As I write this, I’m sitting in a small, humid room in Plantation, Florida. I’m from Seattle, and I know almost nobody in this area, but I can’t leave. That’s because my three- and four-year-old daughters were taken from me by the state last April. Until that case is overturned, or my parental rights are restored, this is where I’ll stay.
When most people hear “the state took my kids,” their minds jump to the worst conclusions. These cases are quiet and the courtrooms are closed, so I don’t blame you for assuming I was beating them up, or looking the other way while they were abused, or some other such nightmare scenario you see on the Lifetime channel. Those kinds of cases happen, but far more common are the ones where parents do their very best but still come up short on money for the heat, or the rent, or a licensed babysitter. My case is one of those, in which a little more cash and sympathy would have kept my daughters with me.
Three-quarters of substantiated child maltreatment cases are related to neglect, and the kind of neglect that triggers a CPS case is almost always the result of poverty. Although each state gets to set its own specific definitions for neglect, they typically center around deprivation of things like food, shelter, clothing, or medical treatment, which are problems almost totally exclusive to poor people.
The accusation that brought child services into my family was related to drug use. My mother-in-law, with whom I’ve never really gotten along, called the child abuse hotline and told them she suspected I was out using heroin while she watched the kids. After a series of urine and hair panels tested negative, child protective services broadened their investigation. They raised concerns about the fact that I was living with my in-laws, and that I had been unable to attend trauma therapy for a month while I waited for my new state insurance to go into effect.
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The investigation lead to a dependency trial, where the investigator made it clear that my daughters showed no signs of abuse or neglect. I lost anyway. There are no juries involved in child welfare cases, and the burden of proof is lighter than in criminal cases: It only requires a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means the judge’s ruling depends on their personal opinion. In this case, the judge didn’t think I was a credible witness, so she ruled against me.
This means that my daughters now live with my in-laws, and I am legally barred from being in their home after 8 p.m. I get two supervised visits per week while I navigate a web of random drug tests, mental health evaluations, parenting classes, and trauma-based therapy — the details of which get reported back to my case worker, the state attorney, my daughters’ guardian ad litem, and the trial judge — in an effort to win back custody.
If I had been in a different city, or a different state, things might have turned out a lot differently. Child protective services is an umbrella term used to describe individual local agencies. They are governed by standards set at the federal level but operate independently in each state, and city-level jurisdictions set their own policies to manage reports of neglect or abuse. This means that location plays an enormous role in CPS response. Families who live in an area experiencing an economic boom are more likely to receive support, like help turning the water back on if it was shut off for nonpayment, while families in more depressed areas are less likely to have resources available to them. Because of the subjectivity of these cases, it’s likely the politics of the judges and caseworkers play a large role as well.
I’ve experienced this difference first hand. This time last year, I was living in Seattle. When I overdosed during a brief relapse in 2016, the King County child protective agency inquired about my family’s financial difficulties. After learning that the relapse had been prompted by legal difficulties with my abuser — for which I could not afford representation — they referred me to an agency that was ultimately able to provide me with an attorney pro bono. When I disclosed that I was having difficulty accessing trauma therapy because I could not afford child care, they helped secure placement for both of my daughters in a free, comprehensive daycare. And when I told them our utilities were pending shut-off, CPS paid the portion required to keep them running. My daughters did not spend a single day out of our home, and our lives began to improve.
But Seattle is a very wealthy area, with a high cost of living. When my husband had a mental health crisis that prevented him from working, we had to move somewhere more affordable and closer to his family. That somewhere ended up being Broward County, Florida. The economic differences are stark: Seattle’s median household income is almost 50 percent higher than Broward’s, and its minimum wage is nearly twice as high. Although it can be hard to catch your breath in Seattle if you’re poor, there are more avenues for help available than in Broward, and the CPS response between the two areas reflects that. In Seattle, we were given a chance to recover. In Broward, it was assumed we wouldn’t be able to.
Josh Michtom, a Connecticut public defender who represents child-welfare involved parents and children, says that poor families have the most difficulty when they come under CPS scrutiny. “Starting from the beginning…poor people as a general rule live a little closer to the edge. Scrambling to and from daycare, hurrying from job to job or job to home, living in more precarious housing or housing that isn’t as well kept-up…it’s not to say all poor people are neglectful or abusive, but run the simulation a hundred times and it’s going to come out with more things that raise an eyebrow for a teacher or daycare worker or hospital worker [who are mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect to CPS].”
According to Megan Martin, vice president of public policy at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the “vast majority” of child welfare cases are poverty related. Martin also points out that the numbers may not even fully capture the extent of the relationship between poverty and child welfare involvement. She says that the official figure, which links 47 percent of cases to poverty, measures families who are financially unable to meet their basic needs. (For example, a parent who does not have the means to heat their home in the winter.) But that doesn’t include other issues related to poverty. She uses the example of inadequate supervision, a common factor in child removals that has gained some past media attention.
“If you can’t afford child care and don’t have other resources like family to watch your kids, you might end up with a nine year old watching a two year old,” says Martin. “When kids are removed for inadequate supervision, that’s not necessarily included in that 47 percent.”
In his practice, Michtom also struggles with the huge cultural divide that often exists between mandatory reporters and many parents living in poverty. He describes how something such as a parent deviating from the typical upper- or middle-class vernacular may lead a teacher or pediatrician to subconsciously distrust the parent and therefore ascribe malicious intent to something like a bruised knee or unkempt clothing.
Even using that vernacular can count against parents who don’t look the part. At the end of my trial, the judge cited my “skill with language” as her reason for disbelieving my testimony, adding that I could “sell ice to an Eskimo.” My advanced education and ability to communicate clearly should have benefited my case, but coupled with my poverty and substance use disorder diagnosis, it led her to read me as a con artist instead.
“Middle- and upper-middle-class people have a language and way of talking to professionals that seems ‘good and responsible,’” Michtom observes. “When a kid has a completely not abuse related injury and the school nurse calls the parent and says ‘can you explain this?’ and the parent maybe doesn’t speak English as well or just seems less trustworthy to this middle-class nurse in a way maybe the nurse can’t quantify, then the nurse says ‘I have a duty to report this.’”
Once an investigation is opened, the family’s life is picked apart. Even if the original allegation turns out to be unfounded, a myriad of other factors — issues that may not have been enough to prompt a call on their own — can be used against the parent. In my case, the state obsessed over the fact that I didn’t have my own housing, despite the fact that more than one-third of adults were living with their parents in 2015.
Michtom believes that cultural differences between investigators, judges, and other people involved in the substantiation process directly affect how even small deviations are perceived. “If you don’t know what it’s like to be poor and you don’t know what it’s like to make the compromises poor people have to make,” explains Michtom, “the wrong social worker calls them deplorable or filthy even if it was just messy or cluttered, and that increases the likelihood that it leads to a court petition [for the child’s removal].”
As he says this, I remember the shame and anxiety I felt doing something as simple as going to the playground, where my daughter’s coats, though surely warm enough, looked dingy and stained next to the kids running around in clothes so absurdly bright they looked like something out of a cartoon. My anxiety wasn’t just based on embarrassment; it was also couched in the visceral fear that people would assume I was a bad mom because of something as simple as clothing my daughters in used coats.
Parenting in poverty creates a cycle of factors that compound each other. For my family, an inability to pay for child care or legal aid in 2016 created a snowball of stressors that ultimately led to a relapse and almost killed me. This year, when we were managing to get by, a sudden unexpected health emergency sent us spiraling right back into the system.
As I continue to fight for the return of my daughters, I can’t help but wonder what it would look like to have a uniform child welfare system that recognizes these types of complexities. Maybe my daughters would be with me now. Maybe my husband would be on a road to wellness instead of struggling alongside me to find permanent housing. Maybe the other 3 million families involved with CPS would flourish and thrive. Maybe parenting in poverty would stop being so hard.