Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The More They Stay The Same

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So, I’ve been looking at the comments this morning, and it’s been interesting.

Mike is right to an extent–things have indeed gotten better in many ways.

But maybe not in as many ways as he thinks.

Because one of the things that’s been striking me while reading Oliver Twist is how similar it is to the way we handle (mostly poor) children today.

We have, of course, quite thankfully reduced the use of the death penalty to murder only, and to nothing at all in some places–but we have no compunction to sentencing children as young as 15 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  We just keep them in juvenile facilities until they’re 18, and then ship them across town.

And I have no idea what the rate of orphaned children is these days, but go someplace like Washington Heights or Crown Point or the South Bronx, and you can find plenty of ragged, half-starving children roaming the streets.

You can find plenty of Fagin-like operations, too, with parents and live in boyfriends using children to run drugs and help with the shoplifting. 

But the most striking similarity is this:  the principle institution for “doing something” about children whose parents are absent, or inadequate, or criminal, is to farm them out to designated adults who are paid to keep them. 

This is true in Dickens, and it is true now, because that’s what foster care does. It places children with adults who are given a monthly stipend to pay for their care.

The principle problem with this system in Dickens is the same as one of the principle problems with the foster care system now.  The adults who are supposed to care for the children have an incentive to spend as little as possible on their upkeep and pocket the rest of the money for their own use.

And in spite of all the oversight and training programs and the rest of it that we are supposed to have now, there is a lot of this going on–at least a couple of majorly reported cases a year where foster children are found ragged and malnourished while their foster parents spent their care stipends on lottery tickets and beer, where foster parents ate well and provided little or nothing for the children in their care.

I don’t know if this is a problem that is fixable.  Obviously, oversight does not work 100% of the time.  And the kind of people who would not respond to stipends this way are often unwilling to take in foster children precisely because the oversight is intrusive and often destructive of normal family life.

The stipend attracts the wrong kind of people and the oversight scares away the right ones.  And then the departments do what they have to do to place children somewhere.  They take what they can get and turn a blind eye to what they would brand as violations in any other situation. 

That’s why, ever few years, we get another report from another state that foster homes are actually more dangerous for children than the homes they were taken out of.

But the similarities between Oliver Twist and now are more obvious to me in terms of attitude. 

No, we won’t hang a child for stealing a loaf of bread, but if he skips school too often we’ll pick him up and throw him into a “juvenile facility” for a week while he awaits a hearing, and while he is in that facility we’ll handcuff him and shackle him anytime he has to go anywhere, like court.  We’ll treat him, in other words, as if he were a violent offender.

And it’s not even a matter of being presumed guilty of viciousness until proven innocent.  There is no way for the child to prove himself innocent.  If he’s in the facility at all, he will be treated as a violent offender, no matter how perfect his behavior for how long.

I think discussing whether this sort of thing is better or worse than the Victorians did it is, as the man said, peripheral. 

The truly astonishing thing is that we continue to think of children–and especially poor children–as innately, incorrigibly vicious, to be approached with all the caution we use when we handle rabid dogs. 

We’re even willing to put children on the sex offender registry, for terms as long as forty years, for committing acts it’s sometimes obvious had no sexual content for them at all, or for doing things that any sane society would consider absolutely normal.   It really isn’t a sign of a budding rapist for an 18 year old to have sex with his 15 year old girlfriend.

If there is a similarity between that time and this, it’s that we seem to believe that if children are born poor they are also born bad–and we’ve added to that  that if they’re male, they’re probably born bad even if they’re not born poor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was widely ridiculed for insisting on the fundamental innocense of children, and I’ll admit that there are rare cases in which that is not your best assumption. 

Part of me, though, does feel that there is some value in making that the default assumption.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2012 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'The More They Stay The Same'

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  1. It’s difficult to get enough foster homes here these days, so children whose parents have problems making it difficult to care for them (as I am assured is the reason these children are in need of shelter) used to end up in hotel rooms and now end up in the custody of private companies that own or buy houses around the city and staff them with workers. The workers don’t seem to need a lot in the way of qualifications, although some are students in psychology or social work. They call the police when the older ones run off or trash the place. One 16-year-old from this kind of background ended up in a regular boarding hourse on government pay, quarreled with the other residents and set the place on fire, burning one of his housemates alive.

    Of course, not all of these children are so obviously dangerous, and I suspect most if not all don’t start out that way. (Me, I figure if you’re 16, you’re not a child any more except by legal technicality). There always seem to be children who are neglected and abused, and actions to assist them sometimes end up being extremely destructive towards perfectly normal families.

    I don’t have the answers. I wish I did.


    3 Jun 12 at 12:11 pm

  2. We’ve obviously dug ourselves into a serious hole–and given that the victims can’t vote or pay politicians, there’s no particular urge to stop digging.

    But be wary of the solutions.

    One example of many possible: the bands of “homeless” living in public spaces? They’re solutions. We fixed the terrible cruelty of vagrancy and panhandling laws. We put an end to the Nurse Ratched style asylums for people who were OK if they took their meds. And we put an end to the inclusive, intrusive family expectations that meant you had to take in out of work relatives. I’m pretty sure none of the advocates for these things pointed out that the consequence would be the return of the paleololithic tribe.

    We have foster care–which is sometimes horrible–because it was a solution to the inhuman institution of the orphanage. Foster care would provide a more homelike environment, look after kids for a little while while Mom got her life back together, and, with luck, sometimes lead to adoption. When it turns out to be a disaster, we can’t get rid of it because (a) Child Protective Services would have to own up to its own mistakes, (b) millions of voters are receiving cash payments, some of which flows to those in power and (c) we tore down the orphanages and fired the workers.

    We treat juvenile criminals like adults because when we didn’t, we had 15 year olds committing the most horrifying rapes and murders imaginable, spending a few months in more comfortable surroundings than many homes, then being released. Toward the end, street gangs were using underage assassins. So now we have prosecutors and judges making bad judgment calls. When they’re not permitted judgment calls, we get a different set of outrages.

    And we treat kids in lockup as violent criminals because of the times we didn’t. Some years ago in my home town they locked up a teenage girl in the local “youth center”–I think just to hold her somewhere which wasn’t jail until they could hand her over to her parents. She got a cursory search by a matron and no physical restraint. There was no history of violence, after all, and she was just a kid. Then she put LSD in the staff coffee pot. I don’t know how things are today, but for some time afterward, body searches and restraint were taken a LOT more seriously.

    Kids get their hands handcuffed behind them because for a long time, the leading cause of violent death among lawmen was being shot with their own firearm–because they didn’t think someone was a threat. Supervisors tired of attending funerals started giving orders that everyone being locked up was to be treated as a threat.

    None of this means the present situation is acceptable. But I would recommend three things. First, when we consider new laws and procedures, think really hard about how they can be abused. Second, focus on local solutions, and study them. Odds are if it didn’t work out in Indiana, it’s not going to be a triumph in California either. Third, plan your retreat: don’t dismantle the old structure until you’re sure you’ll never want it again, and put a “sunset” provision in the law.

    Because the only law we can never repeal is the law of unintended consequences.


    3 Jun 12 at 1:19 pm

  3. ‘ Foster care would provide a more homelike environment… When it turns out to be a disaster, we can’t get rid of it because … millions of voters are receiving cash payments, some of which flows to those in power ..”

    From http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/foster.pdf;

    • Point in Time. On September 30, 2010, there were an
    estimated 408,425 children in foster care.

    • 48 percent in nonrelative foster family homes
    • 26 percent in relative foster homes
    • 9 percent in institutions
    • 6 percent in group homes
    • 5 percent on trial home visits (situations in which the State
    retains supervision of a child and the child returns home on a
    trial basis for an unspecified period of time and after 6 months
    are considered a discharge from foster care)
    • 4 percent in preadoptive homes
    • 2 percent had run away
    • 1 percent in supervised independent living

    So 26 percent are with relatives, 4 percent in the process of being adopted, the solutions preferred by Robert.

    48 perceont, or if we do the arithmetic, approximatly 204,000 are in non-relative foster homes.


    That does not add up to a voting block of “millions”, and such as there are are dispersed and hence diluted as a block across the entire country.


    3 Jun 12 at 2:11 pm

  4. Good point, Michael. And if those numbers are honest, probably fewer than 200,000, because in the foster care business, volume really makes a difference–though I’ll hedge on “relative foster care.” Is that the state helping out Grandma a little, or some second cousin with a great racket? Probably both, and I don’t know the percentages. (Not often you see an approximate number down to units, either, by the way. And I like how, to the government, you can be a runaway and in foster care at the same time.)

    Now you tell me: how many people can draw money from a program before that becomes part of the political calculus?

    Did you find the numbers of Child Protective Services types while you were at it? Because 200,000 people receiving foster care money would only be three times GM’s United States work force, and we all know that can’t be a political consideration.


    3 Jun 12 at 2:54 pm

  5. “Because 200,000 people receiving foster care money would only be three times GM’s United States work force, and we all know that can’t be a political consideration.”

    Let us suppose that fully half of those 200K are willing to put up with the intrusive supervision, to put up with having the kids underfoot, to have to feed them and deal with with whatever problems caused by said kids that they can’t ignore, all to game the system — to get some additional spending money for booze/partying or gambling.

    And they’re spread all over the country.

    Vs. the autoworkers, some at least of whom are union members, said union which has members from all parts of the auto industry not just one company, and which is run buy paid professionals whose job it is to look out for the interests of their union members, who pay dues to have their interests looked after.

    If you’re cynical about the motivations of foster parents, I’m twice as cynical about the executive functioning of people trying game a system for relative peanuts to set aside any of that ill gotten gain on organizing and lobbying, let alone get the organizing and lobbying done. First, that’s money they could be spending on the booze and gambling, and if they had sufficient executive functioning they wouldn’t need to go to all the effort of gaming the social welfare system for peanuts.

    So no, their number is not, to my mind, a political consideration.

    Unless you have some hard data to the contrary?


    3 Jun 12 at 3:46 pm

  6. I’ve got brothers and sisters who came out of orphanges. And I’ve got brothers and sisters who cae out of foster care.

    Whatever reason we have for maintaining the present system, it’s not being done because it’s best for the children.


    3 Jun 12 at 5:19 pm

  7. I’m not defending foster care per se, my point is that incorrectly assigning the cause of its persistence won’t help if you’re trying to reform it. You’ll be fighting all the wrong battles for all the wrong reasons.


    3 Jun 12 at 11:45 pm

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