In the United States, child-protection agencies have been given unlimited powers to confiscate children and prosecute parents without due process and in contravention of basic human rights.
American society is under tremendous strain, in part because of the loss of family integrity and the consequent inability to provide the right environment for children to be raised into well-adjusted and productive adults. Since the Sixties, divorces, unwed mothers, teenage pregnancies, and opioid addiction have skyrocketed. If one were to truly assess the underlying factors in these crises, surely family disintegration would be at the top. But the response to these crises has been to cause further disintegration of the family through aggressive laws that see family separation, and not support of the family as unit, as the solution to the problem.
Family integrity is imploding at the hands of an overzealous government that chose to financially incentivise removing children from their “less-than-perfect” homes and place them into the homes of strangers, in foster care or forced adoption. The biological ties that are supposed to be protected under the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution are forever broken with the swipe of a pen by a judge in a courtroom in a merciless act called “termination” of parental rights. It is nothing less than generational genocide.
In the USA, we have witnessed a 40-year social experiment in child protection initiated in 1974 by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). This experiment has failed. The project of casting layers of legislation on the American public in the name of the “best interest of the child” and promoted with the belief that every family needs government oversight, has backfired.
It is hard to imagine in a first-world country like the United States, that government officials can walk into your child’s school, have them removed from their classroom, interviewed in private, taken from school, and placed in the home of a stranger; all without your knowledge. And for what reason? Maybe they feel you don’t feed your child enough, maybe your child missed a few days from school, maybe someone just lied and said you were a drug dealer, and your child could not give the right answers to exonerate you.
It is hard to imagine in a first-world country that a newborn baby could be stripped from his mother’s arms in a hospital because the mother had one positive test for opiates during pregnancy, even though there was no showing of drugs in the mother or the child at birth, and there is no other evidence of child abuse or neglect.
It is hard to imagine in a first-world country that a child could be forced by law to stay incarcerated in a hospital with a rare and untreated disease and separated from her entire family simply because her parents wanted to take her for a second medical opinion.
It is hard to imagine in a first-world country that these drastic and intrusive measures can be taken by the state on anonymous reports that might be from spiteful neighbours, hostile ex-spouses or other ill-intended persons.
Parents shudder when facing child protection agencies because at every stage of the case they know that the same agency is gathering evidence against them. The same social worker who comes to their home to inspect for safety reasons is likely to be the person who gets on the stand and testifies that the laundry was not done and the home was cluttered, preventing the return of their children.
This is the state of the child protection system in the United States.
After the rolling out of a foster care programme under CAPTA, it was found, in the 1980s, that state agencies had not kept track of children placed in foster homes and children lingered for years with no family and no finality. Several states were faced with class action lawsuits. In response, brilliant legislators in the Clinton era designed and passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, 1997 (ASFA) with the goal of providing permanency for children. To do so, the federal government put in place a financial incentive program to the states and foster-to-adopt parents (i.e. parents who took in foster children with the objective of eventually adopting them) so as to facilitate the movement of children out of the ailing foster care system, and into permanent placement.
The states were provided a $6,000 bonus check for each child adopted to strangers. The foster parents who adopted were provided bonuses for clothing, tax incentives, and a monthly stipend on the children for the remainder of their minority. This was 1997.
But the aggressive legislation surrounding federal funding of state child protection programmes (called “Title IV E funding”) and ASFA has evolved into a government-sanctioned social engineering project that has broken family ties. Title IV E funds necessitate that the state maintain a quota of children under government control to satisfy their contractual relationships.
Today, 20 years since ASFA was enacted, this financial programme drives child welfare agencies to aggressively remove children from homes, place them into the homes of strangers, and adopt them out, changing their lives forever.
The privatisation of government functions in the USA, such as in the military and the prison system, soon expanded to foster care and child welfare. In the blink of an eye, the states were swept with private foster care contractors, and the state all but relinquished direct state foster care programmes to private players. What you are looking at today is a huge commercial interest around child protection, with children who are removed from their parents becoming the commodity in this for-profit, $18 billion foster care industry.
America has a dismal history of crimes against humanity and causing generational destruction. Slave children were ripped from their families from the beginning of our nation until the Civil War; children were picked up off the streets of New York and placed on trains to the Midwest where they were randomly taken in by strangers from 1850 to 1910; indigenous children were removed from their tribal homes and forced into East Coast boarding schools for fifty years; children were stripped from unwed mothers at birth until 1950; persons considered “imbeciles” were subject to involuntary sterilisation.
The Constitution gives citizens basic human rights as a weapon to fight against the state when it engages in such oppressive and mistaken projects. The right to due process is probably the most important in the citizen’s arsenal against state agencies gone wrong. But as an attorney working in both criminal law and family courts for 24 years, I can tell you that parents have fewer rights than criminals.
Parents and children are denied due process, they are subjected to secret courts, non-disclosed reports, massive attack by government social workers, and loss of the constitutionally-protected right to parent. Children are stripped of their right to associate with their family members.
The state agencies operate with conflicting roles and financially incentivised motives. Every state agency was created under the public policy of providing services to families, providing safety for children, and reunifying families. But, in addition, they serve to prosecute parents and sever their parental rights. This built-in conflict of interest stacks the deck against reunification and places families entirely at the mercy of the child protection agencies.
We now have a new law, the Families First Prevention and Services Act of 2018 (Families First Act). Most legislators probably do not even know what is in it. It is intended to redirect funds from the federal government away from foster care and into programmes to prevent removal from a family by providing services aimed at family reunification.
But here is the first problem. Number one, it is optional for the states. Legislators in Washington D.C. are naïve to believe that the private foster care industry will not oppose any paradigm shift on how they handle reports of abuse and neglect. There are, after all, 114 registered lobbyists in Washington DC for “foster care”. The corporations are huge, such as Providence, Omni, Eckerd, Youth Villages, and the multiple “church-based” foster-care companies. They are in the business of getting contracts for the provision of foster care and now they will be contracting to provide the “services” for family reunification. This is a serious and intolerable conflict of interest. Why would you seek to restore a family and return a child to his home, when it means you lose a stable monthly income while the child is in foster care?
The private agencies then contract with mental health contractors who always report that the family is “not ready” for reunification for any number of reasons.So the second problem with the Families First Act is that it does not separate those who provide foster care from those who provide reunification services.
What you have in the Families First Act is a recognition of the problem: that the current system of child protection incentivises family separation and disincentivises family reunification. But until the commercial interests are removed and robust due process protection of parents and children is built into the law, it will not succeed in living up to its name and putting families first.
Connie Reguli is a well-known family and criminal law attorney based in Tennessee, USA with special expertise in child protection cases. She is the founder of the Family Forward Project, one of the biggest advocacy groups in the USA for reform of their child protection laws
The Global Child Rights and Wrongs series is published in collaboration with www.saveyourchildren.in, lawyer Suranya Aiyar’s website critiquing the role of governments and NGOs in child-related policy