When Should a Child Be Taken from His Parents?
What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house?
You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks. She will interview you and your kids separately, so you can’t hear what she’s asking them or what they’re saying. She opens your fridge and your cabinets, checking to see if you have food, and what kind of food. She looks around for unsafe conditions, for dirt, for mess, for bugs or rats. She takes notes. You must be as calm and deferential as possible. However disrespectful and invasive she is, whatever awful things she accuses you of, you must remember that child protection has the power to remove your kids at any time if it believes them to be in danger. You can tell her the charges are not true, but she’s required to investigate them anyway. If you get angry, your anger may be taken as a sign of mental instability, especially if the caseworker herself feels threatened. She has to consider the possibility that you may be hurting your kids, that you may even kill one of them. You may never find out who reported you. If your child has been hurt, his teacher or doctor may have called the state child-abuse hotline, not wanting to assume, as she might in a richer neighborhood, that it was an accident. But it could also have been a neighbor who heard yelling, or an ex-boyfriend who wants to get back at you, or someone who thinks you drink too much or simply doesn’t like you. People know that a call to the hotline is an easy way to blow up your life. If the caseworker believes your kids are in imminent danger, she may take them. You may not be allowed to say goodbye. It is terrifying for them to be taken from their home by a stranger, but this experience has repercussions far beyond the terror of that night. Your children may hear accusations against you—you’re using drugs, your apartment is filthy, you fail to get them to school, you hit them—and even if they don’t believe these things they will remember. And, after your children see that you are powerless to protect them, this will permanently change things between you. Whatever happens later—whether the kids come back the next week, or in six months, or don’t come back at all—that moment can never be undone.
The caseworker has sixty days to investigate the charges against you. She will want you to admit to your faults as a parent, and you should, because this tells her you have insight into your problems and that you have a sincere desire to accept her help and change your life. But you should admit only so much, because she is not just there to help you: she is also there to evaluate and report on you, so anything you say may be used against you in court. The Administration for Children’s Services—A.C.S., as child-protective services is known in New York City—has to prove its allegations against you only by “preponderance of the evidence.” It can bring in virtually anything as evidence—an old drug habit, even if you’ve been clean for years; a D.U.I.; a diagnosis of depression. While the court case is proceeding, you may be asked to submit to drug testing or a mental-health evaluation, to attend parenting classes or anger-management classes or domestic-violence classes and some kind of therapy. These services are intended to help you, but, if you want to get your kids back, they are not really voluntary, even though they may be so time-consuming and inflexibly scheduled that you lose your job. The more obedient you are, the better things will go for you. Even if you are innocent and can prove it, it could be more than a year before you get a hearing, and during those crucial months your compliance and deference are the currency that buys you visits with your children.
When should you take a child from his parents?