“When Should a Child be Taken from His Parents?” asks Larissa MacFarquhar in a recent New Yorker article. She tells the story of Mercedes, a Bronx mother who has seen three of her four children removed from the household by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Mercedes was not accused of abusing her children but of neglecting them; her story raises questions about the relationship between poverty and parenting. But the story’s title notwithstanding, children are rarely taken from their parents—that is, their biological mother and father, especially if the mother and father are married. You wouldn’t know this from MacFarquhar’s story, which mentions men only fleetingly and marriage not at all.
Mercedes’s story begins in 2009, when she had only two children: Leslie, an 11-month-old girl, and Camron, a two-year-old boy. An accident with an unattended curling iron leads ACS to place Camron and Leslie in foster care, marking the start of Mercedes’s battle with the New York social-services apparatus. MacFarquhar devotes plenty of space to exploring whether Mercedes is up to the challenge of raising her children, but she never asks why she has to do it alone. At 14, Mercedes got pregnant with a violent boyfriend who beat her, and she miscarried. At 18, she became pregnant again, though it’s unclear whether it was by the same man. Mercedes’s father—a drunken deadbeat—then reappears in her life. He “turned up and beat her, but she didn’t miscarry.” She gave birth to her first child, Camron. MacFarquhar offers not a word about the fathers of Mercedes’s other three children.
As MacFarquhar recounts Mercedes’s nearly decade-long struggle with ACS, two more children appear, but the circumstances of their conceptions remain obscure. Babies just happen, it seems, like the common cold. Mercedes tries to get Leslie and Camron out of foster care by enrolling in parenting classes and cutting back on her marijuana use. But “by this time, she was pregnant again.” The existence of her fourth child, Amaya, is revealed parenthetically, as support for MacFarquhar’s contention that the child-protection system was acting inconsistently: “It seemed that nobody really believed that Mercedes had abused her children, because she was never arrested, and during this period she gave birth to a fourth child, Amaya, and Amaya was never taken away.”
The story describes a world in which children arrive spontaneously and inevitably, and where women, but not men, are compelled to bear the burden of raising them. Eliding the question of the parentage of Mercedes’s children and focusing exclusively on her difficulties with child services might make sense if the men who got her pregnant weren’t so central to what is happening. Social scientists have compiled overwhelming evidence on the benefits of marriage for children, including rates of child abuse and neglect. The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, conducted between 2004 and 2009, found that the rate of maltreatment for children living with married biological parents was far lower than for children in any other family structure. Similarly, a 2010 study coauthored by Brown University president Christina Paxson found that only 5 percent of families in which the mother lives with the biological father of her children (even if not married to him) have any contact with protective services by the child’s fifth birthday. The rates for other types of family structure are two to three times higher.
No one in MacFarquhar’s article will acknowledge this reality. The Bronx Defenders law firm blames the system for racism: “Why, when the Bronx was forty per cent white, were nearly a hundred per cent of their clients black or Latino?” It should look at its clients’ ring fingers, not their skin color, for the answer. MacFarquhar lauds the example of family court judge Carol Sherman, who handled Mercedes’s case, and “was notorious among caseworkers for her obsession with summer camp: if a child was not enrolled by the middle of spring, she would issue an order requiring it.” As MacFarquhar sees it, “This was a matter of social justice: [Sherman] believed that it was not right for poor children to be deprived of the after-school activities and therapy and evaluations and tutoring and domestic orderliness that middle-class children had.”
That’s an admirable, if impractical, sentiment. But most upper-middle-class kids nowadays owe their success not to after-school activities, tutoring, or cultural enrichment, but to the parents who raised them, who disproportionately tend to be married. The most important single factor in children’s well-being is growing up in a stable home with married parents. The government can’t provide it, and its absence is so pervasive by now that even good journalists apparently can’t see it.
Photo by Brent Stirton