Friday, March 28, 2014

Too Poor To Be A Parent?

My parents came for a long visit recently and it was incredible.

Some of my favorite moments were sitting around after the kids had gone to bed and just talking with my parents. I was having one of these quiet late night conversations with my Dad when he told me a story from his childhood. His family were poor and had a lot of kids. They could only afford a small house and so he and his brothers helped their Dad modify part of the backyard chicken coop into a tiny bedroom for my dad and his older brother. The family was very thrifty and after a few years they saved up enough money for a larger house and the two older boys got a room inside.

I'd heard that story before but something finally occurred to me that hadn't before. I turned to my dad and said, "You realize that today, you'd have been removed from your parents home?" Dad frowned and disagreed and I explained to him that one of the major hardships for a friend of mine, a single mother of four, is that she is required to rent a three bedroom apartment or house in order to satisfy Child Protective Services. She has a boy and three girls and the State won't allow different gender children to share a bedroom. They also don't allow parents to share a room with their children. He then protested that she didn't really need to follow those rules because CPS would never check on it and I had to tell him that she had already been investigated by CPS twice based on reports of suspected child abuse and/or neglect filed anonymously. Both times CPS gave her glowing reviews and left her in peace but it seemed that at least two people had reported her anyway.

We live in a society where being a good parent isn't good enough. We live in a society in which you can have your children taken away because you are poor.

I have foster siblings. I am raising a child I adopted out of the foster care system. Foster care is extremely harmful to children and is an acceptable alternative only when the alternative is abuse. Having to share a room with your sisters is not abuse. Having to share a room with your entire family is not abuse.

My friend is a professional writer. She makes a good paycheck, good enough that she doesn't qualify for any assistance with things like three bedroom rent and daycare fees for four children. As a result she struggles to pay for basic needs. Her children wear torn stockings to school sometimes. She can't afford to contribute to PTA fund raisers and she sometimes struggles to buy the extra items that teachers demand during the school year. She feels guilty about this which is heartbreaking. The fact that she feels fear because of these circumstances isn't heartbreaking, it's wrong. She is a supportive, smart, college educated and loving mother. Her children are happy despite the strained financial circumstances. They love to read. They're creative, joyful, wonderful little people who fill my heart with hope for the future. It is wrong that some random woman in a fast food joint can seriously damage or permanently destroy her family.

Recently, another friend of mine was questioned by police at a fast food restaurant. Why? His toddler threw a fit and he took her out to the car for a time out. She responds extremely well to time outs, quickly calmed down and they returned to their dinner only to be almost immediately interrupted by the boys in blue. As it turns out, a fellow diner called the police and claimed that my friend had struck his toddler and dragged her out to the car to do 'God knows what' to her. Very, very fortunately for my friend the restaurant had a security system and the police were able to review footage that belied the accusation. The officers apologized and explained that they had to investigate the report. My friend was much more understanding than I would have been, I think, and quickly put the incident behind him.

But what if there had been no video recording? What if it had been his word against the busy body woman who'd called the police? They would have been required to "take the child into care". Do you think kidnapping is traumatic to children? "Removing a child from custody" is a legal form of kidnapping and is just as traumatic. It ingrains a severe distrust and fear of authority figures. It teaches children that the police aren't there to protect you. They're the people who take you away from your family. It took years for my daughter's terror at the sight of a police officer to abate to mere unease.

This system is broken. It has been broken for a long time. But since it only impacts the most vulnerable among us, we'll probably keep on ignoring it.

After all, who cares about the fate of thousands of children when the Left and Right have provided such exciting polarizing issues over which we can all obsess?

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