Children As Chattel: Invoking The Thirteenth Amendment To Reform Child Welfare

AuthorKurt Mundorff

    Kurt Mundorff= B.A. History, University of Oregon, June 1992. Graduate, New York City Administration for Children's Services, James Satterwhite Academy, Division of Child Protection, Child Protective Specialist Core Training, July 2000. M.A. forensic psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Feb. 2002. J.D. candidate Benjamin Cardozo School of Law Qune 2004). Staff editor, Cardozo Public Law, Policy, and Ethics Journal. I want to express my thanks to E. Nathaniel Gates and Carolyn Kubitschek for their guidance and encouragement with this note. I also want to thank Aviva Orenstein and Dorothy Roberts for reviewing early drafts of this note. Finally, the staff of the Cardozo Public Law, Policy, and Ethics Journal, especially Emily Compton, deserve great praise for their efforts in bringing this note to publication.

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During my fourteen months as a Child Protective Specialist for the New York City Administration for Children's Services I generally investigated two or three cases a week. I also accompanied co-workers on their home visits. Through my job, I became involved in the lives of dozens of families and hundreds of children. The Community District for which my unit was responsible was on the far eastern edge of Queens and contained African American and white neighborhoods. I rarely went to the white neighborhoods, but I became very familiar with the African American neighborhoods. I knew their streets. I knew their school officials. I knew their homes. I was surprised that almost none of the parents that I investigated had abused or neglected their children. I was involved with over a hundred cases, but only dealt with one case of real child neglect and one case of classic child abuse.

During my time with the agency I saw several children taken from homes where they faced some level of very real danger. I also saw the agency steamroll many dozens of innocent families. They became involved in a system that was capricious, abusive, and which seemed to do more harm than good. The only help we offered the children was to place them in foster care; there seemed to be no intention of helping parents. Very quickly, it became clear to me that the "help" of foster care was no help at all. While I met some warm, caring foster parents, the vast majority of foster parents I met were obviously in it for the money. They were baby boarders.

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Foster parents are not the only people who profit from the child protective process. I began to see myself as part of a vast industry of professionals who earn their income by providing services to families and their children. We provided a vast array of services, which I quickly came to realize were ineffective and at times even harmful to the people we were supposed to be helping. Parents also did not see services as helping. Services were a series of hoops they had to jump through to get my agency out of their lives. At each hoop was another professional accepting money from the state. The more hoops, the more money.

* * *

Charles was a sweet, if somewhat defensive, twelve-year-old African American child.1 Given the circumstances of his life, he had every reason to withhold his trust. He was born to a drug-addicted mother and ended up living with his grandmother. She cared for him as long as she was physically capable and then turned him over to the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) when he was three years old. ACS transferred him from foster home to foster home before he was taken in by the Dawson family. They were an African American couple. She was in her late fifties and looking forward to retirement, while he was in his early sixties and had just retired. They took in Charles and two infants, who were both diagnosed as special needs children due to medical problems. Looking for income to augment their retirement, they intended to adopt all three. Between the three children, this would mean at least $2,000 per month for the couple.

Soon, the Dawsons began to question whether they were a good match for Charles. Early on, they contacted the worker at the adoption agency, to tell her that they could not handle Charles and that they did not want to adopt him. The adoption agency worker told them that if they did not adopt Charles they could not keep the two infants. She said that because the three were placed together, they were now considered siblings and must be adopted together. This was a lie. The adoption worker, knowing that Charles was difficult to place, and that the couple wanted the other two children, simply pressured them into taking Charles.

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The Dawsons came to fear for their safety. They found a pock-etknife under Charles's pillow and described how Charles constructed home-made knives that he hid around his room. They said he was a liar, saying he made them take him to an emergency room, for stomach pains, while they were on vacation in South Carolina. They resented having to pay the emergency room bill when it turned out that there was nothing wrong with him. They submitted the bill to Charles's New York State Medicare, but were told that he was not covered for out-of-state emergency treatment. This too was a lie.

Charles's therapist called the State Central Register for Child Abuse and Neglect to report Mr. Dawson when he left Charles in her office during a family counseling appointment. The report came in as a case of abandonment. The police took custody of Charles and he was turned over to after-hours workers from the Emergency Children's Services division of ACS, who in turn took him to a local hospital. In addition to the child protective case, Mr. Dawson also faced criminal charges for the abandonment.

In my initial interview with the therapist, she reported the long history of difficulties between Charles and the Dawsons. Describing the couple as out of touch with childhood today, she admitted that Charles was having problems, but said she did not think he was a danger to anyone. The therapist reported that he had made the knives because he was being bullied at school, but he did not take the knives to school and had no plans to use them. She described the couple as rigid and punitive and said they blamed Charles for many of their problems.

Mr. Dawson was alarmed by the child protective proceedings against him as well as the criminal charges. He said that he did not want to leave Charles in the therapist's office and had done so only at her urging. He said he would not, under any circumstances, allow Charles into his home, but that he hoped this would not affect his other two adopted children. Reporting a long history of problems with Charles, he described how resistant the adoption agency had been to helping the family. Not required to have any involvement once the adoption became complete, the adoption agency refused to consider taking Charles back into foster care or to provide the family with therapy.

There had been an earlier child protective investigation concerning Charles and the Dawsons. That case was called in by a neighbor, Mrs. McMahon, who was concerned about the Dawsons' treatment of Charles. The investigation report had revealed that, following Charles'sPage 134emergency room visit, the Dawsons put him on a diet of franks and beans, until he paid them back the expense of the visit. He would eat this meal sitting in the kitchen while the rest of the family enjoyed a normal dinner in the dining room. They also withheld birthday gifts, Christmas gifts and clothing to compensate for this expense. The investigation also revealed that, because Charles came home from school earlier than they did, the Dawsons made him sit either in back of the house or in the garage each afternoon until they returned home. During this time, he had developed a relationship with the McMahons.

The McMahons had a son in the same class as Charles, and Charles would often come to their home during the time he was supposed to be waiting in the back yard. In their home, he was well-fed, loved and had a great time playing with their son, but he had to be sure to return to the yard before the Dawsons returned because they became angry if he was not waiting for them. On more than one occasion, they called the police on the McMahons for having Charles in their home. They resented the McMahons' interference in their affairs. In reviewing this report, I found a letter to the Ombudsman of ACS, from Mrs. McMahon, describing Charles's treatment and offering to adopt him.

It was clear that the Dawsons were not going to take Charles back. So, I contacted the McMahons, and they reiterated their desire to adopt him. It seemed like an easy solution, but there were several obstacles. First, I told the McMahons that they would need to go through an adoption agency in order to receive Charles's adoption subsidy money. This would be difficult because they would have to go through a lengthy clearance process during which Charles would be in yet another placement. But they said they were not interested in the subsidy, only in Charles. Second, the Dawsons were Charles's legal parents and it was unlikely that they would consent to the adoption. In a conference with the Dawsons, however, their only condition was that Charles was not to walk directly in front of their home; he would need to cross the street if he wanted to go down the block. The McMahons contacted an attorney, went to family court and filed for custody. The Dawsons did not oppose, and custody was transferred.

When I called the therapist to inform her of Charles's new situation, she asked that I tell...

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