Posts Tagged Child Protective Services

Bad Parenting Diseases Spread to Social Services

Published by — Healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.


For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school.  It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C..  Not so long ago, kids walked to school.  Older kids walked kindergartners.  And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.

I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn’t his decision, really.  It was a community norm.  In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents’ cars snaked around the block.  Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren’t hurt running between cars.  The Principal was often out there.  Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.

It gets worse.  Parents’ fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture.  Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.

“I am not lost.  I am a free-range kid.”

Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities.  Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being “unsupervised.”  But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a “safety plan.”  Their lawyer’s review is pending.  The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment.  In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are “free-range” and know what they’re doing.  But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.

It goes on.  Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house.  Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for “neglect” because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald’s.  How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?

Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.

By the age of 18, every parent’s precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own.  But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.  In teaching it’s called “release model.”  An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together.  Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo.  Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.

Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes.  Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance.  He went to Princeton, for heaven’s sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age?  Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance.  Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids’ autonomy from that slight distance.  If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we’ll end up raising a generation of young adults who’ll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.

The body politic has panic disorder.

Bad stuff happens.  We can’t prevent that.  We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens.  But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example.  Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful.  But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn’t proof that tree-climbing should be banned.  This is organizing for failure.  It’s like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he’s alive when it’s time for him to run the 50-yard dash.

Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism.  Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won’t take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk.  Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job.  Young adults might rely on them for help or advice.  But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Why ‘Bad’ Moms Still Should Parent Their Kids

Published by — Teach incompetent parents responsive, responsible parenting to avoid taking babies away from the people they love.

In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people’s lives.

Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes.  But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.

Speaking at a recent conference, she says, “I’ve done a lot of bad service in my life.  I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways.  I can’t tell you how many attached family relationships I’ve interrupted.  Sometimes there were good reasons.  But mostly we (social services) are re-traumatizing children in our efforts to help.”

That’s some indictment.

If a state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) find that a kid’s parents, usually Mom, are substance-involved, hurtful, mentally ill or neglectful, obviously the best thing to do is to get that kid out of there, asap.  Duh.  Right?

But Harden’s research proves that it’s absolutely the worst thing you can do — except in totally hopeless cases when Mom is irredeemable.

Automatically removing a child treats moms and babies as though they’re just spare parts.  When Mom doesn’t work out, switch her out for a better one.  Even “congregate or residential care,” essentially institutional orphanages, are preferable to letting Mom keep a baby she doesn’t deserve.

But such babies plunge into mourning.  They can’t express deep loss in ways adults recognize, but mourning it is.  Babies know and love the sound of Mom’s voice, smell, her familiar movements.  Mom is inevitably the first love relationship.  The health or weakness of that bond affects kids’ capacity to attach to others in healthy ways going forward.  Strong mother-child attachments give kids a resilient, socially-healthy start in life.  Weak, screwed-up, or broken early attachments often lead to a range of future problems, including attachment disorders, depression and other mental health issues.

Harden says, “Good mental health is what gets us through life.”

Harden’s research shows that what works best for everyone involved is to teach the “defective” mom how to parent well.  Strengthening rather than weakening their bond gives both the mom and the baby their best shot at future health and success.

Granted, if everyone’s best efforts reveal the situation to be hopeless, of course you have to terminate parental rights and liberate the child for adoption to improve his chances for success.

But before that happens, Harden has trained workers to go into troubled homes to teach moms how to be responsive, affectionate, attentive, playful.  They find a spark between mom and child, and fan it by modeling responsive parenting.  Some women have little feeling for their child, and must fake it until they make it.  But sparks can burst into flames.  Harden shows videos where we see her nurture the mother-child relationship.  One technique is to give Mom a video edited from the workers’ research tapes, that captures happy moments when mom parented well and was rewarded with her child’s joy.  She showed one such, set to the song “Eres Tu” — a tear-jerk, partly because of how much the child adored the awkward mom.  The point is that responsive, responsible parenting can be learned.

“Brains always have capacity to change.  But experience matters.  For a baby, the experience of adversity is the absence of stable care-giving.”

So Harden adores programs that keep “bad” moms and babies together, stabilizing the bond.  Surely her most controversial, but also most convincing example is of incarcerated moms who are allowed to keep their babies.  “Most of the women are in for petty crimes and will be out in 3 months.  Put Early Head Start in prison.  The moms are a captive audience, so build the mother-child care system right there.  Strongly bonding with the baby gives the mom motive to succeed on the outside, when she’s released.”

That makes painful amounts of sense.  The alternative is ripping the baby away from Mom to punish her, but what about the baby?   Strengthening the bond helps Mom stay clean or to lose the drug-dealing boyfriend.

“Moms have a host of problems, DV (domestic violence), substance abuse, mental health issues, developmental delays of their own.  Unless you add services into their lives, you can forget the baby.  With substance abuse, we bring mom into treatment and put the baby somewhere else.  These programs don’t work well.  The moms get out and use again.  The babies provide motive.”

As a culture, are we just too punitive to get our vengeful eyes off the offender and onto collateral casualties, like the kids?  By removing defective moms as though they didn’t matter, social services endorses the kick-out mentality.  The mom is bad, thus disposable.  Labeling people “bad” and putting them aside is too simple.  It ignores all the connections, the attachments, the context.

As such, automatically removing children from troubled homes is an early-childhood version of the kick-out mentality that leads to the classroom-to-prison pipeline.  It demeans how critically important relationships are to kids — all kids, of all ages.  Family members are not spare parts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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