There is an old story about two businessmen who take a quarrel to the village Rabbi. He listens to the first man’s side, and says "You are right." The second man then gives his version of the argument, and again the Rabbi says "You are right." At that point, an onlooker protests "They can’t both be right!" to which the Rabbi responds "Ah yes. You also are right."
There is an old story about two businessmen who take a quarrel to the village Rabbi. He listens to the first man’s side, and says “You are right.” The second man then gives his version of the argument, and again the Rabbi says “You are right.” At that point, an onlooker protests “They can’t both be right!” to which the Rabbi responds “Ah yes. You also are right.”
I think about that story every time I open the newspaper to another article about wrongdoing by Indiana’s child protection workers. In many cases, of course, there has been incompetence, gross mismanagement or even criminal behavior by the caseworker. Those who are guilty of falsifying records to cover failures to make required visits, those who have consistently exercised poor judgment, should be fired. Our sympathies quite properly belong with the children in such situations.
But once we dismiss the “outliers”—those who ought not be involved in decisions affecting the lives of highly vulnerable children—we are still left with a dilemma inherent in the very nature of the job.
When I worked at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, we would get calls with some regularity from parents who were distraught because Child Protective Services had taken, or were threatening to take, their children. In more than one such situation (but certainly not all), it turned out that no abuse or neglect had occurred. It is inevitable that some accusations will be made for reasons having little or nothing to do with the welfare of children. Angry ex-spouses, jealous co-workers, feuding neighbors, even political enemies can trigger an investigation simply by making a call. The turmoil and emotional distress—and harm to reputation—resulting from such “false alarms” can be incalculable.
On the other hand, we see every day what can happen to children left to fend for themselves in homes where the adults are unfit to have custody of them. Sometimes, there is severe physical or mental abuse; more frequently, there is appalling neglect—a parent who is mentally ill, or on drugs, who fails to provide even the most basic needs of the child.
When the circumstances are sufficiently dire, we are entitled to expect that a caseworker will act appropriately: that he or she will promptly remove the child from such an environment. But what about cases that aren’t so clear? What about the mom who has been a loving parent in the past but has been going through a difficult time, and has begun having one too many drinks? Do we break up that family, or try to repair it? What about the child with bruises that might be attributable to a parent’s use of force—but that might not? How long does the caseworker “wait and see”? These aren’t decisions I’d want to make every day.
Critics are right to say we should protect children more aggressively. Critics are also right to say we should respect parental rights. But they can’t both be right—can they?