“You may not be allowed to say goodbye.”

In the New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar takes a brave look at what happens when parents are considered to be a danger to their children.  She describes one particular case in detail,  an African-American mother named Mercedes who has her children taken away by the Administration for Children’s Services and the Bronx Family Court in New York.

MacFarquhar dares to consider the POV of both the mother who loses her children and the investigators/judges who must make very difficult decisions about when/how to intervene.

If you’re a Progressive person–someone who believes that the goverment can play an active role in righting social wrongs–then you have to deal with two major problems of Progressive policies.  First, programs that offer government benefits to those in need are often hijacked by more privileged groups, so that government ends up redistributing resources to the middle class.  (See the racist housing policies of the FHA in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as detailed by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law.  Or see the mortgage interest tax deduction today.  Or Medicare.  Or the Social Security retirement program.)

Second, programs that aim to intervene in the lives of the most needy are often administered by folks who may feel uncomfortable with the reality of poverty and who don’t share a cultural background with the people whose lives they are disrupting.  They have to make judgment calls, and their judgments are often clouded by misunderstanding.  Thus, the white lawyer who asks the court to take away the children of a woman who smokes marijuana daily….even though his own friends might do the very same thing.  It just feels different to him–and more problematic–when he sees it done by someone who is poor and black.

Still, it surely can’t be that the government can never take away the children of someone who poses a threat.  And someone has to make that choice.   It’s not very satisfying, but I find myself agreeing with Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at NYU and a former lawyer with the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, who tells MacFarquhar:

“We need to understand that destroying the parent-child relationship is among the highest forms of state violence. It should be cabined and guarded like a nuclear weapon. You use it when you must.”

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