Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some Suggestions for Child Protection Courts

If a child were a mere manufactured product on an assembly line, and if some stage of that line ceased to pass quality control tests, a competent manager would repair that stage promptly or shunt products over to another line.  A focus on children, even as mere products manufactured by society, requires that they all be subjected (as they are, although inadequately) to appropriate formal and informal tests (conducted by adults and peers alike) on all significant aspects of their functioning and capability.  Just as a single defective product in the hands of the consumer has the potential to tarnish the brand name, to be returned to the store at a net loss, and even (in the case of spectacular public failure) to impair the corporate future, so also the graduation (not only from school, but also from the family and neighborhood of origin) of an improperly or incompletely finished child damages both the prestige of the American brand and the financial prospects of its developers.  To put it concretely, today’s kids are among those who will be paying my Social Security and wheeling me around my nursing home.  Even if I had no concern for their individual well-being, I would prefer that their generation would set the gold standard for what children can become.

The child welfare system stands, at present, as a poor cousin to the general, “normal” flow of childrearing.  By setting up a system that dwells upon cases of relatively extreme failure, we have created a caricature of upbringing in which the many who get by without involvement in that system tend to be treated as though they were all more or less OK.  And that would be wonderful, if so many of them were not then proceeding on into adulthoods that feature such regrettably high rates of mental illness, marital strife, career difficulty, and other varieties of misfit with or malfunction in the society that supposedly vetted them for their roles.

In the system we have, what I see in governmental incursions into child welfare is, too often, a matter of middle-class people – with, on average, a beige complexion – “handling” the “cases” of markedly lower-class and/or darker-skinned parents and children (as if to underscore in nomenclature their otherness in fact).  Having observed and experienced enough of childhood to conclude that most kids outpace their parents and other adults in many ways (e.g., inquisitiveness, risk tolerance, exercised imagination), I suggest that this “normal” caricature of upbringing tends to disserve not only the few who enter the system, but also the many who do not.  The assumption of apparent normalcy – of putting on a good show, on the way to frequently unsustainable pretensions of homogeneity and success in adulthood – becomes an expectation from which visible departure is stigmatized, both formally and informally.  Not surprisingly, in this strange arrangement, many children and parents who need extrafamilial help consider themselves successful if they can avoid it.

This spring, introductory exposure to juvenile courtrooms and to the national health care debate have shown me, in parallel lessons, that societal insurance arrangements are most likely to be supported and improved by those who use and can benefit from them.  One can safely predict that if members of Congress and other wealthy persons and their families (or, for that matter, the entire middle class) had been restricted, all along, to the same health care arrangements as the poor, and subjected to the same quality and extent of family oversight and intervention (and, for that matter, to an equal system of compulsory military conscription), I would have encountered a very different nation this spring, and very different learning opportunities on those topics.  I am suggesting that we will all benefit if we end the legal tolerance for gross inequality in societal benefits among citizens.

While that should happen across the board nationally, one small step in that direction would be to implement it earnestly within local child protection courts.  At present, if people were colored socioeconomically rather than racially, such courts would display more clearly the imposition of “white” values upon “dark” subjects.  This is not to say such imposition should never occur.  Society is capable of self-improvement through pressure to implement research findings to which the elite have better practical access.  Such findings may disproportionately impact the values and lifestyles of people who tend not to keep up with such knowledge (though that observation itself calls for caution).  But that imposition should not transpire in the manner of an arrogant cultural colonialism.  Intrusion into families is an exceeding sensitive matter.  Eventually it should be destigmatized and improved (in quality and alacrity), as hinted above, by making it compulsory for every family if it is to become compulsory in effect for any family; but in any event, in present terms, it should be primarily an educational and therapeutic affair, attended as closely on a week-by-week basis as any other educational or therapeutic process, and demanded by persons of obviously superior power only to the extent that education and therapy fail.

I have had the pleasure of observing a sweet-mannered referee in a child protection court.  Unfortunately, neither the law nor the legal culture guarantee comparable sweetness in all child and adult encounters with all persons of power in this system.  To the contrary, I have heard repeated reports of abuses by and ineptitudes of case managers (whose roles, if funding existed, could apparently benefit from lighter caseloads and better staffing).  In other words, sweetness is great, but it is not mandatory.  Nor is it always genuine.  Sometimes it operates selectively and/or proves to be self-congratulatory.  I have encountered people (not unlike those objectionable caseworkers) who fancy they are doing the Lord’s work, figuratively or literally, as they endorse or personally inflict damage on vulnerable individuals and families.  By contrast, I have recently encountered some student lawyers and pro bono attorneys who do seem dedicated to serving these people and learning how to become better at this sort of work.  It would be fantastic if attorneys who are familiar with this area of the law could leverage their knowledge for the benefit of others who lack adequate representation, especially during these times of relatively high unemployment for young lawyers, by offering continuing education or pro bono training opportunities for these students after graduation and/or for others of good intent who might wish to add this area of practice to their résumés.