Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Our Story of a Broken System

A reader sent me this article from The Washington Post: "A Case of a Family Services Job Well Done, or Overdone?". The Caplans' experience is so similar to ours that it was hard to read- I could feel myself right back at October 13th, waking up in our apartment with the sick realization that Landon was in a shelter and I didn't know when we could get him home- but I'm glad to see the story is out there.

I think it's important for this side of child protective services to be publicized. Protecting children from abuse is of paramount importance, but so is protecting innocent families from abuse by a frighteningly powerful agency. I am so thankful that Landon was too young to remember any of his time in the shelter (this is sadly not true in many stories), but the aftershocks of our false accusations will reverberate through his life and the life of our future children. We're terrified of the normal bumps and bruises kids get as they progress and play. The "3-month birthday" page of his baby book is blank because he turned three months old in the shelter. I think of all the crazy things I did as a kid that could have landed me in the emergency room and I'm sad that I want to keep Landon from doing any of them.

We never protested against DCFS's initial involvement in our case. But after three different attending pediatricians asserted that Landon's injuries could have been caused by things other than child abuse, after our pediatrician contacted both DCFS and Dr. K (because neither of them contacted her) to assert that Landon had been in her office many times without a single canceled appointment, bruise, or sign of neglect, after JP and I passed polygraph tests, after the assistant state's attorney refused to take the case because there was not credible evidence to believe Landon had been abused, the investigation did not end -- it actually got worse. I will never understand the final twist in our case and how we went from "he can go home with you, JP, and your mom and this will be wrapped up in a week or two" to "he is not safe in your home, even with your mother present, and he is better off in a shelter" in one night. The investigative file has no explanation for the sudden change. I sympathize with the lack of resources, overworked investigators, and the fear of letting a child slip through the cracks, but when children are repeatedly left in obviously abusive situations and my child was put in a shelter in a situation that was far from abusive, the system is broken on both ends. I can't even comfort myself by believing the overzealousness applied to our case is saving children in others - there was an article just last week about yet another child who died from the abusive hands of his parents after DCFS declined to intervene after being called on several occasions.

I was told many times during the dark days that I was "brave" to put my story out on the internet. I really didn't see it as bravery- when I wrote that first post about Landon's doctor appointment and the start of the investigation, I never imagined it was going to turn in to such a nightmare. I just thought I'd write about a scary night in the ER and then focus on Landon's injuries and the bone disease I was certain he must have. Later, when I started reading message boards and blog posts doubting me, my story, and our care of Landon, I understood why some people felt I was being brave. But at that point, too many people were following the story and I was getting too much from the supportive (and often informative) comments to stop.

Now I wonder, should we have done more? At the time I felt so beaten down by the suspicion and fear that the last thing I wanted to do was publicize our story more. I still remember every word of the negative blog posts and message board threads I read about us, and I knew I couldn't handle any more of that. But now I regret not pushing back harder - what happened in our case was wrong. There was an article in the Chicago Tribune in November praising the CPS doctor in our case and how she's pushed to have every child admitted to the ER for a broken bone, burn, or bruise evaluated by her team. This is dangerous unless the opinions of other pediatricians and specialists are allowed to matter (they currently have no weight in child abuse investigations at the University of Chicago Children's Hospital). Interestingly, all the online comments for that article were negative- mostly from parents who had been wrongly caught up in the system (or knew people who had). One of the hardest parts about sharing my story has been reading the emails of other wrongfully accused parents who have found my blog. I do not want to discourage them from reaching out to me, I know how important that is, but it is so, so hard to read their stories. There are many times when I have to stop reading and go back later- it just takes me back to those days of waking up, hoping it was all a nightmare, and re-realizing each morning that it was real. I think their stories would be heart-rending to anyone, but to me they're physically painful. Most are far worse than ours, with their kids caught up in social services for weeks and months before a judge or third-party intervenes. These are stories that aren't being told.

I think I would like to be brave and tell mine outside the blog, but I'm not sure how to begin. Do you just draft an article or letter to the editor and start sending it around? Do you contact a newspaper and see if there's an interest? I have no idea, do you?

15 comments:

  1. Instead of contacting a newspaper, is there a specific reporter who you read and enjoy? You'd probably do better contacted them directly, rather than getting whoever the newspaper shunts you to. Also, beware of writing letters to the editor- sometimes it works out great, but other times they edit the heck out of it to the point where you'd hardly recognize it anymore.

    You have an important story. You should share it as much as you are comfortable.

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  2. Who wrote the November Article in the Chicago Tribune praising the doctor? Do you think you could contact that reporter and say, "Are you interested in hearing the other side, the damage inflicted by this zealot?"
    Well, word it how you want, but journalists are interested by controversy, and here is a controversial counterpoint to their earlier story.

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  3. I agree that you should contact the reporter who wrote the November article in the Trib...worth a shot. Failing that, I think you should write an Op-Ed piece for the paper - more effective than writing a letter to the editor and allows you to say much more than a letter would.

    If you're not sure where to start, just google "write an op-ed" and you'll get lots of results. Good luck.

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  4. I just want to warn you about believing everything you read. I work in the DC system and there is so much more to that story. But, b/c of confidentiality, we can't comment. So, just remember, it may not be as clear cut as you think.

    Oh, and the reason that story is getting so much attention is b/c of the fatalities in DC recently.

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  5. I don't know where to start but I agree your story needs to be told.

    Just reading this made me so angry all over again.

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  6. I don't know what to tell you. But every time I hear of yet another horrifying story of abuse (I can't even describe the last one, because it's beyond belief to me), I think of you, and I wonder: WHAT THE FUCK? Your kid took a spot in a shelter that belonged to a kid who really needed it, whose need went unmet. Why must there be misery at both ends? Why do I hear zero stories about CPS getting it right?

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  7. I also think you should contact the Tribune, and tell them there is another side to the story they wrote. Tell them specifically that you've been writing about your experience on a blog, and your story has attracted a lot of readers. Invite them to read the blog themselves so they can see that you are not just some crackpot with an axe to grind.

    If this woman is breaking up families on a regular basis without adequate cause, people need to know.

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  8. In recent years, there have been numerous stories in newspapers around the world about the failures of the departments of Family Services and Social Services to do their respective jobs of monitoring and assisting children in dangerous situations. Do we ever read about a child murdered by a family that the Department of Children & Families or the Sheriff's Office has not already investigated, usually more than once? What will it take to protect these innocent children?
    These stories are a step in the right direction, but one wonders if perhaps they came too late. All the outrage in the world can't resurrect a dead child.
    Too many children have died as a result of wrong decisions by CPS. With power comes responsibility and accountability, which most officials ignore. A child welfare system so overwhelmed with children who don't need to be in foster care,the less time they have to find children in real danger.

    Let's NOT allow these precious children's death to be in vain - in the news one day, forgotten the next. Please be a voice for good, a voice for the voiceless, a voice for change.

    Children Who Didn’t Have to Die - Website http://suncanaa.com/

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  9. Great story. You are right, this side of child protective needs to be exposed. It happens to thousands of people every year.

    I will link to this.

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  10. After working in newspapers for 10 years (and now a MILS), I agree with everyone who said to contact the reporter who wrote the story about the doctor. Email would probably be best -- I know that I always assumed that callers were crazy (because most were), but an email will give the reporter time to read it a couple of times and realize that you're legit. I'd also send a link to your blog to give it a little more legitimacy (sp?).

    I don't know anyone at the Tribune, otherwise I'd give you a contact. But the earlier reporter is probably your best bet.

    melpbpost@yahoo.com

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  11. also, if one of the news stations has a "On Your Side" program (i.e. "Channel-7 News On Your Side)...where you contact the news station and that reporter opens up the story. Although if you'd rather protect your anonymity, contacting that reporter in the Trib is probably better.

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  12. Funny thing is that the Caplan's story was hardly publicized, even though I live in the DC area. Makes you scared to let your kid grow up an dplay in the yard or ride a bike for fear that they might injure themselves in such a way that might LOOK like an injury similar to an abuse-type injury.

    I did however, hear nothing but the Benita Jacks story for 2 straight weeks. So incredibly heart-breaking. I can only imagine how frustrating it was for that school official to get the run-around when she was trying to do the right thing.

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  13. The only thing I can suggest is contacting Ken Trainor at the Wednesday Journal. (It's an Oak Park paper) ktrainor@wjinc.com

    I'm not quite sure how to go about it, but it might be a place to start. If he can't help you, he may know someone who can. If you're concerned at all, you can tell him I mentioned it to you.

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  14. When I was following your story and again reading the Post story, what stuck with me was that the officials were actually saying that they felt this need to crack down hard on people with "privilege". Playing devil's advocate (and you know I think you guys were treated HORRIBLY), I guess what I'd want the reporter to show is whether they were acting excessively harshly to prove a point or whether they act this way with low income people who just don't have a voice to talk about it. It seems like if four innocent low income children can be murdered by their mother and no one notices, yet one small injury to a higher income child results in months of resources targeted to investigating those parents. Seems unjust. DC has had some really tragic stories over the years.

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  15. It is very difficult to challenge
    self-appointed child abuse experts in the public venue, as newspapers tend to treat them exceptionally uncritically. Often, these physicians do not have a lot of pofessional credibility with peers (especially, in child abuse cases, peers such as orthpedic or neurology specialists who may have a better understanding of the biomechanics of injury) but
    this is usually not evident to the
    family caught up an investigation.
    And the peers are unlikely to comment publicly on such a delicate and emotional issue.

    The other problem here is that this
    was apparently a very poorly done investigation which took far too long and proceeded erratically, with little real concern for the
    child's safety and comfort, much less the parents. So you have to
    disentangle the bad investigation from the perhaps overly zealous doctor. Had the investigation proceeded expeditiously and professionally (it clearly didn't)
    the doctor's actions may have been
    much less damaging to your and your family.

    As to who to contact, if the U. of C. doctor is associated with MPEEC,
    DCFS' consulting arm, the taxpayers are paying for her consults through a grant. The grant is managed by the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center. You could call their director and ask her where you would direct a complaint about
    MPEEC (thy used to have a website,
    mpeec.org, but it doesn't seem to be functioning).

    You could contact not only Erwin McEwen, the current DCFS director but also your state senator and representative. There is a DCFS Oversight Committee in the Illinois Legislature which is supposed to look at deficiencies in DCFS functioning, so you could ask your state rep to bring your case to their attention.

    Ofelia Casillas of the Trib and
    Sarah Karp of The Reader have written on child welfare issues in the past but I don't know if they
    are still there. However, whoever
    answers the phone at these papers could probably direct you.

    Good luck. We have a right to
    competent, professional and timely investigations by DCFS, whose services our taxes pay for, and unfortunately they often don't happen.

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