Race, Action, Culture: A century of child-saving: Marisa Castuera traces the child protection movement to a time when child abuse was seen as a depravity of the immigrant poor

A century of child-saving: Marisa Castuera traces the child protection movement to a time when child abuse was seen as a depravity of the immigrant poor – Child Welfare

Marisa Castuera

For the past 130 years, the system of child welfare has been locked in a steady conflict with people of color and the poor. State-run child protection service (CPS) agencies wield tremendous power: They can intervene in a family’s life on a number of levels, and they have the legal right to remove children from their home and place them in state’s custody. This legal right is quite controversial because state caseworkers are far more likely to judge African American, Native American, immigrant, and low-income families as “unfit” to care for their children. While physical and sexual violence against children is something all communities confront, “neglect,” not violence, is cited as the primary reason parents lose custody of their children. Families and researchers allege that the concept of neglect is based on an exclusive, white, middle-class standard for “appropriate” family life.

The origins of the child protection movement are a critical but unseen force behind today’s conflict over CPS policies. The current nationwide system of governmental CPS agencies can trace its roots to 1880, when upper-class Protestants formed charitable organizations to rescue’ maltreated children. Linda Gordon’s book Heroes of Their Own Lives details the legacy of one of the earliest and most influential of these associations, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). MSPCC workers were exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and 70 percent of their “cases” were immigrants. They portrayed child abuse as a condition of depravity that only the immigrant poor experienced–never the “respectable classes.”

These upper-class “social reformers” intervened in families’ lives based on their standards of what an American family should be. One faction of white, Protestant culture defined the ideal for a suitable home. This was a particularly elite faction, as well: For the first 70 consecutive years of its existence, every MSPCC president was a male Harvard graduate. Emphasizing cleanliness, fine dress, good food, order, and quiet, the MSPCC tried to “convert” families to this standard. The families that MSPCC targeted had their own cultural priorities and understanding about family life, but these were criticized as “inferior” in the agency’s many case records. Even if families found the WASP standard desirable, they couldn’t afford it. In MSPCC caseloads, 50 percent of the families lived in severe poverty.

The MSPCC and its upper-class allies led many of child welfare’s transformations over the 20th century–Professionalization, government bureaucratization, and increased power are all legacies of this influential organization. And 130 years later, statistics are still grim in MSPCC’s original site. In 2001, the neighborhood in Boston with the highest number of CPS caseloads showed that 95 percent of cases involved immigrant families and people of color. People of color, immigrants, and the poor continue to be disproportionately targeted for state intervention.

In Latino immigrant communities across the United States, CPS is viewed with a particularly intense suspicion. Children of Latino heritage are the fastest growing child population in the United States, and more Latino children live in poverty than in any other racial or ethnic group. When faced with white, middle-class cultural ideals for “appropriate” family life in America, Latinos can feel particularly threatened.

A Mexican immigrant in Southern California reports the widespread perception among mothers at her children’s school: “If you say, ‘I have problems,’ it means that they are going to rake away your children.” A Spanish-speaking Boston resident captured the sentiment behind her neighborhood’s opinion of CPS, saying, “People don’t ask for help for fear that their kids will be taken away, that they will be separated. There is a lot of confusion, a lot of fear.”

Patricia, who immigrated to California from Toluca, Mexico, with her husband, learned firsthand about losing her children to the stare. While she agreed with their mission of ensuring the safety of her children, the agency’s demands wreaked havoc on her family. “I thought it would be the death of me,” she recalls.

When they arrived in California, Patricia’s husband did not allow her to leave the house and refused to sponsor her legal residency. He began mistreating her physically as well. “He knew I did not know anybody, and he told me if I called the police, they would deport me and I’d never see my children again.” The beatings culminated one Christmas Eve, when he battered her severely, dragging her into the street by her hair and splitting her lip with punches to her face. Their two boys, six and seven years old, cried for their father to stop. Neighbors called the police, and an ambulance took Patricia to the local emergency room.

State CPS workers visited their home soon after, concerned about the violence the children were witnessing. Finding some bruises on them as well, they took the children into custody. Patricia was frantic. “They were my life,” she asserts. “At first I did not even know where they were. I thought I would go crazy.” She was assigned a caseworker at the Department of Children’s Services, who affirmed that the children would be kept in foster placement. The state’s main concern was Patricia’s husband and his violent aggression, and the caseworker said Patricia would obtain custody of her sons faster if she filed a restraining order against her spouse.

“I was so depressed and ashamed,” Patricia stated later. “But I was ready to do anything to get my sons back, and I resolved to start a new life with them.” She filed a restraining order and began seeking services and support at a local agency for survivors of domestic violence. She was granted a visitation schedule with her children, who were inconsolable and cried to “go home” with her. Their performance in school began slipping, and they said they were being mistreated in their foster home.

Patricia’s brother had moved to the area about that time, and she went to him for help. She showed her caseworker that she was now living with her brother and had obtained the restraining order. Although Patricia understands why the CPS caseworkers intervened in the family violence she and her children experienced, she and the state had very different ideas on how to improve the situation. The caseworker said she would not release the children until Patricia rented a two-bedroom apartment. “What does it matter, if the children are safer and happier with me?” Patricia questioned. “They did not have their own room at the foster home, either.” At this point, both the sons, now beginning first and second grade, and the mother were frantic.

A month went by before Patricia and her brother secured an apartment that met CPS standards. The caseworker then told her what kind of furniture she needed to buy and the minimum square feet of the refrigerator she needed to obtain. The battered womens agency she had joined helped her to buy a used refrigerator that met these specifications. She also bought the required bed for each child, although like many young children, they had shared a bed previously.

Meanwhile her brother pressured her to find work and help pay the apartment expenses, but since Patricia’s husband had kept her from getting a work permit, she had trouble securing employment. “[CPS] has so many requirements, but they can’t tell me how to find the money to do this, how to find a job,” she said, in disbelief.

More than a hundred years ago, families like Patricia’s fought to preserve their families in the midst of a severe contempt for poor and nonwhite communities. Today, white cultural ideals and expectations for a certain level of material wealth are still used to create a standard for “appropriate” family life. As long as CPS continues to enforce this narrow vision, a century of distrust, fear, and conflict will continue to gather momentum.

Marisa Castuera has worked nationally and internationally on women’s health, domestic violence prevention, and immigrant rights.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group