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Sol: Single mother

I don't think I could ever be a normal mom without

having to think about the department. I'm walking on eggshells. I don't think that's how you're

supposed to live as a parent.


Eleanor: Single Mother

What DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services]

doesn't realize is that when they take these

children from their parents, they're not just separating

the child from the parent, they're separating the parent from the child. It's trauma on both ends.


Adrian and Vanessa: Parents

It was scary because I didn't know how to react to it.  They're kidnapping my son. That's the way I looked at it.


TOS: Every year, more than 3 million children are subjected to investigations by child welfare authorities in the US... 80% are unfounded.


TOS: The US child welfare system’s stated purpose is to protect children, but too often it causes harm.


TOS: The US should provide families with support to stay together.


Angela Olivia Burton: Lawyer

The primary reason for child welfare involvement is neglect.


TOS: ne·glect: A parent or caregiver failing to provide adequate food, clothing,

shelter, medical care, or supervision in ways that threaten the

wellbeing of the child.

*Statutory definitions vary by state.


Angela Olivia Burton:

Which is a very broad, very amorphously

 defined concept that that basically conflates with poverty.


These conditions that are related to

poverty such as homelessness, such as lack of access to childcare, such as food insecurity, all these things are being criminalized by a system that does not provide the

solutions to those conditions but rather takes families through

an entire court process of prosecution, that oftentimes leads to trauma, disruption and actual

destruction of family ties.


Nat pop:- -  I love you.

- Thank you, I love you too. Are you gonna have a good day?



My life before DCFS involvement was great. Every day was full of laughter and definitely loudness.  We'd do our turn-up hour we would dance, sing, and have a bunch of little party turn up really quick before bed.


TOS: Eleanor is a single mother. Child protective services investigated her for suspected neglect in 2018.



DCFS asked me to do a drug test and

I tested positive for marijuana, of course, because I use it medicinally.  At that time, the judge said, we're going to

make children ward of the state, but they'll stay in your care.


Nat pop:

- Are you excited to see your kids?


-  Yeah


- How do you feel every Thursday

when you go and see them?


- How do you feel every Thursday

when you go and see them?


- I’m usually happy and sad at the same time.


Angela Burton:

Court-ordered supervision or

sometimes called family maintenance, is a very invasive and very

intrusive government intervention into the privacy of the family.


Nat pop: - One likes Takis.



The social worker was making me upset because she

would pop up at my kid's school. She would pop up in my house and

I'd be in the middle of cooking dinner and she was like,

"Can you turn the dinner off?"

I started to get frustrated like,

you're coming here every two weeks, you're stopping my day,

now you want to do a walkthrough, you want me to undress the kids, you want to take my children in the rooms interrogate

them and ask them very inappropriate questions. That is very...very inappropriate.


Josh Michtom: Public Defender

If you're looking for a reason to say there's some risk, if you keep looking, you could probably find

something in any family. They can take note of many small things. And there's just so much discretion for the

case worker to come in and decide.



For me, it's defamation of character, because in those reports when I read them, it feels like I'm reading a story about someone else.


TOS: Black children are twice as likely to be investigated as white children and are more likely to be separated from their families.


TOS: Single mothers are held responsible for “neglect” more often than two-parent households.



When they come to your house,

they perceive you as a people, not as an individual. "You're Eleanor, you're Black.

You must have problems and you need our help." You best believe, if you've got money,

DCFS won't knock on your door because you just hand them a card to your lawyer.


TOS: In November 2019, Eleanor’s children were removed from her custody due to the conditions of her home and because she rescheduled her child’s medical appointment. 



You’ve got that whole day of November 1st, right? I sent my kids to school in their Halloween costumes. Three o'clock, when I went to pick up

my kids from the bus, they didn't get off. I will never forget that feeling... because I knew then, that they took

my kids without me knowing. No one called me to tell me

they took my children from me. No one gave me any paperwork.

No one gave me a warrant. No one gave me anything. 


TOS: Sol, a single mother of 4, called 911 after she suspected her then-partner had hurt their baby.



When the police and the

ambulance got to my home, their father was gone. I met initially with a DCF investigator

who questioned me, asked me what happened. From there on, a lot of it is a blur because it was so traumatizing. Within the week, I had already

 lost custody of the kids. I wasn't allowed to go back

to the hospital to see my son.  So once the court took

temporary custody the kids were placed into the foster system.


Josh Michtom:

The legal removal from her care happened while she was at the hospital and without a full discussion of what it was.



Nobody explained to me anything of

the order of temporary custody, nobody explained to me the petition

 to terminate my parental rights.


Josh Michtom:

Remember, she didn't have a lawyer yet at that point. So, in those moments, the parent really has

no leverage, no ability to negotiate, and no one to tell them, other than the agency, what's going on and what are the variables.


Nat pop: I love you and have a good day.


Vanessa and Adrian:

DCF was aware of us because, I had a prior case, which I didn't reunify with my children, and Adrian tested positive for drugs from his parole officer. - Supposably.


TOS: Vanessa was unable to take a voluntary drug test for medical reasons.

A few weeks later, Vanessa and Adrian’s son was removed from their custody.


Vanessa and Adrian:

Automatically they [DCF] assumed that I was dirty, and that led to the removal of Maximus. That is all they needed. They said it was the allegation of neglect. So they just painted a picture of their own.


Vanessa and Adrian:

At the beginning,

 we only got to see him twice a week. Our son is getting closer to this other family,

we're not seeing him as often and as much. - He was more quiet,

like when we had visits. - He was more closed off. - He wasn't playful with us though. He wasn't playful with us like he was the foster family.



My oldest is the one that gets hit the hardest. His trauma is behavioral...

emotionally, anxiety. He suffers from PTSD.



They [DCFS] are not protecting our children. They're giving our

children to random people and expecting them to care about

our kids the same way we do.


Nat pop: September 29th, 2022 .

Color for today is brown.


Vanessa and Adrian:

They assigned us requirements to do

in order to get Max back. Individual therapy sessions,

parenting classes, substance abuse classes, along with random color testing.


Nat pop: So, today is brown meaning anybody who

was assigned the color brown has to go and do their pee test for drugs. Today is not our color though, mine is pink and Adrian’s is red.



I completed all my steps

before my six months. So, what do you want me to do?

Double up everything? I finished it already. I did what I was supposed to. And they still held on to my kids for three years.


Angela Burton:

Often these service plans

really have nothing to do with either the issues that brought

the family into the system or with their needs or their desires

or anything that will benefit them.



They never ask you

what actually helps you.


Angela Burton:

The thing is, you're never quite free from them [DFC]. A poor parent exists in a web of surveillance and expectation and lack.


Josh Michtom:

The system spends about 10 times more on investigation, separation,

and terminating children's rights and adoption, than it does on so-called preventive services that would be accessible for parents to avoid

having to come into the child welfare system.


TOS: Each year, more than 200,000 children enter the foster system.

Tens of thousands of parents have their rights terminated every year.


TOS: Eleanor has two-hour visitations with her children once a week.

She is still fighting to keep her parental rights and her children back. 



After your rights are terminated, then they give you one final visit, and when you think about a final visit with your four-year-old and your three-year-old, it's a really long time... it's a really long time for them to be 18.


TOS: Sol and her four children reunited in 2017. Since then, she has had two more cases opened against her by CPS, with no findings of neglect.  


TOS: Adrian and Vanessa have their son back, and are under family supervision.


Vanessa and Adrian:

There's something completely wrong with

their structure of how they go about, determining on if a child is really

being neglected or if a parent just needs some type of guidance, needs some therapy,

needs some help for the substance abuse class, or needs somebody just to talk

 to because they're depressed.


Angela Burton:

We already know that poverty is the main driver. Put that money into communities,

we know the zip codes, we know what the conditions

of those communities are.



As far as what my children have endured

in these past three years, it's going to be a huge adjustment. They're not the same kids. Those are traumatized children. Those are children that have been through something.  I feel like I'd be the best

person to fix all those problems.  Would it be easy? No. It's going to be a hellified road.  Am I ready for it? Yes. Am I willing to take it on? A hundred percent. I gave birth to all those kids, and I would give my life for all those kids.


(New York) – Child welfare systems in the United States too often treat poverty as the basis for charges of neglect and decisions to remove children from their parents, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report released today. The system’s disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous families and people living in poverty, and the sheer number of children removed unjustly, make this a national crisis warranting immediate attention and action.

The 146-page report, “‘If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit’: The Family Separation Crisis in the US Child Welfare System,” documents how conditions of poverty, such as a family’s struggle to pay rent or maintain housing, are misconstrued as neglect, and interpreted as evidence of an inability and lack of fitness to parent. Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in child welfare involvement. Black children are almost twice as likely to experience investigations as white children and more likely to be separated from their families.

“The child welfare system punishes parents for poverty by taking their children away,” said Hina Naveed, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the author of the report. “Parents need resources to help provide for their families, but what they are getting is surveillance, regulation, and punishment.”

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU analyzed national and state data on income and poverty levels, child maltreatment, and the foster system, and interviewed 138 people, including affected parents and caregivers, attorneys, government workers, local, state, and national advocates, and others.

One in three children in the US will be part of a child welfare investigation by age 18. Nearly eight million children were referred to a child maltreatment hotline in 2019, with investigations resulting for three million of them. More than 80 percent were found not to have faced abuse or neglect.

One woman told us her son injured himself when he slipped on water while dancing in the kitchen. “I rushed him to the emergency room when he got hurt. The doctors asked me questions, and I told them everything.” She was shocked to learn they reported her to child protective services for suspected abuse, triggering a cascade of interventions that she said deeply harmed her children and damaged their relationship.

Adrian, a father from California, holds his 1-year-old son Max in their home. Child welfare authorities removed Max from Adrian’s care as an infant, but the family has since reunited. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found that nearly 75 percent of child maltreatment cases nationwide in 2019 involved “neglect” as defined by the system.

A 52-year-old mother from Oklahoma said the condition of her small mobile home was a factor in a child welfare investigation that caused her to lose custody of her 8-year-old son. “They said [one reason] was because we had no running water, but I had like 12 gallons in my camper,” she said. “We were looking for a [larger] place to rent and hadn’t found one yet.”

Counties with higher poverty rates have higher rates of maltreatment investigations. But investigation rates are high for Black families even in counties with low rates of poverty.

Black and Indigenous families are disproportionately affected. Black children make up just 13 percent of the US child population but 24 percent of child abuse or neglect reports and 21 percent of children entering the foster system. White children make up 50 percent of the US child population, and 46 percent of the children in abuse or neglect reports and entering the foster system.

Indigenous children enter the foster system at nearly double the nationwide rate. Indigenous parents are up to four times more likely to have their children taken than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

On November 9, 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Brackeen v Haaland, a case challenging the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires state courts to make active efforts to keep Native families together. The case could have significant consequences for Native children, families, and communities. A decision is expected by June 2023.

Investigations are often highly stressful, and even traumatizing, for children and their families, including unannounced home and school visits and body checks.

Broad and vague state definitions of abuse and neglect allow caseworkers to make subjective determinations. If a caseworker or agency determines that abuse or neglect has occurred, the parents or other caregivers are listed on a state central registry, often for years. This adversely affects their employment and ability to foster other children, including their own relatives.

Removing a child from their parents, even for a short time, can be highly traumatizing, with long-term consequences, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. In some cases, children in out-of-home placements experience maltreatment, including sexual or physical abuse, causing further trauma.

Parents working to reunite with their children may be allowed to visit with their child, but often under the supervision of a caseworker, leading to awkward interactions that may be used against parents as evidence of lack of parental bonding.

“It takes a toll on me every single time I leave my visit,” said a California mother.

More than 250,000 children entered the foster system in 2019. The parents of nearly 61,000 children had their parental rights terminated that year. Parents said their families were “torn apart” or “destroyed” when parental rights were terminated.

Conditions of poverty, including housing instability or the inability to take off work or pay for travel and other costs, makes it difficult for parents living in poverty to reunite with their children.

The number of children placed in the foster system due to parental alcohol or drug use has more than doubled in the last two decades. The child welfare system indiscriminately punishes parental use of any substance, even legal or medically indicated substances, without clear evidence of harm or risk to the child. In some cases, parents in recovery said their adherence to medically indicated treatment plans was used against them.

Parents have fewer due process protections in child welfare cases than in the criminal legal system. “I wish this happened in criminal court,” said a California father. “At least we would get a jury trial.”

Parents often lack information on rights and adequate legal support as they fight to keep their children, limiting their ability to assert their rights, respond to charges, and appeal. Many child welfare interventions happen without judicial oversight.

Federal, state, and local authorities should take immediate measures to reduce the harmful impact of child welfare interventions and to strengthen and support families and communities to prevent child maltreatment. Expanding social protection programs, such as the child tax credit, can provide families with much needed financial support that may help reduce and prevent neglect, as defined by states, rooted in poverty.

Officials should hold public hearings to hear from affected families, ensure that poverty-related circumstances are no longer penalized, replace anonymous reporting with secure confidential reporting, reduce unnecessary interventions, increase due process protections for parents, and give parents more meaningful support that addresses their needs without subjecting them to surveillance and regulation.

“The harm caused by the child welfare system is so severe that the entire system needs rethinking,” Naveed said. “Long-term change requires addressing the extreme economic hardship at the heart of many child welfare cases and the corrosive impact of systemic racism.”

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