On Wednesday, September 27, 2023, CFCC hosted an important day-long symposium focused on The Harm of Removal to Children, Parents, and Communities at the University of Baltimore School of Law. This post is one in a series of four posts about the CFCC 2023 Symposium.
The afternoon panel, “Removal Today,” provided a clear view of the statistics and practices of family removal today, including insights into the disproportionate impact of investigations, removals, and terminations of parental rights by race; an update on mandating reporting and ASFA; and family separation as policy and practice at the southern border. Participants in the final panel shared their experiences and insights on the harms of child removal in immigration and child welfare systems today. Prudence Beidler Carr of the ABA Center on Children and the Law facilitated the discussion between several participants: Dr. Tania Caballero, Rafael Lopez, Iesha Randolph, Nena Villamar, Vicki Schultz, and Jane Spinak.
The harm and trauma children experience from removal of
ten receive the most attentive and sympathetic response from the public. Dr. Caballero, an Assistant Professor and pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a parent of two children, discussed the public attention and outrage that emerged during the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017-2018. She pointed out the long-lasting trauma and health issues that children can experience from such separations. Spotlighting the atrocities experienced by migrating children led to changes in practice and policy.
However, the parents’ experiences of removal are often silenced and their experience of harm because of removal is often met with public judgment and justification. Beidler Carr highlighted the need to examine and acknowledge the harm of removal from the parent’s perspectives and grounded the discussion in the fact that each panelist is a parent. Beidler Carr also explained how the law, social science research, and the methods of providing services are starting to reflect and acknowledge the harm that families experience.
As a mother of four children whose children were removed in 2021, Randolph shared her personal experience of being separated from her children after she had sought help from a Maryland child protection services agency. Randolph, who also experienced removal when she was a child, had lost her grandmother and her home and was relying on her network to find shelter for her and children. She reached out to a Maryland child protection services agency for help, but instead her children were taken from her. Randolph expressed the lack of dignity that she experienced. “…Because I was homeless, they felt like I was unfit. Because I didn’t have a roof on top of my head [they felt like] I couldn’t teach my kids [and] I couldn’t feed my kids.” She described the mental stress and depression that she fell into when her children were placed with strangers in foster care. Randolph called for higher quality investigations before agencies remove children from their families. She also reflected on the positive impact that her peer advocate Christina had on her case. Christina helped her manage issues with her children’s schools, fill out forms, and problem solve even after traditional work hours. Recognizing the support she received, Randolph called for a deeper investment in peer advocates for parents who are system involved.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is changing its practice in response to parents’ experiences of the harm of removal. Villamar, the Chief of the Parental Defense Division at OPD, discussed how attorneys in her office witness the long-term harm to children and parents caused by separating families. She emphasized the importance of recognizing the grief and pain that parents experience when their children are removed. Villamar shared that OPD has recently started to provide pre-petition legal representation to parents. This legal service will help ensure that parents are able to protect their children from unnecessary removals. Ordinarily, by the time OPD can provide services, the children have already been taken from their families.
While child abuse and neglect legal proceedings are often described as supportive, problem-solving courts, Spinak who recently retired as a professor at Columbia Law School, explained that these proceedings are prosecutions involving some of the most important constitutional rights of American citizens. Spinak highlighted the lack of adequate legal representation for parents and children during the crisis. She emphasized that families should be supported to work with their neighbors and communities to find pathways to prevent removal, rather than relying on intervention. She pointed out that prevention is touted broadly, but the investment in prevention is terribly lacking. A 2023 survey by Child Trends found that during fiscal year 2020, state child welfare agencies spent $31.4 billion but only 14% of that expenditure was on prevention services.
Children’s attorneys play an important role in addressing the harm of removal. Schultz, the Executive Director of Maryland Legal Aid, discussed the role of the child’s counsel in representing the child’s wishes and best interests during legal proceedings. She explained that a child’s counsel must explain what the removal process is and to share with the judge what the child wants. These attorneys have to pay close attention and ensure that children receive the appropriate care and services they need when they have been removed. In Maryland, some children who have been removed from their parents are in very inappropriate placements, such as hospitals or hotels, where the lack of supervision frequently pipelines the children into the criminal legal system. Other children have experienced being given psychotropic medications without the proper diagnosis or medical oversight. Schultz explained that the system is not very consistent across county lines, which makes it hard for children to adjust when they change placements. Schultz explained that “It’s a broken system in many ways.”
The Maryland Department of Human Services is not exempt from the systemic brokenness that was identified by the panelist. Lopez, the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Services, and a father of two children, explained that major changes are needed in his department but, “if we only look at our brokenness, we will never fix the problem.” Community engagement in elections and advocacy are prerequisites to achieving the accountability and investments that children and families need. Lopez invited the audience to join him in his outrage about what we have grown to accept as “normal” in Maryland. “It is not normal in Maryland to have Black children removed disproportionately from their families. That’s not normal. It shouldn’t be normal.” More children in Maryland’s foster care system “age out” of foster care (which means they turn 21 and lose state support and custody without a permanent legal connection to a family) than the national average. He challenged, “What if we were the first state in the nation to not age out a single child?” Lopez is ready to speak the truth, have the hard conversations, and demand a different way forward.
Panelists discussed the need for comprehensive investigations before child removal, the importance of building trust between families and professionals, and the need to prioritize prevention efforts over removal. Participants also highlighted the urgent need to reallocate resources to support communities and prevent child removal, to address the root causes of family crises. When families come to the attention of the child protective agency, the focus should be on helping families stay together and providing them the necessary support so they can thrive. Beidler Carr closed the talk by pointing out that removal is not an evidence-based intervention. There was no evidence that supported using child removal or foster care as a good thing, but now we have mountains of evidence, both statistical and experiential, that removal is harmful. The attendees were left to face the question: What will it take for our systems to change?