City Journal

Dennis Saffran
Fatal Preservation
“Family preservation” may please advocates, but it kills kids.
Summer 1997

On the day before Easter the mentally unstable mother of a five-year-old Bronx boy named Daytwon Bennett tied him to a chair and beat him to death with a broomstick. Starving when he died—he weighed just 30 pounds—Daytwon had suffered "multiple blunt impact injuries" over a long period, according to the autopsy report. Daytwon was not unknown to the child welfare authorities. They had removed him from his mother's custody and placed him in foster care on four separate occasions in his short lifetime—only to uproot him and send him back to her for more abuse each time.

Daytwon's killing was just the latest in a parade of tragedies in which children have been murdered or severely injured after judges and caseworkers have returned them to—or allowed them to remain with—violent, deranged, or drug-addicted parents. In November 1995, New York and the nation recoiled in horror at the death of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo at the hands of her crack-addicted mother, who had regained custody of the girl despite the anguished pleas of her other relatives and preschool teachers.

That same month a Bronx judge ordered 17-month-old Rayvon Evans removed from the foster mother with whom he had always lived and returned to the drug-addicted and alcoholic mother who had abandoned him at birth. Three months later she scalded him to death, and two months after that, when the stench got too strong, her boyfriend tossed the decomposing body out the window into a dumpster.

A few months before Elisa died, the drug-addicted mother of a two-year-old Long Island boy punched him hard enough to rupture his intestines and kill him—because he would not stop crying. She had broken his arm on a previous visit, but social workers had "reunited" the two of them five days before his death. That same week the press reported the story of four-year-old Margarita Seeley, whose drug-dealing biological mother forced her to live in a closet and burned her with cigarettes and scalding water after getting the girl back from the loving foster mother who had raised her for the first three years of her life.

Most of the press commentary about these tragedies portrayed these children as casualties of an overworked, understaffed, and underfunded bureaucracy that "let them slip through the cracks." The subtext: more money will solve the problem, allowing authorities to investigate more reports of abuse. But half of the 1,500 children killed by their parents throughout the country each year are already known to the child welfare system. They are victims not of underfunding but of a more fundamental scandal: a "family preservation" policy that the federal government and 30 states, including New York, have carried to absurd and deadly extremes, putting children like Daytwon Bennett and Elisa Izquierdo at grave risk in the name of a skewed notion of civil liberties and parental rights.

It is hard to imagine a more conservative-sounding name for a social policy than family preservation. But in fact, those on the Left who are usually the most hostile to "family values" and parental rights have shaped the policy into its present form and are its most vehement and dogmatic advocates. Family preservation is a classic example of a seemingly sensible and humane liberal reform gone awry because of the ideological single-mindedness of its supporters. The policy now badly hurts those it was meant to help.

Family preservation became a rallying cry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a new generation of lawyers and social workers, reacting to the racial and class injustices of the past, charged that culturally biased caseworkers too often removed children from troubled but essentially functional and loving poor families. These reformers wanted to make an attempt to keep such families together—with support services like emergency economic aid and intensive counseling—before removing a child from the home. With help, they argued, these families could weather temporary crises caused by financial or emotional distress—situations in which there was, at worst, short-term neglect or isolated abuse that did not seriously threaten a child. At the time advocates of family preservation never suggested that it would apply to cases in which there was a history or risk of life-threatening abuse because of a parent's drug addiction, mental illness, or sociopathy.

By elevating the right of low-income parents to raise their children above the welfare worker's view of the children's best interests, family preservation jibed with the rights revolution then under way. And indeed, it was hard to quarrel with the reformers' basic claim: it is better not to uproot a child from a "troubled but loving" family, even if conditions in the home are less than ideal.

In the late 1970s legislators began to pass laws to institutionalize family preservation, in language meant to limit the policy to cases where parents did not seriously endanger their children. In order to qualify for federal funding of their foster-care systems under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, states had to make "reasonable efforts" both to keep a family together before taking away a child and to "reunify" the family afterward. Similarly, the New York State Child Welfare Reform Act of 1979 called for "preventive services" when it was "reasonable to believe" that they would enable a child "to remain with or be returned to his family"—that is, when it was reasonable to believe that providing these services would significantly improve the parent's behavior and thus make it safe to leave the child in the home. Subsequent New York legislation required that "reasonable efforts" be made to keep families together "where appropriate."

In the late 1960s, when activists first began pushing for family preservation, one could plausibly claim that "troubled but loving" families were not uncommon, that there were sporadically abusive parents who might change their ways given the proper support. This key premise of family preservation was far less tenable a decade later, however—at the very moment that legislators began to incorporate the policy into law. By then, the prophecies of observers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan had come true: the problems of the inner-city poor—single-mother families, crime, unemployment, welfare dependency—had grown more and more intractable, only to deepen in the 1980s with the crack cocaine epidemic. Seemingly oblivious to this transformation, child welfare authorities continued to prescribe parenting classes and other "preventive services" that were intended for "troubled but loving" families—despite the fact that today's abusive parents are so often capable of maiming, torturing, and sexually abusing their children.

What led officials routinely to apply family preservation policy to cases involving such parents? Perverse incentives had a lot to do with it. Because states risk the loss of federal funds only for doing too little to preserve families but not for doing too much, the natural inclination of local bureaucrats has been to err on the side of keeping children in dangerous families. The influential Edna McConnell Clark and Annie E. Casey Foundations have reinforced this tendency by devoting millions of dollars to preventive services and promoting them as the first option in even the most extreme cases of abuse. The Clark Foundation, which argues that what others term "`abuse' . . . may reflect a group's cultural norms," has spent some $40 million on family preservation programs over the last decade.

The dogmatic ideology of these foundations has found a receptive audience among the members of today's social-work establishment, many of whom almost always consider it "reasonable" and "appropriate" to keep families together—and unacceptably "judgmental" to do otherwise. Thus, a caseworker interviewed several years ago in a Clark Foundation-funded Bill Moyers television special deplored the "labeling process" that "categorizes" a crack-addicted single mother as different from a working family unable to afford day care. "If we're a country that believes in the integrity of families," the caseworker obtusely declared, "we should keep all families together."

Because of this unwillingness of contemporary liberalism to make distinctions among what it regards as different cultures and styles of life, many caseworkers now strive to keep even the most sadistic "families" together. In effect, family preservation has created a sense that all parents—no matter how abusive—have an unchallengeable right to possess their children and to receive government services that will make it easier for them to do so. Consider the chilling case of Rufus Chisholm, a Bronx man who killed his five-year-old son by hanging him from a coat rack, rupturing his liver, and crushing his chest—all for taking a piece of cake from the refrigerator. For Chisholm's surviving children, social workers recommended "return to parent" as the "permanency goal." Another example of this mind-set appeared shortly after Elisa Izquierdo's death, when a social worker wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Daily News defending preservation services even for "families who may stand by helplessly as one of their own is beaten or murdered by an out-of-control parent."

Unsurprisingly, this philosophy now dominates the legal services establishment as well. The Legal Aid Society and the Legal Services Corporation, which represent many accused parents in abuse and neglect proceedings, have been among the most zealous proponents of family preservation policies. This bias presents a tragic conflict of interest in New York, since the "law guardians" appointed under the Family Court Act to represent the children in these proceedings are almost always Legal Aid attorneys. Meant to provide the court with a third party that stands apart from the parent and the child welfare authorities and speaks only for the child's best interests, Legal Aid law guardians have often proved advocates for family preservation at any cost.

A few months after the authorities had discovered bruises on Daytwon Bennett's face and taken him from his mother for the fourth time, for instance, his Legal Aid law guardian sided with the mother's attorney and successfully argued that he return home, for what would be the last time. The chief of Legal Aid's juvenile rights division told the New York Times that "there was no indication that the child was in any danger." But the foster parents who cared for Daytwon for three years say that his Legal Aid law guardian never even met with the child. Legal Aid law guardians for Elisa Izquierdo and Rayvon Evans also supported their return to their biological mothers.

Provisions of the child abuse laws meant to recognize the honest efforts of parents to overcome drug addiction—and passed in the days before crack—have further distorted family preservation policy. Prior to 1981, proof of a parent's drug abuse or addiction created a presumption of child neglect under New York State law. But a 1981 amendment bars such a presumption so long as the parent has merely enrolled in a rehabilitation program. The parent is not even required to complete the program, much less to have been drug-free for any stretch of time. "This change," as the Children's Aid Society reported in 1996, "made it harder . . . to prove neglect when parents enrolled in a program but did not stop using drugs—a common experience given the low success rate of treatment."

Thus, Elisa Izquierdo's mother, Awilda Lopez, regained custody of her children after undergoing drug rehabilitation, and she kept them despite quickly lapsing back into crack addiction. This loophole in the law also lay at the root of another of the city's grisliest child abuse cases. Last August authorities found the shriveled, emaciated body of four-year-old Nadine Lockwood in the Manhattan apartment of her drug-addicted mother. A victim of deliberate starvation, Nadine weighed a sickening 15 pounds at death. Several years earlier the city had begun a neglect proceeding against her mother, Carla Lockwood, after another one of her five children tested positive for cocaine at birth. But the city closed the case six months later when Lockwood started attending a drug treatment program.

The elaborate taxpayer-supported services that go into family preservation add a note of farce to the tragedy. Child welfare agencies furnish the most dysfunctional and abusive "families" with expensive help well beyond the financial reach of most middle-class families. New York State regulations provide for the payment of homemakers and housekeepers to cook, clean, and shop for parents deemed to be in danger of losing their children to foster care. Patrick Murphy, public guardian of Cook County, Illinois, was one of the original architects of family preservation and is now one of its leading critics. As he sees it, such services lavishly reward irresponsible and criminal behavior and are an affront to the many poor people who struggle against tremendous odds to raise their children well.

Family preservation advocates say that this costly assistance reduces the number of foster-care placements and thus saves money in the long run. But Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and another leading champion of family preservation turned heretic, notes in a recent book that no evidence exists to support this view. More to the point, he argues, it is both offensive and circular to celebrate family preservation because it reduces the number of foster-care placements. By definition, efforts at family preservation entail not placing a child in foster care, at least for a time. The more extreme the adherence to family preservation, the more likely it is that a child will never be placed, regardless of the parent's behavior. By this Orwellian measure, Daytwon Bennett and Elisa Izquierdo were family preservation success stories.

As Gelles rightly argues, "the main outcome variable should be child safety." Using this more logical and humane test, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted a two-year study of the Illinois "Family First" program and found that family preservation services made no difference: 25 percent of parents receiving intensive help abused their children again within a year, compared to 22 percent of parents in a control group that received no special assistance.

Despite its manifest failures, family preservation has long enjoyed the unquestioning support of legislators. Indeed, in the Family Preservation and Child Protection Reform Act of 1993, Congress allocated $1 billion over five years to support family preservation programs in the states.

But recently lawmakers have begun to move haltingly in the direction of reform. In 1996 Congress amended the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to bar states receiving federal assistance under the law from requiring the reunification of children with parents who have been convicted of the murder, manslaughter, or serious bodily injury of one of their children. While an improvement, the amendment has serious defects. Because it applies only to parents with a previous criminal conviction for the most extreme forms of child abuse, it will affect only a handful of even the most egregious cases. Moreover, because it only prohibits states from requiring reunification in these extreme cases, states may still allow it, and individual judges may still order it. Finally, the federal funds at stake under CAPTA amount to far less than those tied to the federal foster-care law's requirement of "reasonable efforts" to keep families together, which Congress left intact.

More encouragingly, in April the House of Representatives voted to let states bypass family preservation efforts where a child has suffered "aggravated" abuse. Unfortunately, the bill would allow states to define "aggravated" abuse as narrowly as they wished, and judges could still decide to compel family preservation in such cases. What's more, the bill doesn't protect the siblings of such children: states would still have to make "reasonable efforts" to keep them with their demonstrably abusive parents. A bill pending in the Senate, which provides significant new funds for family preservation programs, contains similar loopholes that judges and social workers committed to the old orthodoxy would surely exploit.

If we are to avert future tragedies, both Congress and the New York State Legislature must enact legislation that will strictly limit family preservation policy to its original intent. They must amend existing law so that it declares the obvious: that it is not "reasonable" or "appropriate" to attempt to preserve or reunify a family when a parent has starved, tortured, sexually abused, severely injured, or abandoned a child. In addition, legislators in Albany must change state law to allow a parent's drug abuse or addiction to be used as evidence of neglect unless the parent has not only completed a rehabilitation program but has also been drug-free for at least a year. State lawmakers should also insist that law guardians have no affiliation with any organization, such as the Legal Aid Society, that routinely represents accused parents in the same proceedings.

The State Legislature should also require judges in abuse proceedings to consider a parent's previous abuse of another child—something that current law merely permits. A recent Suffolk County grand jury report documented a case in which a court allowed a 13-month-old boy to remain with his family despite a medical examination showing that he had had 13 broken ribs and two other broken bones and despite the fact that his two-year-old brother had died of similar injuries just two months before. Richard Gelles reports that it is not uncommon for judges and caseworkers, imbued with the spirit of family preservation and a twisted notion of due process, to decline even to examine the case files of other horribly abused children in a household for fear of compromising their objectivity.

Finally, state and federal legislators should make it far easier in cases of severe abuse to terminate parental rights and free children for adoption, giving seriously abused kids a chance to live in safe, permanent homes. Current law does not allow the termination process even to begin until a child has been in foster care for a year and further "diligent efforts" to reunify the family, on which it places no time limit, have been exhausted. As a result, abused children usually either languish indefinitely in foster care while social workers strive to "rehabilitate" their parents, or bounce back and forth between abusive parents and constantly changing foster homes.

Without these fundamental reforms, staffing increases and bureaucratic tinkering designed to "plug the cracks" in the child welfare system will be useless. If there are to be no more Daytwons or Elisas, the law must insist that families that grossly abuse children are not worth preserving.

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