Free-Range Kids

Why Child Protective Services Should Stop Blaming Parents First

There is no one-size-fits-all solution.


A Bronx mom whose young son was malnourished because the rats in their apartment kept eating their food had her kids taken away. The city then gave the foster care family $1000 a month to feed the children.

This story of government obtuseness and cruelty appeared in a recent New York Times op-ed by Emma S. Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders. As she noted, the problem in this case was not negligence or abuse, it was poverty.

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That's because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It's that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

We live in such parent-judging times that that is the first thing we think of when a child is hurt: It is the fault of the parents. Not fate. Not poverty. Not bad luck.

Because we default to the notion of "bad parents," that becomes the primary problem we address. It's like treating all car accidents as the fault of the driver, even on streets with malfunctioning stop lights. In such cases, driving lessons aren't going to help because that wasn't the problem in the first place. Similarly, parenting classes, a popular protocol, cannot solve the rat problem. And sending kids to foster families is hardly a foolproof solution. Sometimes it makes matters much worse.

But that's what happens, writes Ketteringham. And "this never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care."

When we think about all the ways the modern-day mandate to be a perfect parent impacts kids and families—making parents scared to let their kids play outside, for instance, for fear of being found neglectful—the most chilling is a refusal by the state to recognize that good parents—even excellent parents—cannot always meet the grade.

Instead of help or simple understanding, the parents are treated as child abusers. This benefits no one. As the Bronx mom explained to Ketteringham:

[T]he rats made it impossible to store fresh food in the apartment. She was a single mother with no family members who could help her. She struggled with depression and a chronic health condition that often required her to go to the hospital. She needed assistance. Instead, the city tore her children away from her.

Her children were not returned to her for three years.

Ketteringham and her colleagues have represented, by her count, thousands of such parents in child-protection proceedings. The majority have never abused a child, despite the charge the state saddles them with: "parental neglect." It is, she adds, "something of a catchall term that seems to cover poverty, substance abuse and untreated mental illness."

Maybe "parental abuse" is a term we need to start using to cover government intervention in cases where parents are trying to do the best they can, but they just can't be perfect.

NEXT: The Junk Science Behind 'Smarter Lunchrooms'

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  1. The city then gave the foster care family $1000 a month to feed the children.

    Huh. That irony actually never occurred to me.

    1. And, with a shortage of foster parents available, they removed an option that another child may have actually needed.

      It’s basically a cost maximization exercise.

  2. Geez. Just give the mom the $1000. But that would require actual investigation lasting, I dunno, 5 minutes, to discover the truth. And they’d get no kudos and no raise, and get more work done meaning the office would not need as many workers, and the union wouldn’t get as many dues or have as much leverage with legislatures.

    So Just Say No to investigations. Go with knee jerk intuitive expansion of nannyism.

    1. Obviously their stated job is to save kids, not help parents. Who could possibly expect more from them.

      Though, to play Devil’s Advocate a bit. I’ve known a CPS agent in AZ, they worked with teens specifically so the demo might be different. But day-in-day-out they go and see kids who are beaten by parents, starved by family, fucked by family. This is an everyday occurrence. Perhaps doing that just burns out your empathy towards the parents, until you see someone saying “the rats eat my food that’s why I can’t feed my kids” and they just take it as another lie and ignore it.

    2. It’s the NYT so I assume the story is half made-up and/or leaving out critical information such as the mom probably already gets a ton of money from the city. On top of their usual assumptions of racism under every bed and expensive, collectivist prescriptions.

  3. That rat argument sounds a little weird to me.

    1. Should only sound a little weird if you haven’t seen videos of rats dragging whole pizzas through NYC streets. There are more rats in NYC than people.

      1. But, other people presumably have the rat problem, but they don’t get all of their food eaten. Can she not get food to store in tupperware? If the rats eat through that what can be done? What will giving the person more money do to ultimately help? These are real questions by the way, I don’t know.

        All this being said, I won’t say it justifies taking the kids away, but I’m also not certain that “rats ate my food” is an entirely faultless excuse.

      2. OK, but what does that have to do w being poor, other than that they’re outcompeted for housing in the less-ratty neighborhoods? Is there some reason rats are attracted to the poorest families in the bldg. or neighborhood?

        I could understand poverty as a legitimate reason to remove some children from a household. A family could simply not afford to have (more) children. Of course if you need $1K/mo. payment to feed some small # of kids, you shouldn’t have them either, unless that $12K/yr. buys delux professional parenting-as-a-job.

        1. According to a quick google search, $1k/month is about on-par with a month’s worth of daycare.

          So the state is probably getting a bargain.

  4. Well, here’s the thing. Individualism means recognizing the agency of everyone, both the successful and the less-than-successful. You can argue all you want that all of society and the economy is a rigged game tilted against the poor and against racial minorities, but despite the merits or demerits of that position, it is still the individual’s obligation to decide on the correct course of action. I feel bad for the kid whose food was stolen by rats (how awful!), but I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the mom. What did she do to alleviate the problems for herself and her kid? Was she truly in a position that she couldn’t do anything about the rats? I find that hard to believe. It’s her job to find a better solution for herself and her kid despite the allegedly rigged game against her. That is not “blaming the victim”, that is recognizing the agency of every single individual human being, the way we ought to do for everyone.

    1. Well, it is not like she can just go get a better apartment – NY has rent controls and all that, so the housing market is as messed up as a government agency can make it. Sort of like the child ‘protective’ services. I suspect if you follow the money, there is no ‘federal’ money available to help the poor mother, but big bucks available for foster care.
      Or maybe it is just New York. A case study in how effective democrats are in governing.

      1. it is not like she can just go get a better apartment

        Why does she have to even live in NYC? She could go anywhere else and find cheaper, better living conditions.

        1. I wonder that often. I feel like it’s the glitz of living in a city. People just feel better to do so. Combine this with the fear and anxiety of moving and it probably prevents people from moving.

          1. Nothing wrong with that. I live in NYC but I’m under no illusions that I should be allowed to extract money from my neighbors in order to afford it. Times readers will probably provide some excuse like “she needs to live with her kind”. You know, because they’re not racist.

        2. Yeah, that part struck me as well. Sorry, if the only place I can afford in NYC involves enough rats that my food disappears I’m damn sure moving even if I need to jump on a god damn train to get out of town. Being homeless is literally better than sleeping with a shit ton of rats.

        3. If she’s unemployed, she’s unlikely to be able to afford the moving expenses; she probably doesn’t have a car, and can’t move furniture herself. If she is employed, it’s unlikely she’s even able to find cheaper housing without a massive commute, and adding hours to the daily commute would interfere with child care duties.

          Sorry to be so harsh, but the ignorance on display in comments like yours bothers me. It’s a complete failure to comprehend that level of poverty. This woman is living in conditions where rats are eating her food, and your dumbass attitude is ‘well why doesn’t she just move’ like the hundreds to thousands of dollars that costs (don’t forget crap like 1st, last, and security on a new place) is an actual option, because every last dime goes to rent and food. You have zero clue what it’s like being so poor you can’t even feed your child; suggestions like ‘just move’ are downright insulting to people like that.

    2. I feel bad for the kid whose food was stolen by rats (how awful!), but I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the mom. What did she do to alleviate the problems for herself and her kid? Was she truly in a position that she couldn’t do anything about the rats? I find that hard to believe.

      I was thinking the same thing. Maybe she didn’t want to use rat poison because she was worried that the kid might get into it? Could the landlord/ superintendent of her building not do anything about it either? I don’t know, but I find it difficult to believe that there was literally nothing she could do because of her poverty, depression, and medical issues to combat the rat problem. It sucks that she had her kid taken away for 3 years, and I do feel bad for her due to her poverty, medical, and depression issues; but to suggest that she was completely helpless seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

  5. She was a single mother with no family members who could help her. She struggled with depression and a chronic health condition that often required her to go to the hospital.

    Yes, this is a person who should have three children. I’m kinda in agreement with chemjeff on this one.

    1. You’re heartless enough to be a libertarian.

      1. If it makes me a libertarian to believe that the rich should dominate the poor and that no one should have any legal recourse to correct it because I believe in actual lawlessness then I guess I’m a libertarian.

        1. I get the feeling that this is some kind of backhanded swipe at my comment, but if it is then I’m missing something.

          1. It’s actually just explicitly stating something Tony said the other day. And we all know he’s the one true libertarian.

            1. Ah, I get it now.

  6. CPS can’t possibly enforce every case they investigate, and probably can’t even investigate every case they get, so they pick and choose and who knows what the deciding factor is here-maybe the mom cursed them out or got violent when they came to her apt. (she is mentally ill according to the story) and the CPS officer was in a bad mood. I have no doubt that there are also parents who appear very nice and have immaculate homes who are committing far worse abuse and the CPS agents leave them alone. Unless there is clear evidence the kids are being physically/sexually abused or seriously neglected, taking them away should not be an option.

    1. Maybe I’m too judgmental, but I think “I can’t feed my kids” probably counts as “seriously neglected”.

  7. If I were sick & couldn’t take care of my children, I’d be glad there were other people to raise them.

  8. They gave the foster family a thousand bucks a month to cover food, shelter and clothing for each kid. Not just to ‘feed them’.

    There was something seriously wrong with the mother or the house. It is not that hard to store food in ways that rats can’t get to it. If they’re getting so much of your food, so consistently that your kids(why not you?) are malnourished there are serious neglect issues going on as well.

    I’m suspecting the article is leaving out the mother’s self medication for that depression.

    Being poor and non-white is no excuse for mistreating your kids. Trying to make it one sounds like a cause in search of a problem.

    Stick with free range kids, Lenore, crying ‘rayciss!’ doesn’t become you.

  9. If “the best you can” leaves your children malnourished, then your best isn’t good enough and CPS should be taking your kids away until such time as you have resolved the issues leading to said malnourishment.

    There are real problems with CPS. Times when they don’t investigate enough. Times when they investigate too much. But from the small blurb provided, this sounds like a case where they got it right.

  10. What we need is some sort of middle ground between the state simply taking the kids and denying the parent access to them, as if the parent was a child abuser, vs. leaving the kids unsupervised in the home of someone who might not be competent to care for them. Parents who aren’t competent for various reasons (poverty, ill health, physical disability, mental disability, mental illness), shouldn’t be treated as child abusers, but as non-competent guardians in need of some sort of assistance. State assistance could range from monetary subsidies for food and/or domestic help, up to taking the kids to live in a temporary home WITH visitation rights and the right to resume custody of the children after establishing competence.

    The problem is that when the state takes the kids it’s typically forever and with no parental visitation, which is inhumane to both the parents and the children involve. The kids are put in foster homes or put up for adoption and they never see eachother again.

    1. Where are you getting your data?

      I did some searches and found the same thing multiple times: about half of kids leaving foster care go back to their parents/prior guardian
      About a third are housed with non-parent relatives
      Over half of cases have reunification as a goal. (meaning yes, visitation rights and trying to establish competence)

      Your characterization does not match any data-based analysis I can find.

  11. Isn’t the easy solution to the “rat eating my food” problem to hand them a few snap traps and maybe a pellet gun to go along with some easy “how to break down a rat” instructions and quick and easy rat recipes. Rat au vin is pretty good as long as you have a couple of smallish rats or a single large one. Then there’s always a refrigerator for leftovers but if the rat can get in there you’ll need bigger snap traps.

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