Imagine yourself a child, at home watching television one afternoon with your brothers and sisters. Suddenly the doorbell rings. Your mother goes to open the door and it’s the police. You sense some kind of confusion and as you approach the front of the house, a policeman grabs you, gathers up your other siblings and says, “Get ready, let’s go. You are coming with us. You will see your mother soon. You will be gone for only a few days.” You are terrified. You try to say “No” and put up some kind of resistance.
And no matter how much your mother protests, she fails to prevent the police from taking you away. You are put in a police car and taken to a strange office where you are surrounded by people who call themselves social workers. After sitting for what seems like forever, you are finally taken to another strange place to live with unfamiliar people.
Weeks pass, and you are left wondering, Why was I taken away? When will I see my mother again? The policeman said it was only for a few days. It’s been almost a month. What is going to happen to me?
This scenario comes to life for many New York City children every day. Children are torn from their families and prevented from having any kind of contact with parents and siblings, sometimes for weeks.
No one would deny there are cases where children must be separated from their parents in order to protect them from serious abuse. But during the last year and a half, since Elisa Izquierdo was killed by her mother, politicians and the press have been demanding that children be quickly pulled away from their parents whenever there’s even just a suspicion of abuse or neglect.
But this idea that a child is automatically made safe once he or she is removed from a neglectful or abusive parent is a myth. If only it were that simple. First of all, being taken from your parents is traumatic. And life in foster care can be just as horrible or worse than living with natural parents. Every year, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) investigates more than 1,300 cases of reported abuse or neglect of children in foster homes. Researchers have also found that children in foster care are twice as likely to be abused there as children living at home. Just last month, a little girl was allegedly beaten to death in Brooklyn by members of her foster family.
This is no surprise to me. When I lived in foster homes, my foster parents cared more about their government stipend check than about me. Most of my friends who have been in foster care will agree. Tanya, a friend of mine, says her foster parent told her, “I do not care what you do just as long as I get mine and you do it on the streets.” At least when I lived with my natural mother, I knew she took care of me because she cared. Not because she was being paid.
My friend Linda Sanchez, now on her own at 17, had it even worse. “My foster mother almost never bought us any food to eat,” she says. “Her son and her son-in-law tried to molest me. They even offered me money [for sex].”
It will be a long time before I forgive my agency for allowing one of my foster parents to abuse me and the three foster children I lived with in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Even though my foster mother received a food stipend for us, she spent more on marijuana and cigarettes each week than she spent on food for us in an entire month. And there was psychological abuse. It was not uncommon for her to yell into the intercom, “Bitch, get your ass downstairs. Now!” She was referring to one of us, of course.
I called my social worker at the foster care agency that oversaw my placement and I asked him to investigate this woman. He said I complained too much. I went to his supervisor, who also ignored me. I went so far as to call ACS. The city investigator set up an appointment with my foster parent when I was not around. During the interview she denied all my complaints and the case was dismissed. It does not take a genius to know that an investigator should interview the person making the complaints. But he did not.
I fear many children who do not need to be separated from their parents will suffer the way my friends and I have. Instead, whenever it’s possible, their natural mothers and fathers should be given help to care for them properly. More emphasis should be placed on family preservation. Preventive services should be provided to families in crisis. If the city thinks a child is at risk, it can step in and help the family with counseling, therapy, drug rehabilitation, parenting techniques and whatever else is necessary.
There is one small problem: city statistics show that ACS caseworkers refer 40 percent fewer families to preventive services today than they did five years ago. Parents nowadays are more likely than ever before to lose their children to foster care. This is a direct result of the ignorant attitudes of reporters, editorial writers and politicians. Foster care has become a political football game of kicking around children and their families. “Remove children at the first sign of abuse,” the tabloids scream. “Deranged mothers are destroying their children’s lives.”
But I know the abuse my friends and I witnessed first-hand in foster care. Rescuing a child is much more complicated than just taking her away from her mother.
Danielle Joseph is a writer with Foster Care Youth United.