Maisha Joefield briefly lost custody of a child who wandered away while she was taking a bath. Kevin Hagen for The New York Times
Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’
Maisha Joefield thought she was getting by pretty well as a young single mother in Brooklyn, splurging on her daughter, Deja, even though money was tight. When Deja was a baby, she bought her Luvs instead of generic diapers when she could. When her daughter got a little older, Ms. Joefield outfitted the bedroom in their apartment with a princess bed for Deja, while she slept on a pullout couch.
She had family around, too. Though she had broken up with Deja’s father, they spent holidays and vacations together for Deja’s sake. Ms. Joefield’s grandmother lived across the street, and Deja knew she could always go to her great-grandmother’s apartment in an emergency.
One night, exhausted, Ms. Joefield put Deja to bed, and plopped into a bath with her headphones on.
“By the time I come out, I’m looking, I don’t see my child,” said Ms. Joefield, who began frantically searching the building. Deja, who was 5, had indeed headed for the grandmother’s house when she couldn’t find her mother, but the next thing Ms. Joefield knew, it was a police matter.
“I’m thinking, I’ll explain to them what happened, and I’ll get my child,” Ms. Joefield said. For most parents, this scenario might be a panic-inducing, but hardly insurmountable, hiccup in the long trial of raising a child. Yet for Ms. Joefield and women in her circumstances — living in poor neighborhoods, with few child care options — the consequences can be severe. Police officers removed Deja from her apartment and the Administration for Children’s Services placed her in foster care. Police charged Ms. Joefield with endangering the welfare of a child.
She was caught up in what lawyers and others who represent families say is a troubling and longstanding phenomenon: the power of Children’s Services to take children from their parents on the grounds that the child’s safety is at risk, even with scant evidence.
The agency’s requests for removals filed in family court rose 40 percent in the first quarter of 2017, to 730 from 519, compared with the same period last year, according to figures obtained by The New York Times.
In interviews, dozens of lawyers working on these cases say the removals punish parents who have few resources. Their clients are predominantly poor black and Hispanic women, they say, and the criminalization of their parenting choices has led some to nickname the practice: Jane Crow.
“It takes a lot as a public defender to be shocked, but these are the kinds of cases you hear attorneys screaming about in the hall,” said Scott Hechinger, a lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.” After Ms. Joefield was released from jail, she had a court hearing, and Deja was returned to her after four days. Still, the case stayed open for a year, during which she had to take parenting classes, and caseworkers regularly stopped by her apartment to do things like check her cupboards for adequate food supplies and inspect Deja’s body for bruises.
“They asked me if I beat her,” Ms. Joefield said. “They’re putting me in this box of bad mothers.”
“It’s a slap in your face to have someone tell you what you can and cannot do with a child that you brought into this world,” she said, wiping tears away.
“I still get nervous,” she said. “You’re afraid to parent the way you would normally parent.” Even short-term removals that are reversed can have lasting effects on vulnerable children. It “poses a pretty big threat to their development,” said Kristin Bernard, an assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. A brief stay in foster care like that of Ms. Joefield’s daughter, Deja, can profoundly upset family life.
According to court records from Ms. Joefield’s case, a passer-by found Deja, who was then 5, out on the sidewalk at midnight. The records noted that Deja appeared well looked after. Deja told interviewers that she attended school daily and usually ate pancakes for breakfast.
Deja’s pediatrician told the agency that “Ms. Joefield is very attentive” and that “Deja is a smart kid.” Administrators at Deja’s school said they had no concerns. And Children’s Services, in a report on the family, noted that Ms. Joefield was in college; Deja’s father, who lived nearby, was employed and involved; Deja was “very intelligent for her age”; and there was plenty of family support.
Still, the agency pushed for Deja to be removed, though records show the great-grandmother called the agency asking that Deja be sent to her. Deja’s father was also available.
“This is my opinion: they factored in my age” — she was 25 at the time — “where I lived, and they put me in a box,” Ms. Joefield said. In Ms. Joefield’s case, a judge decided that “the risk of emotional harm in removal” outweighed the risk of neglect. Deja was returned to her mother.
The Administration for Children’s Services declined to comment on specific cases.
But those four days in 2010, Ms. Joefield said, had produced long-lasting effects.
First, her name remained on a state registry of child abusers for years, preventing Ms. Joefield, a former day care worker, from working with children. Most important, she said, speaking of Deja, the experience had “changed her.”
When her daughter came home, she said, “she was always second-guessing if she did something wrong, if I was mad at her,” she said.
Research backs up what Ms. Joefield noticed. Removal is traumatic for children, even if home life is stressful.
Months after Deja’s removal, a caseworker with Children’s Services asked an administrator at Deja’s charter school about the girl. The administrator said, according to agency records, that while she had no concerns about Ms. Joefield’s care, Deja was “not doing as well as she used to before she was removed from her home.”
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