Cleveland and determined that the Constitution does protect the inviolability of the family because “the institution of the family is deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.”  This supports the civil right of parents to raise their children (whether they are poor or not). The commentary on the Troxel v. Granville case in 2000 is particularly interesting. Although the majority of the court upheld the parental rights (in this case, deciding that parents did not have to allow grandparents visitation of grandchildren), Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas both argued that the Constitution does not provide any protection to parents to raise their children.