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Cradle to Grave

L.A.’s family-unfriendly family court

Whenever a toddler dies in Los Angeles, if the word “accident” or “drowning” doesn’t immediately appear in the headline, anyone versed in the basics of family trauma will already know the cause of death: the boyfriend. Sometimes it’s the biological father, but more often it’s the mother’s inamorato—a man in his twenties, who has a record, who shakes, beats, or starves a baby to death. There’s almost always a story in which the baby ends up in the ER or the ambulance several hours too late; translated into the bloodless euphemisms favored by court records and news reports, it becomes a weirdly causeless-sounding tragedy—the baby “fell” or “just stopped breathing.”

And if you peer a bit deeper into the patterns of family pathology, you come upon another near-universal trend: whatever bleak house this child was raised in was not off the radar. That is to say, many children who perish at the hands (or the equally lethal negligence) of their parents are already known to social workers. In 2014, forty-two children died of abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County. At least half of these had been previously referred to the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

One of those dead kids was two-year-old Josue-Rey Maldonado. His mother left him in the care of her boyfriend, Samuel Aguilar, twenty-three. Josue-Rey was transported to the hospital early on the morning of August 10. The toddler’s body was covered in bruises, from his hairline to his legs. Family members told medical staff that the boy was vomiting and not responsive the night before. According to the Los Angeles Times Jessica Cereceres, Josue-Rey’s mother, had previously been investigated twice for neglect and abuse of her infant son. One complaint claimed that Josue-Rey’s parents, who were living together at the time, had abandoned him and that his father was using meth in the home. The boy had also reportedly witnessed domestic violence between the couple that involved a gun.

But instead of removing the boy from Cereceres’s care, social workers and “family preservation” workers offered an array of instruction-based services, such as parenting classes for Cereceres, who was also raising her other young children. Social workers later justified the decision to keep Josue-Rey with his mother, noting that the parent who “provided the most risk”—Cereceres’s husband—was no longer living in the house (because he was in jail).

This summer, another child, thirteen-month-old Smith Fernando Garcia, was bludgeoned to death by his mother’s boyfriend, twenty-three-year-old Rodrigo Hernandez. When Sheriff’s officers arrived in response to an emergency call at the East Compton home, they found the child, cold, unresponsive, and covered in bruises, with a large burn mark on his leg. DCFS files obtained by the Los Angeles Times indicate that, prior to his murder, Smith was visibly afraid and would cry whenever Hernandez was in the room. Smith’s mother (whose name has not yet been publicly reported) has three other children; she gave birth to the first of them when she was seventeen. In 2009, a neighbor called in a child abuse complaint, saying that a boyfriend (not Hernandez) shoved Smith’s mother while she was carrying one of her young children. Another complaint raised concerns about the mother’s welfare; this caller told the DCFS abuse hotline that the mother was in a violent relationship.

Often, repeated reports of domestic violence against a parent indicate child abuse is also happening, which will prompt a good social worker to flag a child living in these conditions as high-risk. Though Smith’s mother was interviewed in September 2009 by social workers who found large bruises on her back, she said, implausibly, that they were self-inflicted. DCFS did not pursue the issue further and instead closed her case the following month. And even after Smith was beaten to death this summer, the three other children were allowed to stay in their mother’s care.

These decisions, as dumbfounding and infuriating as they are, reflect a calculated, bureaucratic logic. Over the last three decades, the federal government has mandated that state welfare agencies intervening in a family crisis must always seek to preserve the family and not disrupt it. The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act directed funds away from foster care and toward adoption services and preventive programs like drug rehab counseling, parenting classes, and anger-management training.

In other words, to lose custody of your kids, you would have to try really, really hard. Even severe violence within a family isn’t enough to reliably trigger a serious effort to separate kids from a chronic abuser. Along the way, parents are offered countless programs they can either enroll in or ignore, as state-mandated drug tests come up dirty and violent boyfriends are allowed an open-ended number of sleepovers.

The Social Work Wars

Of course, state intervention in family living arrangements isn’t a first resort for social workers seeking to provide assistance to at-risk families—nor should it be. There’s a long and dismal history of state surveillance of family life as social control of the poor by other means. Still, families are notorious breeding grounds for interpersonal violence and abuse at all points on the economic spectrum, as malefactors from Chris Brown and Adrian Peterson to Josh Duggar and Joan Crawford can attest. How, exactly, did we arrive at a system in which physical harm to at-risk poor kids triggers zero-sum, bureaucratic threat containment rather than urgent reform? Let’s review the tape.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the state intervened in a child’s life, unless that child was a threat to the social order—and in these cases, the state operated as an apparatus of punishment instead of intervention. Private and religious charities would feel out the prospects for moral intervention in a failing household by sending a “friendly visitor” to interview the family members—an early incarnation of the modern social worker. The friendly visitor’s mission was to investigate a child’s lowly circumstances and then to certify whether the child was truly deserving of private help. Sometimes, these proto-social workers would arrange to send a destitute child to live in the countryside with a rural family, trading his labor for room and board. Other times, the child would remain with his birth family, and the friendly visitor would serve as a role model, dispensing advice and moral instruction that the parents couldn’t, or didn’t, supply.

This atomized focus on the deserving poor and their domestic mores didn’t translate well into the industrial age, which saw the rise of mass urban poverty at the margins of a new regime of economic production. Children of working immigrants were often condemned to lifetimes of poverty and family abuse before anyone thought to inquire into the particulars of their moral upbringings. Progressive Era reformers such as Jane Addams launched the Settlement House movement, which sought to secure for poor families basic material relief, together with a key measure of cultural self-sufficiency via services like language classes, daycare, kindergartens, nurseries, and playgrounds. Spearheading the Settlement movement were people much like Addams herself—volunteer members of the middle class, typically university students and mothers with grown children.

Like other class-interested intrusions into the lives of the poor, the Settlement movement suffered from its share of ideological blind spots and moments of moral condescension. But it did supply a basic framework in which poor families’ needs could be acknowledged as legitimate on their own terms—together with a doctrine of assisted self-help that permitted higher-born dispensers of charity to interact in rough parity with its lesser-born objects. This, in turn, allowed the formerly cloistered daughters of the upper classes to see the challenges and hardships poor people faced firsthand, by living directly in their midst—a process that, in many cases, resulted in the radicalization of the settlement workers.

After the Progressive Era gave way to the business civilization of the 1920s, however, the innovations of the Settlement movement were boiled down to a simple state directive: make the poor immigrant home a shrine to Americanism. Once the state’s new professionalized caste of social workers could certify that a given troubled home was fit for the seamless transmission of middle-class American virtue, the family could then be trusted to work in concert with the schools, the courts, and other institutions of patriotic probity to mint model citizens.

The administrators of state-sponsored social work, fearful of the recent revolutionary tumult in Russia, had no patience for the Settlement movement’s sentimental attachment to immigrant culture. Indeed, with the wave of red scares initiated by Progressive president Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, the specter of economically independent poor immigrant families pitching together in cooperatives in the nation’s largest and poorest cities took on a distinctly sinister and subversive cast—particularly when formerly volunteer Settlement workers began to organize and demand a living wage for themselves. In 1923 the annual report of the New York Children’s Aid Society summarized the new Americanist consensus in social aid:

There is a well-established conviction on the part of social workers that no child should be taken from his natural parents until everything possible has been done to build up the home into what an American home should be. Even after a child has been removed, every effort should be continued to rehabilitate the home and when success crowns one’s efforts, the child should be returned.

To a remarkable degree, the postwar period of social work and family intervention was a replay of the social work wars of the Progressive Era, with the same core dynamic. New Left activists sought to short-circuit the network of state aid, which they deemed insufficiently revolutionary. But instead of focusing on making good the warped fabric of poor family life, they opted for militant direct action, organizing strikes among poor mothers and welfare recipients in New York and scattered other urban outposts. Such misguided tactics were all that a resurgent conservative movement needed to tar every New Deal program of income support for the poor as the dangerous stuff of amoral left-wing militancy—only in this version of the morality play, the restive middle-class Settlement workers had given way to bona fide fellow-traveling commies, who could easily be stereotyped and dismissed as coddled, overeducated radicals by the culturally aggrieved rank and file of the New Right. The Weathermen might have done little more than blow up their well-appointed New York family homes, but these radicals wanted to steer ever larger portions of the state’s largesse directly into the hands of poor families!

The next turn of the screw in this great family risorgimento was to give us our present-day, hyper-individualized vision of what it takes to make a broken family whole again. After the Adoption Assistance Act was signed into law in 1980, the states started to administer a new generation of social-welfare programs targeted with redoubled force on the basics of family preservation. And predictably enough, the overall pattern of family pathology became more starkly individualized than ever: in the years immediately following the passage of the law, the number of children in foster placements leveled off, while the reported incidents of child abuse and neglect increased.

Tradeoffs were necessary, many said, much as they had during the first Progressive Era push of homebuilding. Just think of the laissez-faire-mal alternative: snake-pit group homes, corrupt foster agencies that fleece state programs, and irrefutable data showing that kids who grow up in foster care typically face a life of unemployment, poverty, and turmoil. But it now seems clear that over the past thirty-five years, in lieu of displacing adoption and foster care with an improved, more accountable system of family aid, the family-first thrust of contemporary policy-making has simply devolved the excesses of the older homebuilding ethos onto individual families themselves. To qualify for minimal aid while continuing to hang onto custody of their kids, parents now have to continually reinvent themselves as alert and engaged students of parenthood, promising the courts and the social services system that they will do better after enrolling in the next program or landing the next precarious low-wage service job. How they’re supposed to hold down jobs, let alone supply stable households for their at-risk kids, in the midst of all this performative box-ticking is an occult mystery that your typical parenting class will never come close to unpacking.

What Price Unity?

“Family reunification” has a nice, vaguely reassuring ring to it as a policy goal—like “putting one hundred thousand more cops on the street” or “ending welfare as we know it.” But like those other dubious neoliberal slogans, it has translated into a panoply of real-life choices running the gamut from bad to worse. And policy-makers themselves are far from unified; the national policy debate remains in a state of squalor, with traditional ideologies all bent out of familiar shape. Conservatives respond to the spread of family dysfunction among the fearsome, demonized “underclass” by calling for greater and swifter government intervention in family life, in the name of preserving children’s safety. Liberals, meanwhile, champion the notion that families are resilient and can heal themselves without too much intrusive government action.

You tend to greet the intimate horrors of family abuse with a fatalist shrug—which is just how our policy elite wants it.

After spending the last five years reporting on foster care, family court, and the juvenile justice system, I can tell you that both positions are right and both positions are totally fucked. The situation is impossible. Every year, thirty or more kids in L.A. County die at the hands of a dysfunctional parent or a fucked-up boyfriend. And if kids trapped in horrible homes are taken away from their parents, they may not die, but they don’t exactly thrive, either. Why is it that these are our best options?

In part, of course, because the present political consensus wills it. The notion that the state can fine-tune dysfunctional family life has something for political opportunists of every persuasion. Conservatives endorse ever more elaborate governmental intrusions into private life for the sake of preserving the family’s hollowed-out husk—and they lunge at each new opportunity to overstuff said husk with doctrinaire evangelical agitprop. Liberals, for their part, have rushed to dismantle federal income supports for poor families while gleefully collaborating with the libertarian right in assaulting public schools and teachers’ unions. (While the cult of educational achievement isn’t the ironclad arbiter of life outcomes that progressives pretend, it’s nonetheless true that a shitty, underfunded school is one fewer institution in the lives of poor American families that can be counted on to take any sustained interest in their plight.)

Lost in all the self-congratulatory tumult of state-sanctioned family engineering is any realistic sense of the all too pressing material forces that make or break family life. When poor families break down, we carve out the most intimate and informal features of child-rearing and parcel them out to agencies run by the professional caring class. The result is a de facto full employment plan for social workers that yields concrete results for their clients that are equivocal at best. How many parenting classes, family maintenance specialists, and caseworkers does it take to undo deep family pathologies? Can a battery of state-mandated services, however well intentioned, ever compete with a well-funded school or a two-income household?

To get a firmer grasp on these heady questions, consider yet another horror story from the economic margins of Los Angeles: the case of Sidnicka Wilson’s children. Last spring, two of Wilson’s sons, ages two and three, were spotted wandering a busy South Los Angeles thoroughfare. Underfed and in soiled diapers, they were entering stores and asking for food. According to the Los Angeles Times after a bystander took the children to the police, investigators found Wilson’s home to be in a deplorably squalid state.

And in the depressingly common but little-remarked public epilogue to such cases, investigators discovered that Wilson’s children were under the protection of DCFS and were enrolled, along with Wilson, in a family maintenance program. This particular state contrivance is a go-to crisis-patch in L.A. County, since it’s considered a more family-oriented alternative to foster care—and just as important for the administrative caste, a cheaper one. The Wilson clan’s maintenance plan was a six-month intervention meant to help children who were deemed at “low risk of abuse.” Children in the program can stay in their homes while their families get access to transportation, counseling, emergency shelter care, parenting classes, drug counseling, and drug testing. Wilson, hard-pressed to make ends meet and tailed by a criminal record of robbery and prostitution, had six other children, all of whom had been removed from her due to neglect. According to the Los Angeles Times one of Wilson’s children is still in foster care, another is with a legal guardian, and four of her children were adopted once Wilson’s parental rights were terminated.

One of the two young children found wandering the street, the three-year-old boy, had been removed from Wilson’s care in 2011 due to neglect but was given back to his mother in 2013 by a court order after social workers recommended reunification. The two-year-old was removed at birth and placed into foster care but was returned to Wilson after a year.

Wilson was monitored by a social worker who, according to internal DCFS documents, cleared her multiple times as a suitable caretaker for her children. When Wilson was located days after her children were taken into custody, she was also in possession of cocaine. Her two children are now back in foster care, and Wilson, who was charged with two felony counts of child abuse, faces up to eight years in prison.

“All our data tells us, this is exactly the type of person where there is a high probability that she will abuse or neglect her child,” Marilyn Flynn, the dean of USC’s School of Social Work, told the Los Angeles Times. “Ideally, we would have identified this mother when she was in the hospital and we would have offered her support and training with her first child.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine what sort of support and training could possibly offset the grim situation into which these children were born. Indeed, the ancillary services and training programs that Wilson and her kids were shunted into function more as a reliable source of deniability for the state than a path to a more stable or secure family life. They occupy an almost deliberately ineffective middle position staked out between two competing priorities of the child welfare system: rescuing a child and supporting a family.

Let Them Eat Parental Training

Over the decades, child welfare policy has become entrenched in this middle ground, the site of flimsy—and often fatal—compromises between child safety and the rights of parents like Wilson.

There are a number of important, incremental reforms that could help: agencies could triage families with at-risk children under the age of one, overhaul social worker training and systems of accountability, improve channels of communication between law enforcement and family services, and pay extended-family relatives (aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and so on) at the same rate as foster parents when they take out-of-home placements. And the child welfare system would benefit from better safeguards across the board: greater scrutiny of foster care, faster inquiry into child abuse complaints, a child welfare ombudsman to coordinate services across departments, and a reduction in social worker caseloads. But all these measures stop well short of what would likely be the best shot at improving the life chances of children and parents alike: making families less poor.

If we are to believe in the supremacy of the family as the best model for raising safe and happy children, then a social worker desperately staying on top of thirty cases at a time while pulling down an annual salary of $40,000 isn’t going to be an effective bulwark against the overlapping deprivations of poverty, domestic violence, prostitution, and meth. Months-long maternal and paternal leave, house-visiting nurses, subsidized child care—family interventions otherwise known as, you know, economic redistribution—can preempt some of the more terrible non-choices impoverished parents have to make. And perhaps not coincidentally, economic redistribution is the one aggressive prevention program that liberals and conservatives rule out a priori as unworkable.

Still another Angeleno family’s story draws out this stark moral in no uncertain terms. In 2009 Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf profiled an unnamed mother ensnared in the Möbius-strip maze of the CPS system. After a prank call came into 911 from her home, police came to the house to find four children, ages four to ten, home alone. Per the Times the children were “wrestling in their underwear. One had burned another with a spatula while trying to fry an egg. None went to school.” The mother was married, but estranged from her violent husband. She worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a grocery store clerk and had no one to help with child care. Her children were removed and put into foster care.

When asked what she could do to reunite her family, the mother responded with the simple disarming truth of her situation: “I have no idea how to answer that. The best plan is. . . . I have no idea. If I answered you as a mother, I would say I want them back right now. But it would be the same, with no one to watch my kids. I can say that everything will be fine, but I would be lying.”

The social worker assigned to the case couldn’t process such an inadmissible description of the unforgiving reality of state-managed poverty. Instead, she told the mother that if she completed parenting classes, she could regain custody in six months. There, in a nutshell, is the new social contract for family support: a long-running crisis, rooted in the most stubborn forms of material deprivation, transformed into a raison d’être for the caring class. Parenting classes are to dysfunctional poor families what traffic school is to repeat driving scofflaws—and each is just about as likely as the other to remedy a serious problem.

Partial Intervention

This myopic vision of poverty and family life is, in its own perverse way, a perfectly logical extension of our broader economic malaise. Neoliberal leaders, from Arne Duncan and Cory Booker to the Clinton clan, have made a point of undermining the major income support schemes of the New Deal, from welfare as we knew it on down. The results are on lurid display everywhere, and most especially in the schemes that entrap families in intergenerational poverty—in the rampant global flight of capital euphemistically known as “free trade”; in the deindustrialized urban Yuppie playgrounds of the Information Age; in the financialization of real estate, pensions, and basic public services; and in the systematic dismantling of public schools, teachers’ unions, and the labor movement. These trends have all converged within the past generation to maroon the urban working class in an economic moonscape, without resources of any kind to fall back on.

Conservatives endorse ever more elaborate governmental intrusions into private life for the sake of preserving the family’s hollowed-out husk.

In this context, telling a poor working woman to go to parenting classes is the same sort of cynical response neoliberalism has for the union worker whose factory is shuttered so his parent corporation can open a NAFTA-sanctioned maquiladora: Shut the fuck up, learn some more skills, and get used to the new normal. Either become a symbolic analyst in the Silicon Valley mold, or accept that you are simply on the wrong side of history. The social-work equivalent of that proposition seems to be: Mimic the mores of bourgeois child-rearing without any of its material supports. Prove that you’re a deserving mother by entering the workforce without any subsidized child care; find the time and money for tutoring, transportation, and extracurricular arts or sports for your kid—and remember that if you fail, it’s because you were a bad parent.

Contrast this too-strapped-to-succeed model of family nurture with the way families are granted subventions, write-offs, and every conceivable child-centered service in the homeowning suburbs, and you enter another world entirely. The homes in which these infinitely more fortunate kids grow up are lavishly subsidized by mortgage interest deductions. Their parents can (and usually do) deploy an armada of casually employed caregivers to supplement the core labor of child-rearing, from au pairs and babysitters to school tutors and camp counselors. All hands are marshaled to arrange the children’s leisure pursuits and to optimize their education and eventual college-admissions value. Their schools are funded via local property taxes—to guarantee, in essence, that America’s propertied scions will reap every conceivable intellectual and competitive benefit from their privilege. And even then, the most indulgent and well-to-do parents in the nation’s suburbs will cozen their offspring in expensive private prep schools, ensuring that these delicate students need never have their studies disturbed by a random encounter with a poor person.

The schools gap alone speaks eloquent volumes about how the new neoliberal model of American achievement utterly breaks down for the abandoned kids of our urban and merely publicly funded school districts. For the first time in fifty years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families eligible for public assistance, according to an analysis of 2013 federal data. That means that a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers—and rarely, if ever, catch up. As the Washington Post reports, such kids “are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.” No shit—and this, among countless other reasons, is why poorer urban districts have so much trouble attracting and keeping a talented corps of teachers. After a very short time on the job, it becomes painfully clear that in order to get their students on track for the kind of academic success that is the taken-for-granted baseline for privileged suburbanites, teachers in poor city schools have to function as therapists, nurses, event coordinators, and de facto parents.

You don’t normally think of these foundational savage inequalities when you see another news report about another lethal case of child abuse or neglect in our crumbling inner cities. You tend, instead, to greet the intimate horrors of family abuse with a fatalist shrug—which is just how our policy elite wants it. The main instruction to be had in our schools, as in our casualized, just-in-time social-welfare state, is little more than an extended exercise in self-fulfilling social prophecy. When seasoned policy savants gaze out on the grim deprivations that make up daily family life in poor America, they sigh over the unforgiving iron laws of cultural determinism. We’ve thrown money at poor urban families and secured generous federal grants and charter corporate funding to revive urban schools, they wail in postideological unison, but it all works out to a hopeless muddle of the same obdurate, mysteriously immutable cultural mores in the end—a “tangle of pathology” in the infamous words of the 1965 Moynihan Report on the state of the black family.

The research shows otherwise, however. While documentation of interventions in the most distressed, violence-ridden families is incomplete and sketchy—a scandal of neoliberal policy complacency unto itself—the initial studies show quite clearly that a reliably responsive network of material aid is the most consistent guarantor of family safety in poor and abusive conditions. A 1999 review of aid strategies for victims of intimate partner violence found that, when social workers left off lecturing their charges and effectively advocated for housing, child care, and educational assistance, abuse dropped off significantly. “Unlike the typical intervention that demonstrates immediate effects, which then soon deteriorate”—cough, parenting classes, cough—the downturn in reported violence for victims receiving significant and sustained material advocacy held steady over the longer haul, wrote the study’s supervisors, Cris M. Sullivan and Deborah I. Bybee. “Women who received advocacy services were more than twice as likely to remain completely free from intimate violence across a two-year time period.” Those percentages are still far from inspiring—just 24 percent of the victims in the advocacy-assisted group remained violence-free, versus a mere 11 percent of those consigned to the familiar bureaucratic scoldings of standard social work. But the “advocates” in question here were a corps of undergraduate women recruited to take part in the study and direct victims into preexisting channels of income and service support. Just think what gains could be made if serious resources were committed to income intervention on a larger scale—if somehow our war-happy, tax-slashing civitas could be stirred to give a shit about how completely the ravages of inequality can disfigure an ordinary kid’s life chances or condemn a working mother to turn to her batterer for child care. In the meantime, the end of the austerity age will come too late, if it does, for another thirty kids in Los Angeles.