Well, it happened. After a lifetime of service to poor and maltreated children, I’ve been accused of racism. I knew it would happen eventually. I couldn’t keep saying with impunity that children shouldn’t be collateral damage in an attempt to avoid “punishing” parents who happen to be members of a minority group.
It was a prominent critic of government intervention to protect children who noticed an op-ed that I wrote for the Chronicle of Social Change in August 2017 and demanded a retraction.
In the offending piece, I critiqued an article in the New York Times entitled Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of Jane Crow. In my rebuttal, entitled Foster Care as Punishment? A Case of Biased Reporting by the New York Times, I attempted to highlight the naivete of the reporters, who accepted the statement of a birth mother that she splurged on brand-name diapers for her baby as an indicator of her fitness as a mother.
As the authors put it, “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.” The authors went on to describe the night when an exhausted Ms. Joefeld put Deja to bed and “plopped into the bath with earphones on.” Ms. Joefeld was indeed tired. Deja was placed in foster care after she was found wandering the streets of Queens at midnight after trying and failing to rouse her mother.
I thought the authors’ concept of good mothering seemed to be a little backwards, as it prioritized spending on brand names over being available to respond to a small child at any time of the day or night. So I wrote, “It is odd to me that the authors seem to consider splurging on brand-name diapers, sneakers, or apparel to be an indicator of good motherhood.”
Little did I know the firestorm I was launching. The authors had said nothing about sneakers or apparel, but I grouped them with diapers, because I was making a general point about some parents’ undue preoccupation with brand names. And those words were a trigger to to those advocates of family preservation under all circumstances who are always looking for a chance to cry racism.
In an email I received 15 months after publication of my op-ed, the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change told me that the Chronicle would be publishing a publisher’s note concerning my use of “racially charged language” and asked me whether I wanted to submit a statement that he would consider including.
What the Chronicle eventually published was called An Apology for a Regrettable Chronicle Op-Ed. In it the publisher and Editor state that “the trope of a low-income mom buying children designer clothes, at the expense of spending on more critical family needs, does exist as a crude and often racial stereotype.” They apologize for their “poor judgement” in allowing “a callous dismissal of a young single mother’s very human efforts to do right by her daughter” to stand. They deleted my piece from their website. And they did not publish my statement that I had sent to the publisher at his request. Here is what I said:
This statement [about brand-named diapers, clothing and shoes] was based not on racism but on my experience as a social worker in foster care. It was not unusual for birth parents to complain when foster parents dressed their kids in clothes that were not stylish or (God forbid) handed down. It was also not uncommon for them to splurge on high-end apparel or athletic shoes, or talk about splurging on them, in visits to their children. All of these behaviors together made a big impression on me. That some parents who had subjected their children to abuse or neglect seemed to care passionately about the brand of diapers, clothing or shoes their child wore seemed contradictory and illustrated a fundamental problem with their parenting.
I expressed my feelings most clearly in an adoption hearing that I will never forget. One of my favorite foster parents, an African-American woman I will call “Ms. Brown,” had petitioned to adopt “Ronald,” a little boy whom she had loved and cared for as her own for several years. “Ronald’s” father, a drug user who often showed up to visits with his son high or exploded with rage during visits, often requiring a police presence, was fighting the adoption tooth and nail with the help of his very aggressive lawyer. Through the lawyer, the father raised the issue that “Ronald” was often dressed in what seemed to be hand me downs or cheap clothes. The Judge asked for my opinion and I gave it to her. I told her how this father resembled many other birth parents, who are more concerned with the newness and style of their children’s clothes than with the safety, security and most importantly love provided by the foster parent. For me, the father’s question illustrated his inability to understand what matters to a child (love and security) and what doesn’t (brand names.) The judge cut me off, admonishing me sharply for my editorial comments. But I hope she understood. She eventually approved the adoption. I recently saw “Ronald,” and he is thriving with “Ms. Brown.”
Because I worked in the District of Columbia, most of my clients (parents and children) were African-American. If I had worked in Maine or Indiana, I have no doubt that I would have seen some of the same patterns among white parents. Perhaps it is an issue of class [to some extent]. But I think most of all it reflects parents who have not grown up sufficiently themselves to understand that their children are not dolls to be dressed up in a way that reflects well on parents and that they need love, not brand-name diapers or fancy clothes. No, my words were not racist. They were about what matters for children, and what doesn’t. Children should be at the heart of this debate, not racial groups.
Readers who have worked with abusive and neglectful parents as social workers, therapists, or in other capacities will recognize the phenomenon I describe here. The fact that neither the New York Times journalists nor the publisher of the Chronicle (who was clearly puzzled by where my reference came from if not racism) understood this shows their distance from the people they are writing about. Nor do they understand that many healthy and mature parents of all races, such as the foster parent I called “Ms. Brown,” are completely unconcerned with brand names.
I have written before, and will write again, about what has been called “the liberal dilemma of child welfare reform.” Many of my fellow liberals seem to be reluctant to “punish” parents whose problems in parenting stem from poverty and racism by taking away their children or even monitoring and offering services to these families. The whole idea of “punishing” parents, which was used in the title of the Times article, reveals the emphasis on parents’ rights over child safety. But if we succumb to this attitude, we may be condemning poor and minority children to years of suffering and even death. Is that really the anti-racist position?
Some of these who advocate family preservation at any cost are eager to describe any criticism of an African-American parent as racist. They use the fear of being called racist to suppress expressions of alternative viewpoints. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am well aware of what can happen when fear paralyzes free speech. I was sad to see the Chronicle respond so pusillanimously the demand that I be silenced.