It seems like it has become trendy to complain about social services. You’ve probably seen the stories of parents ending up in the crosshairs of CPS because their 11 year old was playing outside by himself for an hour and a half while his parents were caught in traffic or heard of the case in Massachusetts where the state took custody of a teenager. Doctors at one hospital disagreed with the diagnosis of doctors at another hospital and alleged abuse…
I made the mistake of reading the comments on some of these articles and it was… ugly. Hideous. Wrong.
People were left and right on multiple threads bashing the work that child protective services does, saying they are just causing trauma by taking kids and they shouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore… and this is the tame version I am repeating here. People were asking why isn’t CPS commenting on cases and why aren’t they answerable for cases gone wrong and insisting that the whole system needs to be done away with.
I’m sure you’ve heard the sentiment. Maybe even felt it yourself.
There are two competing narratives going on right now regarding the work of CPS and foster care.
I know since I’ve experienced them both first hand as a foster parent. On one hand, there is the whole CPS is evil and needs to go and foster parents are only doing this to for the money and to abuse kids story. And then the other narrative takes over when people I meet find out I’m a foster parent, inevitably I hear something along the lines of “Oh my gosh, that is so wonderful of you to do that! You are a saint!”
Neither narrative is accurate: CPS isn’t evil and I’m not a saint. It is because the reality of what happens in the offices of social services, in home visits, and court rooms is messy. There are a lot of moving parts. It’s ugly and it will always be ugly. The truth is that CPS is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The problem is that we view things only from our own perspective. The person who called the cops because the 11 year old was playing outside did so because they thought this was unacceptable, despite this clearly being debatable on social media. The parenting debate has become one of helicopter versus free range and it has become militant enough that we sometimes buy into the lie that what the other parents are doing is wrong. Wrong and not ideal are two very different things.
And none of us are ideal parents.
I don’t share a lot of what I know about our foster cases and those of our fostering friends. Part of it is because it’s not my information to share. The other part is because people react pretty predictably: they are shocked and can’t believe that anybody would do such things…
I get it. I really do. It is so outside the realm of what we consider “normal” and the situations that most of us were lucky enough to grow up in bear little resemblance to the ones these kids come from. It’s heart-wrenching which is why it is wrong to say that CPS shouldn’t be taking kids because it is causing trauma. Trauma has already occurred. Yes, being removed from a home is traumatic, but it sometimes has to happen to remove a child from unspeakable horrors. The people who are worried about causing trauma don’t understand that it’s akin to refusing to pull someone out of a burning car because you are worried you might hurt them in the process.
I see things really differently now after becoming involved. I had to stop watching the news. Breaking news alerts would come on about something horrible happening when kids were involved. Maybe one ended up in the hospital.
And I’d look over at my phone and make sure it was on. I can’t ever bring myself to turn it off anymore.
Because I knew I might be getting a call to see if I would be willing to come pick a little one up.
I know because it has happened.
To the people who say that CPS is taking kids unnecessarily, let me put that rumor to rest. They generally aren’t. There are isolated cases of it like the case in Massachusetts, but where we are our experience has been quite different…
One of our foster daughters went home unexpectedly when we first started fostering. There is a court process after the removal of the child called adjudication. The judge rules whether or not there is legal grounds to keep a child in state custody. Our little girl’s case didn’t meet those standards, but if you knew the details… let’s just say the legal bar to keep a child in home with their biological family is so low that you’d be shocked. To say that parents have to meet a minimal standard of care is an understatement because the state values keeping families together whenever possible.
And when we are tempted to jump on the bandwagon in solidarity with the parents who insist that they had their kids taken away unfairly, we need to pause. It is safe to take their words with a grain of salt since we will only ever know one side of the story: theirs. For the sake of the kids, CPS will never comment on what caused them to actually removed the children. There is legal confidentiality and even if they look like the bad guys, that’s okay because the people involved are willing to take the blame in order to shield kids from their stories forever being out there. Cases need to be tried in a court of law and not of public opinion. There could be abuse, neglect, drugs, mental illness, or even sexual abuse. If you know of a family in this position, support them, but don’t enable. The way CPS is supposed to work is that the child is the focus and the child’s best interests are always at the heart of everything. To deem one side a bad guy means that we are already negating one voice a child has speaking for him or her.
Furthermore, I don’t think anybody gets any joy in removing a child. Most of the social workers I know and have worked with are just regular people trying to make a difference. Most have families of their own and I’ve seen the agony in their eyes when we talk about a case. I’ve never heard any of them ever say they “won” adjudication or a court hearing ruling.
It’s not about winning or losing. It’s already been lost. All there is to do is to pick up the pieces.
It is about mitigating the damages. It has a cost which is why I’ll be the first to admit what we do as a foster family is hard. Yet, someone has to be willing to bear this cost otherwise nothing is going to change. Maybe right now it is easy to write me off- I’m just part of social services and so I’m going to defend it. That’s not really what I’m doing here. I’m not defending the system. I think the system is only ever going to be as good as the people who are working in it. It’s also easy to beat up on the system when you have nothing at stake in it. We want someone or something to blame when something goes wrong with it. It’s easy to complain especially from behind the anonymity of a computer screen.
When things go wrong and something happens to a child, people often ask why CPS wasn’t involved and yet, people love to complain when CPS takes kids. Social workers have the unenviable job of trying to keep families together and yet ascertain the risk to kids in doing it. No one ever really knows what is going to happen and so they have to make their best guess. Sometimes they get it wrong or there is nothing they can do because as I said before, it isn’t legally actionable. It’s one of the reasons there is a fairly high turnover amongst social workers: it is emotionally exhausting and extremely stressful.
I hear calls for “accountability” whenever something happens to a child in care. I’m not saying this is wrong; I’m actually one of the first people to do this. It’s abhorrent and it infuriates me. People who would further victimize these precious kids have no business working in the system or even anywhere near children. While they alone are responsible for their heinous actions, part of the blame falls somewhere else: on us.
As long as good people stay away from working in the system and refuse to be willing to pay the cost to help these kids, people who shouldn’t be in the system are going to sneak through the cracks. People are spread thin and there aren’t enough foster homes to go around. The only people who can change this is us. We can support foster parents to make the load easier, we can foster ourselves, and we can advocate for these kids. It’s how we fix the cases of CPS over-reach. If good people with great judgment flood the system, we’ll be able to put the brakes on things before they ever happen. CPS has to deal with horrid things and we don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole.
CPS is ugly because people are ugly, we are ugly, and we’d often prefer to ignore it in favor of being comfortable.
It’s easy to blame an nebulous entity, but when we are confronted by a living breathing person who is walking these paths, it is a little harder. People are shocked my foster daughter is such a sweet and precious girl since the stereotypical foster kids is a terror, broken, and unlovable. She’s encouraged people I know to rethink becoming foster parents since kids are just kids and some have just been through a lot. I break the mold since I don’t seem to be out for the money and actually love my kids… all of them whether they are biological or not. I think that is why people presume I’m a saint. I laugh out loud whenever I hear this! I have just as much mess in my life as the next person; I just have Christ too. I daily remind myself of the verse “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because it’s not me and doing this with a chronic illness makes it daily apparent; it’s Him doing this when I just want to break down and cry.
It doesn’t start with signing up to be a foster parent though. It starts with us deciding to pay the cost wherever we are and in whatever capacity we can. That’s why I don’t think we are really entitled to an opinion about CPS when we aren’t willing to pay. The person who thought they were doing something good by calling the police on the 11 year old boy outside and home alone probably thought they were doing the right thing. Let me say it this way: the right thing would have been opening up your home to that kid or even just offering to be there if he needed anything. Calling police is the last resort- that is easy. Being present and engaged is hard. That is paying the cost.
Long before we were foster parents, we basically did what we do now, just on a different scale. The neighborhood kids know that our house is always open, they can play in our back yard, and I’ll feed them. My neighbors do the same thing. One other mom and I have a system if one of us is late meeting the bus after school: we take each other’s kids home with us. The moms on our street have a code: if one of us hears or sees something concerning about another’s kid we share it and we don’t judge. I’m blessed to have friends like this, but it starts by being a friend like this.
If we keep our eyes open and recognize the needs around us, things won’t always hit a breaking point that social services needs to be involved.There will always be the mess and ugliness though. People are broken, fallen, and selfish. We have to combat this by laying ourselves down and being the people God created us to be. Being authentic with our struggles, supportive, listening, and encouraging in whatever capacity we have been blessed with is a beautiful gift to give another soul.
Ugly comments need to stop, especially when made without the full information. I know it is easy to think that it is a way to impact the system. It is actually impacting the system… negatively. It perpetuates the myth that the system is generally predatory and makes good people turn the other way than wading into the mess. Yes, it’s gross to wade in the mire, but the same depravity exists in our own hearts too. Luckily our worst days just aren’t so public. The ugliness we see in comment sections comes from a similar place of pain in our own hearts whether we were a victim who wasn’t protected, we somehow think we are superior, or we just want to believe we are helping in a way that doesn’t cost us anything.
But they cost the people who are trying to fix it even more. Being inflammatory only makes it harder and more dangerous for social workers to step into situations the rest of us would shudder to go. The hard place next to that rock needs to be softer and it starts with engaging wherever we are and opening our front doors. We need to run towards the problem and not away.