DCF and the poor: Is the system fair?
The Department of Children and Families is seeking to terminate the parental rights of a New London (Connecticut) couple whose son nearly died in a Groton foster home — an outcome, advocates say, that highlights the downward spiral of poor families who become trapped in the child welfare system.
Once poor parents become involved with DCF, they don’t have the legal resources to fight; they’re required to fix housing and financial problems to get their children back and there’s no public scrutiny or recourse if they feel they’re treated unfairly within the confines of private, juvenile court, advocates said.
“The confusion of poverty with neglect is the single biggest problem in American child welfare,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Poor parents are more likely than middle-class parents to have their parental rights terminated because they’re more likely to have their children taken in the first place, he said.
The department served 73,360 children in 2016 and had 2,310 children enter DCF care, or 3 percent of the total served. Of the substantiated investigations by DCF, 90 percent are for neglect and 10 percent are for abuse.
Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at New York University and co-director of the Family Defense Clinic, said the only children in foster care in the United States come from poor families. People turn a blind eye to the same behavior or inadequate parenting in middle-class neighborhoods, he said.
“Despite the rhetoric that children only be raised by adequate parents, we only apply that to one side of town,” he said.
“With poor people, we regulate their lives much more closely. And we always pass the test that we didn’t do this because of poverty. Because there is always something to pin it on beyond poverty,” he said.
The process of terminating parental rights starts the moment children are removed from custody of their parents, said attorney Michael H. Agranoff, who worked in the juvenile system for 26 years representing families in cases against DCF. He said he is familiar with the New London case, though he could not comment on it directly.
“Even though you grew up thinking you are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that doesn’t hold in DCF cases,” he said. Courts typically uphold orders of temporary custody because no judge wants a child injured or killed on his or her watch, Agranoff said.
Kirsten Fauquet and John Stratzman’s toddler son became the focus of attention last year after he nearly starved to death in foster care in November 2015. The child, one of five children removed from their home, has been in multiple homes since then.
Lisa Vincent, the lawyer representing Fauquet, said she would fight the petition to terminate parental rights.
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