The Unfunny Incompetence of Social Services in New York

TW: Domestic Violence, Systemic Violence, Bigotry

As some of you may remember, I talked about the possibility of going to New York, to help a single mom friend who had hurt herself. I was doing a fundraiser to be able to afford to go (I could still use some donations to help recover from the financial strain. And also to cover unexpected expenses).

Well, earlier in July, I finally went. Many of you may be wondering why it was so urgent. While it is true that an injured ankle makes things hard to deal with, especially for a single mom with an active kid, but it doesn’t seem like the type of thing to really justify spending so much money to go help out. Heck, taking a cab around would be cheaper.

The truth is that out of concern for privacy and at the request of my friend, I left out a lot of details. While it is true that she did injure herself, and that a portion of my help was to make things easier on her for a few days, the truth of the matter is that I was going there to stand witness and see what I could do to help her with a much more complicated issue.After my visit, my friend gave me permission to release some of the information on my blog.

You see, my friend was a victim of domestic abuse. Severe domestic abuse. Her partner hit her, sexually assaulted her, the details of which are so unbelievably horrible, that the court had a hard time accepting the truth of it. That was six years ago, and this man will likely never see the inside of a cell for what he did. My friend however, has had her life, and that of her child, completely hijacked.

As punishment for leaving him, this jackass did what I’ve seen many abusive men do: they threaten the mother’s access to her child. He told her if she didn’t come back, he would call Child Protective Services on her. She didn’t, so he did.

I’ve seen this happen many times when I worked in different areas of law, especially family law. Angry parents will use the children to attack the person they are angry at. When the parents involved are white, even when there are actually indicators of abuse, a lot of times the result is that nothing really happens. How many of us have lamented over news stories of young children sent back to parents who are obviously mistreating and hitting them? That’s not to say that no white parents ever get harassed by child services. Nor does it mean that CPS is useless and never manages to actually do the right thing in rehoming a child.

We’ve discussed systemic oppression before on this blog. We’ve discussed in particular how racism and ableism play out in the system. My friend’s story is an overwhelming example of these, which I went down to New York, just to see if there was anything I could do to help. Because of my experience in these areas, because of my car in getting to her appointments, and yes, in a way because of my skin colour and relative privilege.

What I witnessed was a system so incompetent, it went beyond just unacceptable neglect, but one which was actively harming the lives of people who do not deserve to be harassed. I got a view into the welfare system in New York when my friend, her family, and her friends shared their stories with me. With permission, I am sharing some of what I witnessed with you.

When CPS arrived at her house, it was because they were told that my friend had shaken her child: a serious accusation since shaking has been linked to permanent brain damage and death. When they arrived, they found a distraught mother. Gee, I wonder why a woman escaping a physically and psychologically abusive partner might have reason to be distraught when she finds out they are trying to use the system against her?

Despite their stated concern for the child, they at no point arranged to have x-rays done of the brain, or get a consult with a neurologist, or really do anything to try to minimize the impact that such an act might have had. It took 2 months, before they were ordered to do so by the court.

The results were that there was no indication that any trauma had been done, because my friend had never shaken her child. But then why was she distraught? Wondered CPS. She had a mental illness, they remember, clearly that must affect her ability to parent. They needed some reason. It turned out that part of her distress was because the father, who while no longer her partner and not in her life, still demanded access to their kid. In exchange he provided the necessities he frankly should have been helping provide anyway: diapers, formula, and so forth.

His threats, in fact, had been issued when he had come over and neglected to bring the formula that he was supposed to bring to replace the one that had just finished. This, because she was unable to leave the house at the time. She had no other way to get formula, so when he didn’t bring it, she gave her child powdered milk: following the instructions that she had found as to what to do in that exact situation since regular milk is not safe or recommended and neither are many other milk substitutes. She wasn’t about to let her baby go hungry just because she was physically unable to leave the house.

Clearly, she was a negligent mother.

But wait? How was she negligent if she had asked the father to bring her a can of formula and he didn’t? Shouldn’t the negligence be on him? She actively looked for a way to secure the food, he actively failed to provide it? Why is his failure her negligence?

According to CPS the reason it is negligence is because “It is unreasonable to depend on the father to provide food for his child.”

According to Child Protective Services for the State of New York (ACS): a mother who expects the father of her children to bring food for his children in the form of picking up a can of formula from the store is being unreasonable to the point of negligence.

*stares into the camera Office style while MRAs complain about how the system favours women*

So she gets her daughter back, with strict warning to take her meds or she would be “uncompliant” (because it is unreasonable to stop taking meds that affect pregnancy and breast milk when you are pregnant and had been trying to breast feed).

Notice that all of this was despite the fact that it was a false claim. Despite the fact that an abusive man was using the system to further abuse his former partner, the false reporter received no punishment for actively breaking the law. His insistence to see his child, btw, disappeared the moment that that request stopped giving him access to the mother, by way of restraining order.

That should have been that. It would have been, too, except for an incident that occurred. In any other circumstances, it would have been considered a one-time thing, something that would get you a harsh warning but not something that would be pursued further than that. Except? Except that there was that past case to consider. You see, because they had deemed it negligent of her to rely on the father to provide food, and they had a record of her mental illness, the one-time occurrence turned into an “event”.

They called someone on her. They separated her and her daughter, but gave her no indication that this was anything more than a “while we question you so we can say that we did and then you two can go home” sort of thing. She promised her daughter they would see each other soon. She still had her child’s coat in her hands.

It was only after they were separated that she was told that her child was being taken away. She asked just to be able to say goodbye and reassure her. She asked just to be allowed to return her coat. She was told it would be “more traumatic”.

It’s been over a year now that they’ve been back together. One of the most heartbreaking moments of this trip were listening to a little girl, with the sweetest smile and a laughing face have her eyes fill with tears as she asks to be allowed to keep her bedroom light on because she is afraid of the monsters that come in the dark. When asked about the monsters she says: they come at night and they take me away from mommy and they won’t let me see her. She is afraid to go to sleep and find her mother gone. Because she knows now that even if mommy promises that she will never leave her or be separated from her, or even leave without saying goodbye, that it is a promise mommy can’t keep. Because CPS wouldn’t let her keep her promise. Because they destroyed that essential trust.

How do I know all this?

She told me, her family told me, her child told me, and I read the court records. We noticed something interesting in those records however. Repeatedly my friend is praised for her care of her daughter. The strength of their relationship is praised. The one concern that is brought up over and over again is that she is mentally ill and that she has “sleep troubles”.

That’s right. After everything, they are using the excuse of her mental illness as the explanation of negligence. There is only one problem. According to US Federal law, disability cannot be used as a sign of negligence when it comes to childcare.

But the CPS system knows that when they target a brown woman on welfare, that they don’t have to worry about actually following the law. So much so that when I mentioned this to the case worker, he wasn’t even aware that this was a law. You see, if you are on welfare you cannot afford a lawyer. Once gets provided for you, but public defender is not a popular career. Many are over worked, and many more have lost the drive to do anything other than the bare minimum. Many lawyers will start their careers as public defenders to build up their caseload, meaning that many are inexperienced and don’t have a lot of trial experience. In many cases they become little more that sound pieces for the Agency they are supposed to representing their client against, rather than paying attention to how their client might actually be taken advantage of.

This wasn’t the only thing the worker seemed unaware of. I had the opportunity to witness a home visit with the worker while I was there. We spent quite some time discussing my friend’s case. He said everything that you would hope to hear from a worker with regards to his “desire to help reunite them”. He made sympathetic noises in all the right places, but ultimately he seemed to have very little of use to actually offer in the way of ideas.

At some point I just started listing things: A complete list of what needs to be done to be officially granted back full custody of her daughter – this because at the last several court appointments there was a radical shifting of goalposts in this regard. First she had to show that she was taking her meds, then it was get appointments with a psychiatrist, then it was officially get into housing, now they are requiring her to receive SSI. Whenever she meets a goal they set out, suddenly there is a new one in its place. This seems unusually cruel, in that it offers hope, only to snatch it away at the last second. It creates the impression that they never actually intend to close the case.

Another suggestion was to actually assist and help advocate to get her taken seriously with regards to the severe insomnia she is struggling with. I realised the need for this when my friend asked me to attend her therapy appointment with her.

Her therapist was a very pleasant seeming woman. Everyone involved in her case seems very nice, it’s their competence that is ultimately at fault, not to mention their unchecked inherent bias. When I attended the appointment, I watched as my friend tried to make clear how severe the insomnia she was struggling with really was.

Her therapist kept blowing it off, insisting that even though her insomnia made her so exhausted physically, that trying to get out of bed was not just physically impossible but also painful, that she had to get to all of her appointments. Annoyed, I finally just repeated everything that my friend had just said. I was floored when the therapist’s response was, “I didn’t realize it was that serious.”

Understand, I had said nothing new. I hadn’t even worded it that differently from my friend. And yet somehow, my rendition of the symptoms was taken more seriously by this woman who had never previously met me. Why?

This is what systemic racism looks like. It looks like a woman, who herself is part of a visible minority, takes the word of a white woman over that of a woman of colour. It is the ease with which the severity of the symptoms described are excused as just another Latinx trying to get high, rather than a desperate plea to treat a condition that has a severe impact on quality of life and overall health. That it took someone else physically witnessing the condition to have it be considered serious.

The overwhelming sign that her therapist, despite all her big words about being there to help her, had not actually been listening to what had been happening, caused my friend to completely lose all hope in that moment. She got up and left the appointment. I stayed behind for a moment at the request of the therapist, who had the nerve to ask me why my friend didn’t trust her.

I told her clearly, that she wasn’t there to help my friend. She was there because my friend had no choice about where to go for treatment. That she was there as another link in a chain that was being used to imprison my friend, all of which was the result of an act of abuse.

In this case everyone, CPS, the therapist, even many of the doctors, are just another weapon being used against her as a tool of her original abuser. All of this was the result of an act of abuse. The original call to CPS had been a fraudulent report meant to scare her into compliance. The fact that her abuser retains his parental rights in the eyes of CPS (though not the custody court), is just another facet of the way in which CPS was a tool of the abuser.

What happened the following week at her appointment was even worse. Despite claiming to have understood what we talked about, and my declaration that unless she showed my friend that she was actually there to help her, by actually doing something for her, that she wouldn’t earn my friends trust and rightly so – the therapist spent the appointment berating my friend for not trusting her.

What kind of therapist doesn’t understand that trust is earned? What kind of therapist cannot understand the difficulty that someone who has been abused by authority figures, who suffers from the PTSD that goes with being a victim of domestic violence, has in trusting people. Especially when those people are, by virtue of their existence in her life, related to her batterer?

In both the case of the worker and the therapist, there were documents that needed to be issued by both of them so that my friend could comply with the desires of CPS. In both cases they had not produced the necessary documents. In both cases it was their failure that delayed the process, and in some cases continues to delay the process.

In both cases exactly what was needed from both of them was spelled out. In the case of the worker, I even created the letters we wanted him to send, since he was unsure of how to word them. That’s right, at his request, I did his job FOR him in the hopes that it would yield a better result.

In the case of the worker, he appeared to be writing down everything we talked about. Except it turned out that he wrote things down wrong, because at their next meeting he forgot most of the documents again, so completely misunderstood the discussion of medication that he managed to scare my friend into thinking he was going to tell the therapist to take her off all the medication, even the stuff that was helping. At court, he made mistakes regarding what he was told. Mistakes that he is allowed to make, where my friend is not allowed even one.

Although during my visit he was praising the communication and relationship between my friend and her child, just two weeks later he was claiming that they had communication problems. Why? Because my friend raised her voice slightly when her daughter refused to was not willing to listen to reason. Because her daughter “talked back”. This likely out of frustration because the same child, though talkative with many others, shuts downs whenever he tried to talk to her.

He knows her fears. Knows her history. And still he cannot understand why this child doesn’t want to spend time with him. Why she seems to fear him. So in his annoyance, he did what many of those with power and privilege do when something doesn’t go their way, he blamed someone else.

Asking for help from family is called negligent. Being unable to make every single appointment is called unreasonable.

The whole thing was so demoralizing that even though I had only been dealing with it for a week and a half, I was already exhausted. I don’t know how she has dealt with it this long. I’ve been working on helping her. I’ve written and notarized a letter on her behalf, and I am hoping to be called in as a witness at some point. I am researching the laws. I wrote letters to others involved in her case, expressing my concerns over her health. I hope something that I do will yield results, even if those results are just getting them to start prescribing useful medication. Even if those results are acknowledging that there is a problem.

The whole system is so overwhelmingly pitted against her. What does it say that an agency feels so comfortable breaking the law and harassing her? That doctors are willing to tolerate a patient sleeping only an hour a night most nights? That a psychiatrist feels comfortable making inappropriate remarks, knowing there is nothing she can do to defend herself? Why is my friend being forced to bear the consequences of others’ incompetence? If I hadn’t witnessed it for myself, it would almost be hard to believe that so many people could be so inept, so prejudiced, so laughably terrible at their jobs. It stops being laughable when you realize how many people must be suffering as a result.

It’s hard not to feel like they are trying to kill my friend and destroy her sweet child, and I don’t know how to stop it. I have to though. I have to find a way.

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The Unfunny Incompetence of Social Services in New York
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One thought on “The Unfunny Incompetence of Social Services in New York

  1. 1

    I am a foster youth and abused person advocate. I don’t know if I can help, but I might be able to connect your friend with help.

    The child has rights even when the parent does not, she may be able to put pressure on the child’s end using the child’s attorney or CASA. There are non-profit law firms which help children exercise their rights, including not being put in care.

    Email me if you want to connect [email protected]

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