Systemic Woes

I very much enjoyed the story of Francine's adoption ("Adoption Pains," November). It was nice to hear a child welfare tale with a happy ending. But I'm afraid that Mr. Sullum has an inadequate understanding of those–by far the majority–that do not end well.

My first clue that he was off base was when he portrayed Paula Hepner as one of the villains of the piece. I worked with Judge Hepner in the mid-'80s, when I was a child welfare worker and she was a lawyer for the Administration for Children's Services (then known as Special Services for Children). She was a dedicated, tireless, and brilliant advocate for the well-being of the children we tried to serve. I don't believe people like her lose that fire.

I wasn't there when she handled Francine's case, so I will grant that she may have made a mistake. But if so, then I feel confident that it was an honest mistake, not one of whim or caprice. And Mr. Sullum can take consolation from this: If his criticisms are even a little bit just, Judge Hepner is likely to take them to heart and subject herself to intense self-examination. That's just the kind of lady she is.

I can assure Mr. Sullum that Judge Hepner was not thinking about her name in The New York Times that day. But he pooh-poohs that she might have been thinking about the following:

1) Joel Steinberg. Mr. Sullum regards it as unlikely that he might be a Joel Steinberg. But of course it was Judge Hepner's duty to try to be sure, not to play percentages. Mr. Steinberg practiced as an adoption lawyer for many years and abused his position to adopt the little girl whom he later tortured and murdered.

2) Lawyers. Mr. Sullum tells us that his lawyer made assurances to the judge. Mr. Sullum, do you routinely trust the assurances of lawyers?

3) The grandmother. Mr. Sullum describes the grandmother as "legally blind and in poor health." His wife was the grandmother's chaplain during a period of bereavement. Wouldn't he expect a judge to make sure consent was given freely, knowingly, without undue influence, and solely with Francine's interests in mind?

4) Relatives. Mr. Sullum tells us that there were no relatives other than the grandmother to assert a claim to Francine. But how could Judge Hepner be sure?

One of Mr. Sullum's most precious possessions today, I'll bet, is the knowledge that Francine's adoption cannot be overturned. To accomplish that power of finality the law goes to lengths to see that all claims are resolved beforehand.

I understand that Mr. Sullum is unhappy with a ruling which presumably sent Francine back to be tied once more into a wheelchair. But I think his anger is misplaced. What kind of hospital ties up a 3-year-old because it cannot give her a safe play environment?

I am sure that the quality of service he received from ACS was atrocious. The most able and (especially) most motivated workers are usually sent to the "front lines," that is, to investigate abuse and neglect reports. This is a job of mind-boggling awfulness. Most quit and many of the rest burn out. The burnouts, and those not considered top-grade from the start, are frequently shuffled into the support jobs. The adoption unit would likely have been one of those.

Child welfare is an awful career path, and in New York, thanks to Mayors Koch and Giuliani, it has gotten worse. The job pays terribly and has now been reduced to a single promotional opportunity.

Mark Reid
Mineola, NY

I was saddened to read about the ordeal Jacob Sullum had to go through to give Francine a warm, loving home, particularly how professionals would risk moving a child from foster home to foster home or use it as a threat. I have worked in state foster care and adoption for 12 years. I have seen the trauma, loss, and lifelong problems children experience from multiple moves. The Sullum's daughter will have enough to deal with in her life having lost her birth mother.

Diane Dexter
Adoption Chief
Department of Social Services
Waterbury, VT

My wife and I are trying to adopt twin boys through the Jewish Child Care Association. My wife quit a lucrative job to stay at home to raise the boys (they just turned 2). We were led to believe that the process would take about six months. It's been a year now, and I don't see an end in sight.

We are working hard to make ends meet. ACS keeps losing forms, the JCCA keeps losing staff, and my wife and I are losing our patience. The boys call us Momma and Daddy and are doing better than they ever have. However, if this process does not end soon we all may lose out and my wife and I will have to move on.

B. Keith Fulton
New York, NY

Having just completed two years in the dependency and adoption division of the circuit court, I found your article depressingly familiar.

Considering that the well-being of a small child is at stake, there is no excuse for it taking two years to investigate prospective adoptive parents. The reason it does, in my opinion, is reluctance by the social services agency and the judges to make a decision until absolutely forced to. Nobody wants to be blamed for making a decision if it later proves tragically wrong. This deliberate indecisiveness perpetuates a system not in the best interests of the children or the adoptive parents.

Dennis Maloney
Circuit Judge
Bartow, FL

Jacob Sullum replies: I thank Ms. Dexter and Judge Maloney for their comments, and I hope that everything works out well for Mr. Fulton and his wife.

Contrary to Mr. Reid's implication, my wife and I were not asking Judge Hepner to finalize the adoption; we were merely seeking temporary custody. Since we had passed the background checks and undergone two home studies–points on which the judge did not need to take our attorney's word, since they were matters of record–this seemed a reasonable request. Whether or not Judge Hepner planned to grant our petition, there was no justification for her hostile and suspicious attitude. Treating my wife and me as if we were trying to pull a fast one, she falsely accused us of lying about the timing of the JCCA home study and other readily verifiable facts.

Mr. Reid emphasizes the need to be "sure" that people seeking to adopt a child will make good parents. But there is always the possibility that seemingly normal, decent people will turn out to be capable of abuse. A system that insisted on certainty about such matters would be a system that never approved an adoption.

Finally, I'd like to make it clear that we believe Francine received good care at the Rusk Institute, where the staff seemed quite competent and compassionate. Given the hazard from the omnipresent wheelchairs, we do not fault them for keeping Francine in one when they were not able to supervise her closely. Her eagerness to get out and run around was simply an indication that she was kept in the hospital longer than necessary–which, though by no means ideal, was preferable to putting her in a foster home.

Parity Disparity

I was saddened by Nick Gillespie's piece on the Educational Testing Service's aborted "strivers" program ("Striving for Parity," November). The program, which would have added SAT points for disadvantages overcome by a student, is redistributive in nature. That is clearly Gillespie's objection, and why he considers it "insidious." Leave the system alone, Gillespie argues, so my son keeps his step up, and so kids with less than my son won't easily surpass him.

I'm old enough to remember a time in this country when it was embarrassing to make arguments that were so blatantly drenched in self-interest. I've also spent the last 12 years working closely with the SAT, and I've witnessed the injury it has done to kids who are poor, rural, underrepresented minority, and female. My work is to help mitigate some of that damage until the test is abolished. The SAT, as it is now configured, gives Gillespie's son a clear advantage. The SAT permits successful parents to efficiently and effectively transmit their college admissions advantages to their children.

At bottom, Gillespie is simply ungracious. He has enjoyed some upward social mobility and wants to maintain his gains. Now he wants to pull up all the ladders and not create any new ones. Gillespie might next argue for strivers points for the rich. But they don't need them–they already have the SAT.

Jay Rosner
The Princeton Review Foundation
Mill Valley, CA

Nick Gillespie's article on the now defunct "strivers" program was one of the most mean-spirited essays REASON has ever published. Is Mr. Gillespie claiming that most children coming from impoverished families and neighborhoods and high schools are not at a disadvantage competing against children from more affluent areas? Is he claiming that society has no obligation to try to level the playing field?

Gillespie writes, "I assume that my son would be hard-pressed under a strivers regime to ever distinguish himself." He seems to believe that his child, with two parents with Ph.D.s, will have a problem competing with those from less advantaged backgrounds. If his son grows up with that sort of logic, he will indeed be hard-pressed to distinguish himself.

Gillespie also states, "By holding against children the advantages parents have worked to give them, programs such as the strivers initiative punish such behavior even as they deny it exists." I presume you have no problem with wealth transfer as well as intellectual and ambition transfer. I must then assume you agree with the plan of many Republican legislators to get rid of the inheritance tax. Let's go all the way to a Third World society, with the better people living on the hill in their gated communities with the one-way glass gazing at the rest of us down below.

Frank Williams
Palo Alto, CA

Nick Gillespie replies: Jay Rosner, Frank Williams, and I all agree that class mobility is a good thing. We disagree on whether substantial mobility exists in the contemporary U.S. and what best facilitates it.

As I wrote, the most extensive longitudinal study of the matter, a University of Michigan study of more than 50,000 taxpayers, documents that it does exist. These findings accord with those of virtually all other studies that track specific individuals over time. Together, they suggest an America that, far from being a caste system, is fluid in a way Messrs. Rosner and Williams must surely approve. What I find "insidious" about the strivers initiative is precisely that it ignores this reality and thus presents a distorted picture of American society. Such plans also obscure, discount, and weaken what I called "generational striving," parents' efforts to give their children advantages.

I applaud Mr. Rosner's work with underprivileged kids, though it's worth noting that his employer is the nonprofit arm of Princeton Review, the SAT prep course company that makes its money by charging about $750 to mostly middle- and upper-middle-class kids and guaranteeing a 100-point gain on their total scores. Princeton Review is as tied to the test as its fiercest supporters. To its credit, it has demystified much about the SAT and demystification is always to the good in an open society.

Contrary to Mr. Rosner, however, I wouldn't lay the educational problems of the poor or underrepresented minorities at the feet of the SAT, especially since most college students attend schools with open or near-open admission policies where SAT scores don't really matter. Although he accuses me of wanting to "pull up all the ladders and not create any new ones," nothing could be further from the truth. Here's one idea: We should radically deregulate public education, a far more obvious source of "injury" to the relatively poor than the SAT. Despite spending about four times as much per pupil (in constant dollars) as it did in the 1950s, the U.S. public school system provides a substandard education, especially to low-income students. There's a good reason why support for school vouchers is so strong among poor inner-city residents.

If Mr. Williams is a regular reader of REASON, he knows I'm no fan of Republicans. But if he is interested in furthering class mobility, he should in fact think seriously about abolishing estate taxes, which rarely hurt the mega-rich but often effectively dissipate the wealth of the ascendant middle class. Indeed, while redistributive or "progressive" taxation is typically sold as a means of helping the poor, its actual effect is to reinforce class. It's no accident that countries with high taxes also have little class mobility.

Mr. Williams asks whether parents should be able to give their children money as well as brains and ambition. None of these things can be transmitted with much certainty. One of my favorite days in high school was when SAT scores came back and I realized that I'd done better than most of my classmates from more privileged backgrounds; there's a real limit to what parents can do to ensure the success of their children, as I fear my own son will learn one day. But undercutting those efforts serves no purpose other than to weaken a system that is already pretty good at redistributing income, opportunity, and wealth.

Flawed Digital Data

The danger of the Commerce Department's latest study on the "digital divide" between race and ethnic groups is that it comes from a credible source. People everywhere are quoting from it, although, as Adam Clayton Powell III pointed out ("Falling for the Gap," November), the study is deeply flawed. That the federal government would use such old data and pass it off as new is revealing–and sad.

Maria T. Padilla
Senior Reporter
Orlando Sentinel
Orlando, FL