City Lit: Split Definitive

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There is a debilitating myth that the state can save a child, that it can give that child an ideal life in which the past, awful as it might have been, does not exist,” writes Michael Shapiro in the opening pages of his thoughtful book Solomon’s Sword: Two Families and the Children the State Took Away.

A journalism professor at Columbia, Shapiro intended to write a book about the government’s power to intrude on that most private of institutions, the family. When, in the process, he took a close look at child welfare systems in the United States, Shapiro came to realize that state intervention is an ineffective solution to the complex question of how to give neglected children better lives.

Wending through a history of child protection, salient Supreme Court cases and psychological theories of parent-child bonding, Shapiro sets his sights on two families who know first-hand what happens when family life is subjected to government intrusion. The LaFlammes, a Rhode Island couple who try to adopt a foster baby, find themselves at a loss when the infant’s biological mother attempts to reclaim her child. But it’s the story of the Meltons, five poor sisters who subjected their 19 children to severe neglect in a filthy two-bedroom Chicago apartment, that gets to the heart of why child neglect and abuse have defied more than a century of efforts to eradicate them.

Listening carefully to the army of advocates and bureaucrats who handled these two cases, Shapiro begins to recognize a problem with the way many of them approach their work. None of them can resist believing that there is some single encompassing way to help children whose parents can’t care for them.

Ever since Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace organized ‘orphan trains” in the 1850s to take children from city slums to the heartland, idealists have chased the dream of a sweeping solution to the problems of families broken by poverty. These efforts fail, Shapiro suggests, because they rest on a notion of ‘the poor not as people but as categoriesÑworthless parents; salvageable children.”

Shapiro urges policy-makers to accept limits on what we can do to save children. “The answers for failed children are all about wiggle room,” he writes. “They are answers, not an answer but answers, that begin with the premise of Ôit depends.”

To demonstrate the damage that society’s baby-saving zeal can do, Shapiro gives us the Meltons. When discovered by Chicago police, the Melton children were sleeping on the floor under piles of dirty clothes. Cockroaches ran everywhere. Soiled diapers were strewn about. The mother who answered the door did not even know how many children were in the apartment. The police removed the kids immediately.

Through a painstaking reconstruction of what happened to the Meltons after the children were removed, Shapiro discovers a process that was anything but healing. Even though the Melton children, the subjects of tremendous press coverage, got the best the system had to offer, they were dropped into utter disarray. Siblings were split up, and some went to families only marginally better than the one they’d left. All the children had intense longings for home. One of the children’s foster parents tells Shapiro that “nothing will ever fix the hole that’s in those kids’ lives.”

Shapiro resists the idea that the children were irrevocably harmed by their experience of foster care until he hears it from a tough Republican child protection activist, Richard Calica, director of Chicago’s Juvenile Protection Association. Calica knew the case file on the Melton family and knew how completely the women had failed their children. Still, he says, he would not have rushed to remove them, because “You’re better off staying with your mom than staying with me . . . If I take you away, I have to deal with you blaming yourself for her failure.”

It’s the sort of complicated truth Shapiro packs into Solomon’s Sword. Neat solutions, he notes, are the ones that grab politicians’ attention but are inevitably the least effective. One-size-fits-all laws designed to protect children from harm backfire, leading well-meaning officials to compound the hurt visited on the children they’re trying to help.

The LaFlammes’ story fits well enough into the book Shapiro says he intended to write. But besides allowing Shapiro to undertake a fascinating discussion on the constitutionality of terminating parents’ rights, their story does nothing to advance the idea that makes Solomon’s Sword worth reading-hat political leaders are in the grip of idealists selling simple solutions to complex problems.

That point is particularly crucial as yet another simplistic remedy arrives from Congress. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed two years ago, pushes states to cut off parents’ rights when their children have been in foster care for just over a year.

What does such a law accomplish, Shapiro asks, “other than separating the children from their parents? [Does] it set the children on the course for better lives? Or [does] it condemn them to different sorts of awful lives?” When the driving force behind law-making is impatience, these are critical questions.

Peggy J. Farber is a researcher and writer for Child Welfare Watch, a publication of the Center for an Urban Future.

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