Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Tale of Two Families

Last week, the nation was once again focused on a Montgomery County, Maryland story that first came to national attention on December 20 of last year when a ten-year-old boy and six-year-old girl were picked up by police while walking home by themselves from a playground about a mile from their home. The police contacted Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS), which interviewed the children at school, visited the family at home, and threatened the children would be removed unless the parents signed a “safety plan” promising that they would not be left alone until the case was resolved.

The children's parents explained that they believed in “free range parenting,” allowing their children to take gradual steps toward independence consistent with their age and ability. Eventually, CPS took the middle route between substantiating the neglect and ruling it out, making a finding that left open the possibility that neglect took place. But on April 12, the children were once again in the clutches of CPS when police picked them up in a park and brought them to CPS headquarters after a dog walker called 911. They were not reunited with their parents for five-and-a-half hours (without any food), and their parents did not know where they were for the first three hours. The family is reportedly planning to sue CPS.

The extreme attention paid to the Meitiv family stands in ironic contrast to another story that transfixed the Washington area last year. On March 19, 2014, police began searching for eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, who had lived with her family at the District's large family homeless shelter. Relisha had not been at school since February 26 but no report had been made because her family had lied to the school about her absence, stating that she was sick and under care by a “Dr. Tatum.” Tatum turned out to be a janitor at the shelter. His wife's body was found on March 20 with a bullet in the head; he was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on March 31. Relisha has never been found.

An investigation by the Washington Post found that DC's Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had sustained three complaints of abuse or neglect involving this family. The last complaint was only two to three months before Relisha disappeared. Due to the family's right to confidentiality, the agency has declined to release any details about the conclusions of their investigation, whether any type of monitoring or services were provided or whether the family had an open case when Relisha disappeared.

The juxtaposition of these two episodes illustrates the fundamental conflict in child welfare between doing too little and doing too much. In one case, children who were being allowed to develop independent living skills in a safe and loving home were traumatized by Child Protective Services. In another case, child in a family that was clearly struggling, whose brother was found to be abused not three months earlier, was allowed to disappear from a government-funded homeless shelter with no action taken until she was gone for three weeks.

What can be done to prevent more children to be unnecessarily traumatized or fall through the cracks? Somehow, we need to inject a little bit of common sense into child welfare practice. The Washington Post reported that there were many signs that all was not well in Relisha's family, in addition to the three prior reports of abuse or neglect. School staff “described her arriving with filthy clothes, dirty hair and an empty stomach, and they said she often didn't want to leave.” On the other hand, the Meitiv children seem to display the independent spirit and self-confidence that comes from a loving home. Social workers and police need to be trained and allowed to distinguish the children who need help and those for whom their intervention will only a source of trauma.

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