The trauma of child separation

A recent dream was the impetus for this post. While I pretty much never want to hear about someone’s dream, against my better judgment, I’m going to begin with it:

I was doing some kind of an internship and was tasked with detaining children alone. I showed up to an apartment. I had some kind of miniature truck that had a flat tire and I was frantically trying to use my phone to call for help. A woman helped, and I slowly realized this was the mother. I took out a crinkled sheet of paper with scribbles on it and asked if this was her. She said yes and I told her I had to take her kids. She sadly acquiesced and started getting them ready. At this point, the large, angry dad started berating me. I remained calm, and tried to reason with him. I exhorted him to be friendly to social workers, case managers, and judges. Be nice to the system – for they can make your life even worse should you choose to direct your venom at it. While this was happening, the kids escaped and I began freaking out over this. Usually, once I start to panic in a dream I wake up.

I’ve never worked at a job that detained children, but I’ve worked directly with those who are actively in the process of doing so. I’ve worked directly with families navigating the messy aftermath. Even today, though my job is more administrative-focused, there are still a few functions I perform which entail seeing frustrated clients stuck in the labyrinthine child welfare system.

One of things I periodically do is administer family court-mandated drug tests. This is not something they generally like having to do several times a week. Sometimes they vent, and I let them – often this is about their shitty case managers, an asshole judge, or how difficult it is to make time for the tests –  and I sometimes find myself giving the same advice I gave in my dream: no matter how much you think the system is bad, be nice to the people in it because they can make things much worse. I don’t know if this is good advice. Warring inside my head are thoughts of “yes, I would hate it if I were treated like this” (which is what I verbalize), and “well, you brought this on yourself,” or “maybe you should have thought of this before you did whatever it was that endangered your kids and brought state involvement into your life.” Also in the back of my mind is the ever-present aversion to bootlicking.

Some may choose to ignore the litany of nuances related to American children being removed from their homes and say “fuck these child abusers,” a condemnation that parallels a common conservative response to the immigrant crisis: those parents are endangering their children by breaking the law – they have no one to blame but themselves. If you are one of those people I have sad news for you: uncompromising measures like locking up parents, or less restrictive measures, which are still formidable obstacles, all prolong the time kids spent in out of home care. This is usually very bad, and we aren’t remotely close to having an effective system in place to manage such massive amounts of human misery. The end result is that many children lost within the child welfare system – whether it’s for a few weeks or a few years – grow up facing even more hurdles than before they were detained.

***

In many, probably most, experiences I’ve had in child welfare, children love their parents, no matter what they’ve done. I’ve worked on many cases that ended in sobbing which continued until the children were dropped off at their foster homes. I can’t stress this enough. As bad as child abuse and neglect is, the trauma of separation is not to be dismissed or trivialized. This has historically been largely invisible to the general public (as I’ve stressed in other blog posts, most people give next to no passing thought to child welfare).

On the other hand, child welfare as it related to family separation at the border has rightfully gained visibility. ICE scumbags are fucking up an entire generation of children:

“It’s not like an auto body shop where you fix the dent and everything looks like new. We’re talking about children’s minds,” said Luis H. Zayas, professor of social work and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Children who have undergone traumatic separation often cling desperately to their parents after they are reunited and refuse to let them out of their sight, say therapists and child psychologists. Many suffer from separation anxiety, cry uncontrollably and have trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares.

Others develop eating disorders, problems with trust and unresolved anger, in some cases against their parents.

“You see some children even strike out at the parents. They don’t always understand why their parents abandoned them and sometimes blame them. So they have difficulty reattaching,” Zayas said.

[…]

Left untreated, such trauma can lead to deeper problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism and even suicidal behavior, said Jodi Berger Cardoso, an assistant professor at the University of Houston who studies the effects of trauma on immigrants.

Children intercepted at the border are often especially vulnerable to developing PTSD and other disorders because their families are fleeing violence and catastrophe.

[…]

Studies have shown that boys held in detention, even for short periods of time, such as two or three weeks, can develop anti-social behavior, violence and substance abuse problems. Teenage girls more often show depressive disorders and substance abuse.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is very prevalent among and greatly inhibits a person’s ability to form positive relationships

Much of this is also applicable to American children that have been separated from their families.

***

Of late, I’ve often found myself thinking, in one regard, like the xenophobic nativists that I revile. In the halcyon days of the George W Bush era, I recall having arguments about how I felt far more affinity to Iraqi civilians than American soldiers shooting at them. At the root of this sentiment is the simple idea that there is nothing inherently better or worse about people born in the same geographic area as I.

With that in mind, it is jarring how I reflexively respond internally to the recent outcry against U.S. immigration policy. People are (justly) moved to tears and anger over non-American children experiencing trauma at the hands of their government, but I can’t help but find myself thinking “what about actual American children who are going through this?”

As I noted above, American children separated from their parents deal with much of the same traumas as immigrant children, though they broadly occur within in different historical contexts. American children are subject to varying degrees of the structural issues underpinning their specific situations: suffocating economic inequality, institutionalized racism and all that these paradigms entail. The families arriving at our border contain in their very being the ongoing legacies of European colonialism, American imperialism, and more recently, neoliberal capitalism and its continuing devastation of the developing world.

Though every family separation is a veritable snowflake where no two are the same, similarities abound in the results. Some children will never find a stable home and, if they are not deported, age out of the system:

  • More than 23,000 children will age out of the US foster care system every year.
  • After reaching the age of 18, 20% of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.
  • Only 1 out of every 2 foster kids who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by the age of 24.
  • There is less than a 3% chance for children who have aged out of foster care to earn a college degree at any point in their life.
  • 7 out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21.
  • The percentage of children who age out of the foster care system and still suffer from the direct effects of PTSD: 25%.

More generally, childhood trauma related to separation increases

the risk of alcohol use by age 14 and illicit drug use by age 15. Childhood trauma also contributed to the likelihood of adolescent pregnancies and adolescent suicide attempts.

But the story doesn’t end there. ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] were also found to be associated with multiple adverse outcomes in adulthood, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide attempts, alcohol dependence, marital problems, intravenous drug use and many more.

If there is one common thread to many of the preventable diseases we face in the U.S., why are we not paying closer attention?

An excellent question really, but with an obvious answer [1]. Victims of child abuse and neglect are mostly poor and disproportionately children of color. We as a society don’t really give a fuck about them, unless they rise from their racially and economically segregated neighborhoods to become worthy of notice and acclaim – perhaps as an athlete, entertainer, or business mogul. Then we can collectively valorize the Horatio Alger-like elements of their life – in the land of the free and the home of the brave anyone can make it if they just work hard enough.

Just as good, if not better, is when a white family shepherds them to the promised land. Consider the popularity of The Blind Side. Briefly, the movie is based on the true story of Michael Oher, adopted by a saintly white family after bouncing around foster homes, and eventually making it to the NFL. This is widely thought of as a feel-good story, at least for white people who relish any opportunity to view themselves as benevolent forces for good.

Or perhaps they’ll commit crimes and become noteworthy that way. Perhaps, their childhood will provide context for whatever it is that they’ve done. But whatever the crime is will almost always override their upbringing. Whether that’s fair or not depends on the situation and the eye of the beholder.

***

In the end, it’s hard not to feel that the advice from my dream rings hollow, even if there’s a degree of utility to it. Because the social/economic/political systems that these families exist within have set them up to fail and are ill equipped at mitigating the fallout. The well-to-do within those systems are likely to feel the consequences of those failures – perhaps by tax dollar, perhaps by crime. Perhaps they’ll feel rage, and perhaps that misguided rage will lead to health problems.

The following is particularly apt:

To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.

One should keep in mind the sheer breadth this sentiment encompasses: refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America fleeing violence; First Nations children of Canada; children in the enlightened social democracy of Norway; and, of course, children in the belly of the world-eating Leviathan that is modern-day techno-industrial society.


[1] I understand one of the reasons why: there is an unending churn of terrible things – contemporary and historical – in the world. With only a finite amount of time and energy to dedicate to learning about such things, it’s silly to think everyone will expose themselves to the same horrors as I. So, while I lament the (what I regard) as fact that people don’t give much thought to American child welfare, I get why this is.

LGBT youth and child welfare

I’ve written a bit about my work in child welfare. Part of my responsibilities in my prior job entailed coordinating placement for children needing out of home care. One of the really unfortunate things is that there are not a lot of options for placement of LGBT youth that are fully capable of accommodating their needs. While the needs they have are similar to cishet children, there are additional considerations. They are subject to the same types of neglect and abuse, but with the added layer of potential maltreatment due to gender expression and sexual orientation. Overall, they are over-represented in child welfare, meaning that

the percentage of youth in foster care who are LGBTQ-identified is larger than the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population. LGBTQ youth in foster care also face disparities – differences in experiences in care or treatment by the system.

Among the training and education they receive, caregivers are taught about the needs specific to providing care for LGBT youth. But, as is often the case in the field, it’s hard to say one way or the other how effective it is. With the innumerable challenges associated with working in child welfare, certain components of the whole may tend to be ignored.

For example, I was pretty stunned to learn that transgender youth are legally required to be placed in a facility that reflects their birth-assigned gender in the state of Wisconsin. So, for instance, a transgender female would not be able to go to a female group home (GH). If placement is unable to occur, for whatever reasons, in a mixed gender home, they would need to be placed in a male GH (assuming a lower level of care (i.e. foster home, or relative) is judged to be neither feasible nor desirable).

In my small way I was able to influence the process so that this largely did not occur, but it was patently obvious that the population was underserved, as well as potentially being placed in harm’s way. I should note, though, that I don’t recall any specific instances of maltreatment (which doesn’t mean, of course, that there haven’t been any), but I do know of cases in which it was obvious that needs weren’t being met. I don’t know how this differs state to state, but as of 2015, the issues facing trans youth in the child welfare system were considered widespread:

Transgender youth are often placed in housing situations where their gender identity and their gender expression are not respected. Consequently, they are at higher risk for physical, emotional, and sexual harassment, as well as bullying. For example, staff may force transgender youth to wear traditionally gender-conforming clothing and to use sex-segregated facilities (such as restrooms, living quarters, locker rooms, etc.) that do not match their gender identity. Additionally, staff may intentionally not use their transgender clients’ preferred pronouns and names. Transgender youth may also be denied medical care such as hormone therapy, prescribed by physicians and mental health professionals. Gender-affirming medical care may also be delayed, interrupted, or terminated for these youth. This creates an emotionally and physically unsafe space, which is harmful to their development.

What is described above would not rise to the legal definitions of child abuse or neglect in most states (and perhaps all of them). Allegations, to the extent that they are made, probably don’t trigger institutional responses. Research in this area is likely dependent on anecdotes, rather than documentary evidence. So, we have a ways to go in truly grasping and confronting these issues.

(One small anecdote: my colleagues were having trouble placing a transgender female and requested a specific GH that was heavily geared towards shaping upstanding Christian Men (it had the words “kings” and “priests” in the title). I was able, fortunately, to forbid this. It’s hard to tell what they would’ve done with the child, but I didn’t think it was worth finding out)

***

My hometown of Milwaukee is opening its first LGBT GH. I can’t tell if they will accept only children on CHIPS orders (which basically denotes children in the child welfare system), or children from the general population. The distinction is substantial for a number of reasons, but in general it is more difficult existing solely within the child welfare paradigm. There are many challenges faced by new GH’s. I’ve known of a handful that were either brand new, or new to the CHIPS population, and were not able to navigate the unique and ever-shifting suite of challenges. Subsequently they either scaled back operations or closed altogether.

Likely, this GH will fill up and admission will be hard to come by – Case Managers will know about this and surely advocate for placement for LGBT children on their caseload. A waiting list will be necessary, and the situation will be exacerbated further if non-CHIPS kids are admitted. Down the road, it’s possible the GH might determine that CHIPS kids aren’t worth the hassle.

But overall, this is a very positive development that I advocated for (surely this is why it happened) and I really hope it works out. Not only that, perhaps it may lead to a proliferation of similar beneficial programming. Though there are numerous challenges, it’s probably okay to have a tiny amount of hope that things are getting better in one small aspect of our dumpster fire of a world.

On child welfare

Jezebel has been posting stories over the past several weeks from parents of children that have been involved in the child welfare system. They’ve been both interesting and heartbreaking, while providing narratives to situations most are only vaguely aware of. I’ve noticed in the comments that there are disagreements where, generally-speaking, some feel that the stories told do not mitigate what they see as the fact that children are placed in danger. Others highlight the odious effects of state involvement in underprivileged populations. Both sides make valid points.

It’s really important to note that the posts thus far are incredibly one-sided. In none of them are the various child welfare entities going to offer their side of the story even if asked, as that is highly confidential. Neither will you hear from children, though the comments section contains some of their stories and responses.

I’ve been aware of a couple local stories where I’ve personally known about a lot more beneath the surface, where if the public knew they’d probably have a different opinion than solely having read a sensationalized account in the local media. But lacking that confidential context, the public, when they are aware of it, are free to excoriate the system for continuing to fuck up. In instances such as the ones referenced in Jezebel, I can’t help but find myself rhetorically asking “what the fuck? Should we as a society just turn a blind eye and not err on the side of caution if there’s strong evidence of child endangerment?”

On the other hand, I cannot deny that the following is abundantly true:

But recent reporting has captured the opposite reality – that child welfare investigations and removals are a constant, terrifying presence in the lives of poor parents. Citywide, one in five children comes to the attention of the child welfare system. The majority of investigations are concentrated in just eight neighborhoods. Most allegations are not abuse but neglect, often driven by the stressors of poverty, not the character of the parent. And the negative press may have heightened disparate treatment of poor families; in the first quarter of 2017, after the coverage of Zymere Perkins’ death, requests for removals by the agency were up significantly over the same time last year.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s important to consider what’s missing from the stories. Unless you are directly affected, or work in the bowels of the system, it’s hard to get a grasp of the magnitude of what’s faced. But one is able to get a tenuous grasp if they choose to look.

***

Wisconsin, my home state, publishes certain statistics regarding child welfare. Other states do as well, though it varies in terms of what information types are accessible and how it is collected and presented. If Wisconsin’s website is any indication, most aren’t very user user-friendly. But before digging into some of those statistics, I’m going to sketch a brief outline of how a family becomes involved in child welfare.

A person believes an incident or child abuse or neglect has taken place. They call the appropriate hotline in their area. A decision is made to investigate (Screen In), or to file the information away and not investigate (Screen Out). A majority of calls are Screened Out. This usually happens due to a dearth of information. For example, if you see a parent physically abusing a child in a parking lot and call it in and have only that information, it’s likely to be screened out.

Calls that are Screened In are investigated. For this, Social Workers are sent out in a time-frame that is determined by the possible danger the kids are judged to be in. This could happen immediately or over the course of a month. Most investigations will yield a result of unsubstantiated. Typically, this is due to lack of evidence, or the allegations not turning out to rise to the level of actual abuse and neglect. These cases are either closed or kept open while services are given with the children remaining in the home. Though it’s obvious, it should be pointed out that though an allegation may not be substantiated, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The same goes for uninvestigated Screen Outs.

The state of Wisconsin received 52,100 allegations of child abuse or neglect in the first eight months of 2017. About 35% were Screened In and investigated [1]. The rest were not. Milwaukee County accounted for about 20% of all calls, and were investigated more than the statewide average, around 45% of the time.

In any given month, around 7000-8000 children are in out of home care. Roughly around 400 children enter care, and 300 leave care in the same time span. Children are placed with relatives, family friends, foster homes, or at higher level of care facilities such as group homes, or residential care centers. Efforts are extended, especially when a child enters care, to place with relatives. Very anecdotally, about half of all cases involve relatives willing to help out. Unfortunately, most of these relatives have at least some history of involvement in child welfare in many different contexts. If one of the contexts is a substantiation for abuse or neglect, they will be ruled out as a viable option [2].

I noted above that most allegations are unsubstantiated, but prior to looking into this more in depth, it was an anecdotal opinion based on my work. In short, I’ve read hundreds of reports and most are unsubstantiated. This is borne out by data, though perhaps not as much as I had thought. From 2004-2015 the substantiation rate has been consistently lowering from a high in 2004 of 20.3% to 12.0% in 2015. Reasons are not given or hypothesized for the drop and it can’t be said that it is due to a lowering in the amount of CPS reports (the combination of Screen Ins and Screen Outs).

The year 2015 was the most recent year I found a complete report for, and the following data is culled from it. For that year, a majority of the CPS reports were for neglect (similar to NYC, as described in the Jezebel post), as can be seen below:

However, neglect allegations weren’t as likely to be substantiated as allegations for sexual abuse. This came as a surprise to me due to preconceived notions, largely due to reading so many horrifying sexual abuse allegations that were unable to be verified for various reasons. Often, this was in the form of a child recanting their prior allegation.

The report also breaks down the victims by race. Unsurprisingly to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the systemic race-based hurdles placed in front black families, they are disproportionately affected:

I could keep going, as there is a wealth of other information on topics like child fatalities, the breakdown of relations to abusers, caregiver maltreatment, placement outcomes and stability, etc. But I think the above suffices to paint a general picture of what occurs in a standard calendar year. The same graphs and tables in previous annual reports are relatively consistent in terms of trends.

There are no statistics about income level, but anecdotally, just about all families, at least from Milwaukee County and probably the rural parts of the state, are economically disadvantaged. This should not be interpreted as concrete evidence that poorer families are definitively predisposed to child abuse and neglect. It’s more accurate to say that families are, through no fault of their own, stuck in generational cycles of poverty and its associated risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression. The research is pretty clear.

Here I’d like to step back and note how it feels almost inhuman to reduce families and children to data points presented in a bar graph or pie chart. These are actual human beings experiencing many forms of trauma. Every situation is different, though many themes may be similar. The sheer volume may not surprise everyone, but it should. I’m pessimistic as fuck and have long had somewhat of a grasp on child welfare in my state and still I’m pretty shocked – 52,100 allegations over seven months is quite a lot.

***

Social services workers are almost always overworked, underpaid, and very unappreciated. There are no TV shows or movies celebrating what they do. If they’re ever portrayed it’s usually as exhausted and mildly incompetent, with the latter usually being a direct consequence of the former. Compared to other public servants, such as the police, firemen, nurses, and even teachers, they’re largely invisible, little thought of, and certainly not worthy of fetishization by popular culture, in contradistinction to the aforementioned.

Generally, the only time the general public is aware of anything relating to child welfare is when something horrible happens – a child dying in foster care, or a social worker clearing a family for child abuse or neglect and a child dying afterwards. At the same time there is a nagging, and not entirely undeserved perception of child welfare workers breaking apart and ruining families – after all, they are paid representatives of sociopolitical structures that have historically oppressed people unluckily born into bad situations not of their making [3].

Throwing services at people is analogous to putting bandages on gaping wounds. The child welfare system is a reactionary multifaceted entity that does not, and indeed cannot address and rectify the deep underlying issues relating to institutionalized racism and income inequality. Until these issues are meaningfully addressed, we should expect little to change. The best we as a society can hope for is the ongoing refinement of what works, and the ceasing of what doesn’t.

At its root, the goal of child welfare is protecting children. While the people who work in this field need to be cognizant of the underlying socioeconomic issues affecting families, it does not change the fact that some children are in need of protection from their parents, no matter how oppressed by the system they may be. The stories referenced in Jezebel are important, and deserving of filtering into the general consciousness. But I feel it paints an incomplete picture (as does this blog post).

I think child welfare is something you should learn about in your area, outside of local media reporting terrible tragedies. Your state probably has statistics to look though. And there are many things you can do to help out. Failing that, at the very least, you can become aware.


[1] I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds, but this doesn’t include reports relating to child welfare in which families request services. Over the same time span there were 17,772 such requests. Most of these, around 80%, are Screened In since it is usually deemed appropriate to investigate whether or not the request is warranted.

[2] They can also be ruled out for certain violence-related felonies, arrest warrants or pending criminal charges. Anecdotally (an overused term in this post) half of all potential caregivers are ruled out.

[3] The two preceding paragraphs are lightly edited from an earlier blog post. A lot is changing “we” to “they” and “we’re” to “they’re,” since I’m no longer directly in the field.

New job, less blogs (maybe)

I’m pretty boring. The only possibly interesting thing about my presence on this network is the fact that I work in child welfare. Due to my perspective, I’ve been meaning to write about it, but for various reasons haven’t. For the past 10 years I’ve worked in the field both directly with families as well as more behind the scenes. Guess which pays better. The paradox of all social services work is that the more money one makes, the less direct interaction there is with those they hope to help.

Working in child welfare has only cemented my non-belief in a kind and loving god. Such a god who doesn’t stop the horrors perpetrated against children that I’ve been confronted with on a daily basis is beneath contempt. I have intimate knowledge of some the worst things in the world – specific stories of abuse, neglect, violence, child sex trafficking, etc. Each story is different in it’s own heartbreaking way. Every person in the field needs the ability to compartmentalize. In my case this has led to numb feelings of desensitization, which is a depressing coping mechanism.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been long been ambivalent to shit like presidential elections. No matter who’s in office (federal, state, local), the workload of child welfare workers generally remains the same. The plight of abused and neglected kids, an extremely large proportion of which grow up in poverty, are mere talking points by asshole politicians who don’t do shit. Any attempts to mitigate poverty and institutionalized racism are band-aids applied to gaping wounds, and the children are the ones who suffer the greatest. It’s a fucking race to get ahead in the hyper-competitive developed world, and these kids are held back and getting lapped by the more privileged.

***

Social services workers are almost always overworked, underpaid, and very unappreciated. There are no TV shows or movies celebrating what we do (or are there? I don’t really have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entertainment field). If we’re ever portrayed it’s always as exhausted and mildly incompetent, with the latter being a direct consequence of the former. Compared to other public servants, such as firemen, nurses, and even teachers, we’re largely invisible, little thought of, and certainly not worthy of fetishization by popular culture, as opposed to the aforementioned.

The only time the general public is aware of anything relating to child welfare, to pick the aspect of social services I’ve been involved in, is when something horrible happens – a child dying in foster care, a social worker clearing a family for child abuse or neglect only for the worst to happen. At the same time there is a nagging, and not entirely undeserved perception of child welfare workers breaking apart and ruining families – after all, we are paid representatives of sociopolitical structures that have historically oppressed people unluckily born into bad situations.

None of this is to excuse the fuck-ups, of which there are countless in child welfare and other areas that comprise the field. There are wide systemic problems in the delivery of services to vulnerable populations. That we are a largely reactive industry that confronts systemic societal problems certainly doesn’t help. Also not helping: there’s little sign that systemic societal problems show any meaningful signs of abatement. A professor once told me that there will always a need for work in human services, and that’s proven to be right in my experience. But as I wrote, the work is low paying, hard, and little appreciated. Turnover is high on and just behind the frontlines, and there’s stiff competition for mid to upper level management. Often this necessitates prohibitively expensive higher education, a risk in any field that may or may not pay off financially.

***

Anyways, it’s not all bad. I’m just feeling a bit melancholy about it all because I’m about to start something completely new. While I’m still with the same organization, I will now be performing quality assurance related duties. It’s hard to say how often I’ll be able to blog, as I’ll need to devote more brainpower to an area I’m relatively unfamiliar with. It doesn’t help that I write slow and scattered – it takes much more time than I’d like for my thoughts and words to coalesce. So we shall see.