For the Love of Wisdom

The logic of iambic half-lines

Foster Care as Punishment?

What warranted Debra Harrell's child being in foster care for 17 days?
Jennifer Baker, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Working Mother Arrested for Letting 9-Year-Old Play by Jennifer Baker, Ph.D.

I was embarrassed to admit how much the arrest of Debra Harrell, the mother working at McDonald’s while her nine-year-old child played in a park, affected me.

I couldn’t bear to check the news to see if she had been released from jail, for example. But when more than one of my friends confessed they had had actual long nightmares about the story, I realized it wasn’t that strange. Our horror wasn’t even disproportionate. I finally learned that her daughter had been kept in foster care for 17 days.

As I live in South Carolina, I’ve now written various state officials to ask if there is any explanation for why Harrell, who did no more than let her child play at a park, would be kept from her daughter for 17 days. I'm nearly certain I won't be told. But I am also certain that the confidentiality of state actions involving children really hides what regularly occurs. No one gets to ask.

17 days seems a very long time since there were no accusations of drug use, and so no need of drug testing. What was required in order for the child to be released? Was visitation allowed? What is the normal procedure in such a case? What would necessitate a child being kept from her mother for that long?

I’ve spoken to an attorney for CPS in another state before, and she told me that social workers see things that would make my eyeballs bleed. I believe it. But I'd also imagine that seeing such things might have an impact on a person, especially day in and day out. Does it have an impact on social workers' judgment about what is appropriate for children who are not being kept in deadly home situations?

I have also been told that some social workers come to see children who are taken into foster care as mattering differently (less) than those who are not (so that they become “foster kids” by being taken into it in the first place. I believe that, too. Taking the child from the home then reduces the importance of the child, in one fell swoop. The child is no longer someone else's.

It is also clear that the state's justification for any type of precaution is simply that workers are "doing their job" or "following the law."

We just don't seem to be in an age where we can get actual explanations from authorities.

But if it were one’s own child that was taken from her family—a child who might be nervous about sleeping over even at friends’ houses, a shy child, a kind (but perhaps typical) child who worries more about her parent than even herself … if it were your own child you had been letting play in a nearby park, taken from you, what terms would you see fit to describe those 17 days?

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.


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