When you become involved in the child welfare system, you learn one lesson quickly: All eyes and ears are on you. Even those relationships that are supposed to be therapeutic, such as counseling, transform into something else. Providers must earn your honesty, and even once they do, that dynamic can become instantly dashed with one report to your caseworker.
I learned this early on in my case, which began in April 2018. The services required for me to reunify with my daughters included trauma-based individual therapy, a psychological assessment, substance use treatment, and parenting classes. I remember going to the first of these, my psychological assessment, and spending 20 minutes in the office arguing over paperwork.
In order to complete the mandatory assessment, I had to sign a consent form that would allow the assessors to send their findings to child services. But when I asked what their “findings” included, it was not simply a diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Instead, it could be the full readout of the evaluation.
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Everything I said during this invasive and highly personal evaluation would be sent to my caseworker, his boss, the state attorney, the guardian ad litem and her attorney, my attorney, my husband’s attorney (and by proxy my husband), and the judge. Any time my caseworker was changed, which had happened once already and would happen two more times, the new stranger would also be privy to the contents of my psychological evaluation.
But the service was mandated. Without this evaluation, I was not allowed to engage in therapy, substance use treatment, or parenting classes. So I had to do it.
This is standard fare for families involved with the child welfare system. It focuses on the collection of parents’ information, and control over what those parents do and how they behave, not, as proponents of the system fervently claim, on ensuring the safety of children. Like probation and parole, child welfare involvement becomes one more way for the government to keep tabs on people.
As it would turn out, the report would not be a transcript of my evaluation. Rather, it was an interpretation, in which the evaluator handpicked which details to include. She described me as eccentrically dressed. (I had worn a floral dress and flats, but have visible tattoos and a facial piercing that can’t be removed.) She detailed that sometimes I answered questions right away, and sometimes I paused to answer them, which sounds normal enough but seemed sinister and awkward when inserted in the context of the psychological evaluation. She wrote that I suffered from insomnia, even though I’d repeatedly told her I was tired on that day specifically because I was worried about my husband, who had been hospitalized earlier that week. She generalized my history with drug use to make it appear that I had been addicted to heroin since I was a teenager, which is not the case.
In the end, the recommendations didn’t include anything besides the talk therapy I’d already been mandated to take — but the inclusion of all her other highly subjective details handed my opposition a slew of quotes they could use to describe me as eccentric, erratic, and ill-equipped to handle the daily realities of parenting.
It was an evaluation I had no choice but to attend, which should have been a doorway to resources and help for my PTSD. Instead, it served as an intelligence-gathering exercise for the people separating me from my two young daughters.
Other parents have experienced similar issues with the services that are supposedly in place to help them. Kim, a mother in Alabama who asked that her last name not be shared, has been involved with child services since January 2019. Kim’s case was triggered by her arrest when she failed to appear for a court date, but she says the crime she is accused of was actually committed by her abusive partner, who forced her to take the blame by threatening her life.
When her caseworker learned Kim was experiencing domestic violence, she told Kim to move into a shelter. Which she did, but only for about a month. She said the shelter had stringent rules, which included nightly curfews and that she report her whereabouts when she left the grounds.
Kim was never told by the shelter that this information was shared with her caseworker, but she figured it out when her caseworker suddenly knew details only the shelter had. “She knew my comings and goings there. Knew when I met with the therapist, left for work; all of it,” Kim said.
“The sheer fact and status of having a child places you in a situation where you can no longer openly and honestly express what’s happening in your life to mandated reporters because you’re facing family dissolution, or, at minimum, family surveillance,” said Erin Miles-Cloud, a former parent defense attorney in New York who is now the co-founder for Movement for Family Power, a parent advocacy group. Exactly who falls under the category “mandated reporter” varies by state, but they are typically frontline workers such as nurses, doctors, therapists, and teachers, who are required by law to report any suspicions of child maltreatment. She specifically cites shelters, hospitals, and schools as some of the “biggest offenders” when it comes to reporting parents who are seeking care to child services.
While speaking with me for a story I wrote for Filter Mag about the way child services targets parents who use drugs, a nurse named Tracy Longbreak told me about her experience with the “mandatory” aspect of mandated reporting. When a mother came into her emergency department with her baby while smelling of marijuana but appearing prepared, competent, and tidy, Longbreak was told by her superiors that she had to call in the report or risk her job.
Ultimately, the best she could do was include her perceptions of the mother in her report and hope that her positive remarks would offset the accusation of neglect via marijuana intoxication (which was not yet legal in the state of Oregon, but is now).
“In North Carolina, the mandatory reporting law is around any abuse that may have taken place by the caregiver,” said Julie Owens, a survivor of domestic violence who now consults with organizations around the country advocating better practices for people who have experienced violence in the home. “The protective parents who go into domestic violence shelters—primarily mothers—are not the abuser, but unfortunately they are reported as or regarded as abusers because they haven’t reported the abuse that their children have been experiencing, and they often end up being punished or deprived of their children as a result of this.”
Put together, this all means that service providers can be forced to act as eyes and ears for child services, even when they don’t want to. But more reports doesn’t equal more child safety. In Philadelphia, for example, mandated reporting laws were drastically expanded after the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. In an article published in Pediatrics in 2017, Mical Raz wrote that “there is no indication that the increase in reporting has improved the safety of Philadelphia’s children, and there is reason to believe it may detract.” Some of these detractions included increased hotline calls resulting in an overburdened system less able to make accurate safety assessments, and a heightened risk of family separation for low-income families. Later Raz noted that “fear of reporting may prevent families from seeking help, whereas assurance of confidentiality has been shown to increase help-seeking behaviors.”
The majority of substantiated maltreatment charges in the child welfare system are for neglect, which typically means issues like lack of food, child care, or weather-appropriate clothing – things that could be fixed with better social supports or a little more money. Creating a system that encourages families to seek help should be the goal for any agency in pursuit of children’s health and safety.
But forcing more and more providers and even laypeople to report on parents whether they want to or not achieves the exact opposite of that goal. Instead, it creates a cyclical, hypocritical system in which parents are afraid to seek assistance for fear of being punished because of the issue for which they need help, then punished for not seeking that help on their own. It also harbors distrust in therapeutic situations, which renders impossible any kind of genuine recovery.
The network of surveillance that child welfare-involved parents become trapped inside will continue to harm families like mine until it is lifted and parents are allowed to seek help and engage with services without simultaneously leaking the most intimate details of their lives.