Child Protective Services are supposed to protect children from abuse, but there has been a shift away from that mission in recent years, with dire results.
It was a powerful image, and seemingly innocent enough. Heather Whitten’s one-year-old son was sick with a fever and diarrhea; to comfort him, his father placed the boy on his lap in the shower. There, nude on his father’s lap, the boy was cooled down in the streaming water. The photo – snapped by Heather, a photographer – went viral. Somewhere in the midst of millions of views, someone took offense and reported Heather not only to Facebook (which repeatedly removed the image, despite it not containing graphic nudity) but also to local authorities in Arizona.
The police – yes, the police – investigated and immediately closed the case. But according to a Change.org petition, an Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) worker wasn’t so willing to let the case go. Heather writes (emphasis added):
The police right away stated that they were not going to take any action against us and that their case would be closed immediately. The investigator from DCS, however spent the next few months generally trying to have me seen as an immodest, neglectful and abusive mother based on the single interview she had with me.
Later she made it clear that she was basing most of her opinions on me because I breastfed one of my twins throughout the whole interview, without covering myself or my child. Of course, she couldn’t take action against us for any of these things as they were either complete reaches or in the case of me breastfeeding, normal and protected by law.
The only claim she was able to suggest be substantiated against me [and me alone] was that I neglected to supervise our children by allowing their images to be online and so put them at an unreasonable risk of harm. This go against Arizona’s very definition of neglect and encroaches on my right as an artist to share my work with the public.
Also, it has been confirmed that the department reviewing my case wasn’t even provided with any of my images. These claims are being decided on and pushed through the motions of the DCS system based solely on one investigator’s skewed opinion of me, without any evidence even being provided.
If this claim is substantiated I will be added to Arizona’s Central Registry for 25 years. I will no longer be able to foster or adopt children. I will not be able to hold a position working with children or vulnerable adults. Not just in Arizona but, throughout the country.
Even on the DCS’s own webpage, there’s no specific information about neglect stemming from posting the images of children online. Whitten had a hearing originally scheduled for February 3, 2017; after the hearing was pushed back to early March, Whitten’s Facebook page noted that claims of neglect against her were ruled unsubstantiated by a judge, effectively ending the investigation.
But Whitten’s case is not an anomaly; in fact, there are several cases in which child protective service overstepped their bounds to harass and accuse innocent families of abuse and neglect, often to the detriment of actual cases of abuse and neglect.
Several years ago, I lived above a single mom and her kids in a small apartment building. Their unit was constantly having the electricity shut off, there were fights and yelling and the baby was crying nonstop. It became clear that the oldest child, a girl, was staying home to watch the baby and missing school. So – trusting my gut – I called child protective services (CPS) when yet another disconnect notice for their unit was on the door of the building. I told them everything I suspected; CPS came and…left a card. Shortly before we moved, they packed up a U-Haul truck and left.
But when parents do something like share a photograph of their child online or let their child play at the park – both CPS and law enforcement – are not as forgiving.
The Cheung family left their son sleeping in the car for 20 minutes while they ran into a store. They came out to find firefighters had smashed a window, extricated the boy, and were taking him to the hospital. Mr. Cheung was thrown in jail; after his release, CPS workers showed up at his house, looked through drawers and closets, stripped the children naked and took photos, and went to observe the child play at school. This was, at best, a lapse in judgment that should have been handled differently.
Tammy O’Haire was reported to CPS by her daycare because her son has a birthmark on his chest. Daycare workers thought it might be abuse, and reported it, which is fine. Except after O’Haire went to the pediatrician and got documentation that the mark was, in fact, a birthmark, she was told by CPS and a sheriff in a meeting that it “looked like a handprint.” They had to go before another CPS hearing.
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, from Maryland, faced not one but two neglect cases for letting their children, ages 10 and 6, walk to and from a park near their home. On one occasion, the children were kept in CPS custody for more than five hours after being picked up by the police. Both cases against the Meitivs were closed.
Nicole Gainey was arrested and faced felony charges for letting her son, Dominic, walk to and play at a park near their home. The case was later dismissed. Debra Harrell was arrested, lost her job, and lost custody of her child, age 9, for letting the girl play at a park unsupervised while she worked. Harrell later got her job back and regained custody of her daughter.
In Florida, a family had their children taken from them for a month after the 11-year-old son was playing in the yard alone for 90 minutes.
Each of these cases was lacking any evidence the children were actually neglected or at risk for serious harm due to the actions of their parents. But each case illustrates how CPS becomes a law unto itself; dragging out investigations and exaggerating charges despite a lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary. Often, these cases are found to be unsubstantiated. But the damage is done and the process – home visits, loss of child custody, public embarrassment, legal fees, etc. – is often the punishment for parents who have done no wrong.
In Orange County, California, CPS spent a decade and a half (and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars) to argue social workers did not know it was wrong to lie, falsify records, and hide evidence. In 2000, social workers did all of that to get a judge to forcibly take two young girls from their mother for over six years (details of the case can be read here). The mother, Deanna Fogarty, sued Orange County and won a settlement of $9.6 million. Social workers lied in court, falsified records, and hid evidence – and they attempted to gain immunity by arguing the social workers did not know this was wrong or unconstitutional. You can read an exchange between Pancy Lin, a partner at the law firm Lynberg & Watkins, argue in front of the judicial panel here. This is an excerpt:
Trott: How in the world could a person in the shoes of your clients possibly believe that it was appropriate to use perjury and false evidence in order to impair somebody’s liberty interest in the care, custody and control of that person’s children? How could they possibly not be on notice that you can’t do this?
Lin: I understand.
Trott: How could that possibly be?
Lin: I understand the argument that it seems to be common sense in our ethical, moral . . .
Trott: It’s more than common sense. It’s statutes that prohibit perjury and submission of false evidence in court cases.
Lin: State statutes.
Trott: Are you telling me that a person in your client’s shoes couldn’t understand you can’t commit perjury in a court proceeding in order to take somebody’s children away?
Lin: Of course not, your honor.
Trott: Of course not!
Owens: Isn’t the case over then?
Trott: The case is over.
Lin: Thus far we have not been presented with a clearly established right that tells us what our clients did which was remove the children pursuant to a court order . . .
Friedland: The issue here is committing perjury in a court to take away somebody’s children and you just said that’s obviously not okay to do.
Lin: According to our moral compass and our ethical guidelines, but we’re here to decide the constitutionality of it and we look to the courts to tell us.
CPS lied, they admitted they lied, and then they spent years and lots of money to defend that lying in court. And this isn’t a problem isolated to Orange County. In Texas, at least 50 CPS workers were caught lying to prosecutors, falsifying records, ignoring court orders, and obstructing law enforcement investigations.
And while CPS comes down hard on parents who take photographs, let their kids play outside unsupervised, and single mothers, there are several cases where CPS ignored signs of abuse and failed to act in the best interest of a child. Colton Turner was found dead in September 2014, shy of his 3rd birthday, in a shallow grave; his mother and her boyfriend were charged in his death – one that could have been prevented. There were four CPS investigations since July 2012 and photographic evidence of abuse on Facebook. CPS failed to act. Leiliana Wright was abused; her grandparents and other relatives took photos and contacted CPS. Despite these reports, Leiliana stayed with her mother – Jeri Quezada – and was beaten to death by Quezada in 2016. Leiliana was four. In Wisconsin, state child welfare workers got a complaint about Martis Dickerson, and that her children – two-year-old James and his four-year-old brother – were being neglected. Social workers got more than two dozen calls about Dickerson between 2001 and 2016, but failed to investigate these latest neglect reports within the 60 day time-frame outlined by the Department of Children and Families. James found pills in his mother’s purse, swallowed them, and died of an overdose. His brother was then removed from the home. Over the 15 years of complaints, Dickerson saw other children removed; at the time James died, three older sons had been adopted and her daughter was in foster care.
This is a perfect example of what government agencies – beyond CPS – do: they go after and punish the law-abiding because it’s easier than prosecuting and effectively deterring the behavior of the lawless, the abusive, and the actual neglectful parents. The former shatters a family’s sense of security and their constitutional rights; the latter causes the death of innocent children on top of it. There is a deep and pressing need to rein in and reform CPS before more abuses of power take place. The upside of this is CPS reform does not require federal interaction; it is a local issue – usually county and state agencies – requiring local activism and intervention. There’s a saying that you can’t fight the big tyrannies until you fight the small ones. Start with CPS.