Eight Years and Counting
July 8, 2013 5:34 AM   Subscribe

The Girls Who Haven’t Come Home (NYT) The last time they took Vernice Hill’s children away, the time they didn’t give them all back, was the afternoon she went to see her neighbor. Ms. Hill lives in a hulking building on East 188th Street, in a frayed neighborhood in the Bronx. It was May 1, 2005.

[...]The city’s child welfare system, overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services, remains one of the most treacherous corners of social policy, a long troubled universe hobbled by defective approaches and strained services. Foster care is essentially a poverty business.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero (28 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This article is quite frustrating for several reasons, but for now I'll stick with being outraged at the part where the author strongly implies that the girls lied about being physically abused because they like getting presents. This despite the fact that their mother admits to hitting all of them with a belt regularly. I can't speak for every abused child, but as someone who was abused, the author should be ashamed.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:02 AM on July 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

Working in Child Protective Services is one of the most demoralizing and soul-crushing jobs a person can have. It's practically the definition of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:07 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

The trouble is that the law, at least most places that I know of in the US, totally protects the right of the parent to use physical discipline to a reasonable degree. So to some degree, 'my mom hit me' is NOT a reason to take a kid away from the parent. It might not be something you agree with personally, but you can't tell parents that this is okay in one breath and then take their kids away in the next.

Abuse is one of those tricky things. Kids' allegations need to be taken seriously. They do not need to be believed over all other evidence. If they were seriously believed, she shouldn't have had any of the kids back. But only the kids with these particular parents who happened to want to adopt them were making the allegations, and only those kids were kept away. I'm not sure if those girls should have gone home, but I'm quite sure that they should have gone to a different foster situation the moment that the foster parents proved willing to move away in order to prevent the children from potentially keeping a relationship with their biological mother.
posted by Sequence at 6:11 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't say I know what should happen for this family, but I do know a final decision should have been made long before the eight year mark! How horrible to everyone involved to be in limbo for so long.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:18 AM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I think that the ethical issues that get debated by politicians all the time are selected because there's the possibility there might actually be a summarizable answer. Whereas "What right do parents have to their kids, and how does the state balance that against the kid's welfare" seems like one that's nigh-impossible to answer at best, even on a case-by-case level. I know as a parent it ties my stomach in knots just thinking about it.
posted by selfnoise at 6:19 AM on July 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was intrigued by her son Jmapie's name, and googled it to see how common it is. I came up with this awful story from 1997. Hill and her children moved out of their home temporarily after finding out that their apartment was dangerous from peeling lead paint, only to have the landlord change the locks and get rid of all their stuff. In all it just seems like a really shitty life for the entire family.
posted by vanar sena at 6:21 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Holy shit, those poor kids. I know that the mother really wants her children back, but at this point, how is this going to affect her two daughters? The narrative may not point toward a woman who is downright abusive, but at this point, giving the girls back to her can't be the best thing for them, even if it is for her.
posted by xingcat at 6:45 AM on July 8, 2013

If they were seriously believed, she shouldn't have had any of the kids back.

Or perhaps she was abusing the girls and not the boys. Or perhaps her neglect of the girls was more dangerous because they were younger than the boys. In some cases it might, in fact, be better for the boys to go with her and the girls to stay in a foster home.

ACS has huge problems but this article illuminates few to none of them in favor of jerking heart strings and presenting a very one-sided narrative. Some of that is inevitable because of the confidentiality required of the children's services agency and of foster parents. The agency here is not ACS, but one of multiple private contractors that provide services for ACS, more or less under the supervision of ACS. The private contracting system is problematic for a lot of reasons. A similar system has been connected to the death of children in Philadelphia who were extremely high-risk but were assigned sub-par agencies that were not adequately supervised. The role that private, often religious, agencies play in the ostensibly public child welfare system is one of the many aspects of this case that would have been worthwhile to explore in a better article than this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:06 AM on July 8, 2013 [15 favorites]

In a sense, the system found her to be three-fifths of an acceptable mother.

Yeah, I see what you did there, article, and that seems like a pretty tendentious comparison to draw.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:18 AM on July 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Were they genuinely afraid of their mother? Or had they simply found a nicer place to live? Or both?

This article is a one-sided sob story impugning the motives of a pair of children.

What is wrong with not wanting to go back into a home environment like the one described? If an adult left a relationship with an alcoholic who admitted to hitting them there'd be nothing but applause.
posted by winna at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2013 [23 favorites]

I reached out to my state's protective services apparatus (New Jersey's "Division of Youth and Family Services") when I was 15.

My mother smooth-talked the caseworker into believing that I had invented everything out of whole cloth and I got a beating later in the evening that still gives me chills.

These institutions are underfunded and over capacity and everyone knows it and no one does anything about it. It comes as no surprise to me that things like this go on.

I have no idea what's really going on in the case in question, but that's some seriously slanted journalism.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:57 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the mother saying she'll accept the girls' decision “But they have to tell it right to me. And they have to know we’re here." is more of a threat than I think people from normal homes can understand.
posted by winna at 8:14 AM on July 8, 2013 [17 favorites]

This article is a one-sided sob story impugning the motives of a pair of children.

Yes. In addition to the shabby reportage, the way that the children are portrayed is extremely reminiscent of the way that emotionally abusive parents talk to and about their victims.

Perhaps next time the New York Times could consider getting a journalist or an editor who knows what they're reporting on, or who is at least willing to do basic legwork like talking to someone who is an expert in the psychology of abused children. They could ask about whether shifting details in stories actually indicates that the child is lying, or about whether children are likely to invent stories of abuse in order to live the high life with people whose household income is around $50,000 a year.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:40 AM on July 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

I agree that the journalist is (perhaps dangerously) naive about her perspective on this story, but I also agree that, considering there was abuse in the home, why has it taken 8 years to get these girls in a permanent legal placement outside the home?

As much as I would like it to be, spanking as a punishment is not legally considered to be "abuse" in every situation. We don't take children away from mediocre parents, or alcoholic parents, or parents who excessively spank their kids, unless their parents are poor, and especially if their parents are poor and black.
posted by muddgirl at 9:19 AM on July 8, 2013

Unless you have a cite that New York state law does not consider beating children with weapons abuse, muddgirl, I'm quite happy to have children taken away from parents who do so.

Given how desperate most children are to return home even to abusive situations, the fact that the girls desperately *do not* is extremely informative.
posted by tavella at 9:37 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can inflict some serious pain with a hand or a belt, especially when we're talking about a six-year-old, here. Or with whatever's handy, like a broomstick. And I don't understand why the latter seems to be presented as part of the children's unreliable stories - are we supposed to believe that she would have been more severely injured, or that if Vernice Hill had used any implements other than her hand and a belt on her children she would have listed them, too?

Having been held responsible for a great deal of housecleaning at a young age and beaten when it was done "incorrectly" or too slowly, I'm appalled at the "I'll just leave this here" tone of the author's comment about N's "bad memories of having to clean the house". Oh, the girl is lazy as well as greedy!

And seriously, one of the foster parents is elderly and the other is disabled. Maybe they have savings, but $50,000 doesn't go far in that part of the US. It's obviously a huge contrast from the poverty the girls began their lives in, but they're not being fostered by Daddy Warbucks, either.

I get that ACS' definition of abuse is stricter than what I as a survivor of child abuse would like, I really do. But multiple comments in the article about how Hill isn't a "homicidal murderer" and that she's "adequate" as a parent but really loves her kids demonstrate a tremendous lack of understanding about abusers and abuse. You don't have to hate your children to abuse them.
posted by camyram at 9:41 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

The foster parents should have been arrested long ago for leaving the state without proper authority.

It's absurd no action on that score has taken place and the girls placed with another foster family.
posted by zizzle at 9:57 AM on July 8, 2013

Also, some days the girls are going to find this article. And they're going to wonder WTF about parts of it.

The foster family will have a lot of explaining to do.
posted by zizzle at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2013

Re the young rope-rider's remarks about the issue of contracting out ACS services and the past problems with sub-contractors in Phillythis comment, from a thread on the Philly case, is enlightening and relevant here too. The state trying to wash their hands of these difficult cases and pawn them off on contractors who make shit wages and probably no benefits (including desperately needed mental health care) does neither kids in crisis or case workers any favors.

Anyone who does that 'trench work' long-term should be compensated like a goddamn CEO.
posted by ActionPopulated at 11:15 AM on July 8, 2013

Hitting a child with a belt isn't spanking. I believe that the NY standard is that you're allowed to hit your child with an open hand as long as it's not humiliating or degrading to an abusive degree and doesn't bruise or injure the child. I don't think using any kind of tool or implement on a child is ever legal, nor is bruising or injuring a child legal. Reasonable people (especially reasonable people from different cultures) can disagree about the occasional swat on the behind. When a belt gets involved it becomes something different. The mother admits to using a belt to hit her children and to having been frequently drunk due to an uncontrolled alcohol problem. Her daughters both attest to being hit more than once, again with an implement. That isn't the occasional light spanking. It is abuse. 
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:30 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

The foster parents should have been arrested long ago for leaving the state without proper authority.

It's absurd no action on that score has taken place and the girls placed with another foster family.

So the person who seems arrestable to you isn't the person who left her kids alone for days and hit them, but the people on a fixed income who moved somewhere with a lower cost of living perhaps without realizing that they needed a rubber stamp, which they later got? They should be arrested for what, kidnapping?

You do realize that moving foster families might mean them splitting up, right? Or being placed with really shitty foster parents who do it for the cash? That it might lose them their one shot at having a permanent adoptive home?
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:39 AM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Inside her apartment, her two little girls, 3 and 6, were napping. Her two teenage boys, Jmapie, 13, and Matthew, 15, were supposed to be tidying up their room. Around noon, Ms. Hill went to catch up with a frail woman she gossiped with. First, she had some beers. A pot of neck bones and kidney beans simmered on the stove.

Ms. Hill figures she was gone at best an hour. (The police report suggested several hours.) Her keys lay inside. When she returned, she banged on the door and got no response. Rather than clean their room, the boys had gone out — Matthew to the park to play basketball and Jmapie downstairs to a friend’s.

and this is where i interrupt this story to tell how it could, and did, go very differently in kalamazoo, this year

a mother of 4 young children and her boyfriend were in her apartment with them - the stove was alleged to have been very dirty with grease all over the place - the 2 year old, supposedly, had been caught playing with the stove - he liked to turn the knobs

the mother left to talk with a neighbor for a few minutes - it's still yet to be determined in court whether her boyfriend agreed to stay and watch the children

he left to talk to another person outside

within a few minutes their apartment was totally engulfed in flames - only one child survived

so, leaving her apartment with food going on the stove is pretty bad judgment on her part - a lot worse could have happened that day
posted by pyramid termite at 1:12 PM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

What the foster parents did was illegal, and the mother's rights had not been terminated.

Whether they should have been is a different matter, but since they weren't the foster parents effectively kidnapped the children, in my opinion. When courts start allowing foster parents of children from low income families to get away with stuff like this, it hurts the rights of all parents.

Or have you forgotten that being poor is not a crime.

I have a friend who works in the NYC court system. She works for families like this one, families for whom the entire system is broken.
posted by zizzle at 4:44 PM on July 8, 2013

When they came and I said nothing, etc.
posted by zizzle at 4:45 PM on July 8, 2013

There's no good solution for kids in that situation even if it turned out that the mother was a perfect parent and that any abuse charges were unfounded. Once you've been in foster care (presumably with the same foster family) for the past eight of your eleven or fourteen years of life, being uprooted from that would be unbelievably traumatic.
posted by lollusc at 6:35 PM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's no great outcome here.

At this point the girls have been gone too long for them to comfortably make the shift, although I really wonder what good can come of separating them not only from their mother, but from the rest of their family.

The fact that the foster parents moved out of state and that the agency did NOTHING to stop that, speaks volumes to how lackadaisically this case has been handled.

Working with kids in the foster system, the juvenille justice system and even your average school system is heartbreaking. There are so many parents out there who are just terrible with their kids.

My Dad ran a shelter home for abused, abandoned and neglected kids in one of his agencies. I worked there summers, doing stuff with the kids. Those kids had seen things that normal kids should never see. The stories would curl your hair.

You would hope that the agency and the state would work together to reunite the family. But sometimes it just doesn't work out.

I don't know that I'd return the girls to Ms. Hill, but I wouldn't divorce them from their natural family either.

That the girls are loved and well cared for makes me happy for them. That they don't know their family is so incredibly sad.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:55 AM on July 9, 2013

Like most human beings, there is a lot of aspects to the reasons that mother and children behave in the way that they do but the research shows that for the most part the best solution is with the biological parents if they can be rehabilitated....it is not the cheap way, it is not the easy way but kids in foster care is not a long term solution....even though we have made it so in this country. I have talked to lots of kids who had parental rights terminated....we let them go...they went home.
posted by OhSusannah at 6:54 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

This Humans of New York photo just happened to come across my FB feed.

"What was the saddest moment of your life?"
"When I got taken away from my mom when I was six."
"Do you still speak with her?"
"Honestly, I wouldn't even know what to say to her. I don't even remember her face. But I remember that day."
posted by zizzle at 4:57 AM on July 10, 2013

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