We were all dependent and neglected.

I became a parent in July of 2013.  It’s been one of the most joyous, stressful, awe inspiring, life changing events I’ve ever experienced.  My daughter is essentially the center of my world, and I do everything in life for her betterment.

Being a parent is not an easy task.  There are countless books on the subject.  You need to decide whether your children will watch television, eat organic, or how much they will be involved in sports.  You have to keep an eye out for germs, get vaccinations for yourself and the child, and pay attention to the expiration dates on non-perishable goods like car seats.  If your child is active and playing, you need to make sure you’re constantly stimulating the child with developmental activities like reading books or playing with educational toys.  If you step away from any of this or fail to do anything in this fashion, you run the risk of becoming a Bad Parent.

And in Tennessee, if you are a Bad Parent, the Department of Children’s Services is the ever-vigilant eye hanging over your shoulder.

Let’s be honest–there’s great people working for the Department of Children’s Services.  It’s staffed by individuals primarily concerned with Tennessee’s most important resource–it’s children.  And there are truly Bad Parents–people who would abuse an innocent child or leave them unattended while in the midst of an opioid induced haze.  My biggest concern is not the Department’s staff or attorneys, or the prosecution of the truly Bad Parent.  My fear–one that is being realized more and more each day–is the Department is a governmental branch in this state with serious overreaching powers to ruin the lives of well meaning parents just trying to do their best.  This post, and the series of posts to come, will deal with the problems I see in the Department, the Juvenile Court System, and the ways to fix them in Tennessee.

Tennessee has a twenty-four hour Child Abuse Hotline staffed with workers who are ready to take calls from concerned citizens at a moment’s notice. If a call warrants DCS investigation, an investigator is assigned for a visit.  The Department is staffed in a hierarchy of government actors with official acronyms like CPSI (Child Protective Services Investigator) and FSW (Family Service Worker).  Usually CPSIs will come to the home where children are staying and conduct an interview with the children and a search of the premises.  This process currently requires a warrant in Tennessee, thanks to the ruling in Andrews v. Hickman County, Tennessee, absent consent from a party.  The search of the premises usually involves a photo session detailing the children, a review of the kitchen pantry and refrigerator to ensure adequate food is stocked for the children, and a trip to the bathroom sink to detail whether the home has running water and electricity.

If the Department’s investigator finds the child care lacking, he or she will rush back to the office and type a Petition for Dependency and Neglect or a Petition to Adjudicate Severe Abuse.  These Petitions are often accompanied by a request for Temporary Emergency Custody, which means the Department feels leaving the children with their caregivers constitutes a substantial risk to said children’s health and well being and the children must be immediately removed from parental custody.

“Dependent and Neglected” is a rather ambiguous term with an extensive legal definition.  Tennessee Code Annotated 37-1-102(a)(12) states a child is dependent and neglected if any of the following factors exist:

1. The child is without a parent, guardian, or legal custodian.

2. The parent or guardian “by reason of cruelty, mental incapacity, immorality or depravity is unfit to properly care for such child.”

3. The child is under “unlawful or improper care, supervision, custody or restraint by any person, corporation, agency, association, institution, society or other organization or who is unlawfully kept out of school.

4. The parent or guardian neglects or refuses to provide necessary medical, surgical, institutional or hospital care.

5. The child, because of lack of proper supervision, is found in any place “the existence of which is in violation of law.”

6. The child is “in such condition of want or suffering or is under such improper guardianship or control as to injure or endanger the morals or health of such child or others.

7. The child is suffering from abuse or neglect.

8. The child has been in a foster care-like situation for a continuous period of six months or longer in the absence of a power of attorney or court order, and the person providing said care “has not initiated judicial proceedings seeking either legal custody or adoption of the child.”

9. The child has been involved or encouraged to participate in child pornography, or is neglected to the extent they are involved in child pornography.

10. The child has been in the sole financial and sole physical care of a related caregiver (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc) for not less than eighteen consecutive months and the child “will suffer substantial harm if removed from the continuous care of such relative.”

This laundry list of offenses can land a parent in Tennessee’s Juvenile Court, where a Judge or Magistrate Judge will be required to determine by clear and convincing evidence one or more of these factors exist.  The problem with the statute–while well meaning–is that it potentially subjects even the most diligent, responsible parents to a threat of their children being yanked from their lives.  Not convinced?  Here’s some examples.

Item one makes all orphans “dependent and neglected.”

Item two subjects the parent’s moral and personal decisions to Government interference.  If a parent is simply clueless and forgets to give a child medicine on certain days, that can be considered “mental incapacity.”  If a parent lives an alternative lifestyle with which the Department or the Court disagrees (and yes, I’m looking at same-sex couples raising children), an argument could be raised those children are being subjected to “immorality or depravity.”  And before you start rolling your eyes in disgust, remember Tennessee just dealt with a bill that would allow businesses to refuse services to homosexuals on religious grounds.  We can’t let that kind of “morality” inflict our Courts.

Item three is a judgment call on the definition of “improper” care.  If I take my five year old to a gun range and protect him by giving him eye and ear protection, never let him touch a gun, and simply show him how to clean and assemble a rifle, that could be considered “improper” care.  If I can’t afford child care one day and have to take my child to the medical office at which I work, that could be considered “improper” care.  Oh, and if I decide to allow my child to play hooky on a school day because I want to spend time with my child at the park, my child is officially “dependent and neglected.”

Item four places the term “necessary medical care” in the hands of legal–not medical–professionals.  If my child has a viral infection, and I don’t take her to the hospital immediately for the purposes of treatment, does that mean I have refused or neglected to provide “necessary medical care?”

Item five makes my child “dependent and neglected” if my child decides to go explore a condemned building while I’m around.  Again, a judgment call.

Item six asks the Courts and the Department’s workers to again place a moral imposition on the case with which they work.  If I want to raise my kid in a vegan lifestyle, and don’t give my kid steak or burgers, does that mean my kid’s morals or health are injured?  Simply teaching alternative eating habits could make a child “dependent and neglected.”

Item eight makes a child “dependent and neglected” if a party keeps bad records or fails to rush to court on adoption in a timely fashion–regardless of quality child care.

Item ten addresses the shaky issue of parents who ask other family members to take on parental responsibilities because they cannot for any number of circumstances care for said child.  This is a common occurrence in our society, sadly, but must we really punish parents for admitting they need help?  You can’t always address a problem like homelessness or a lack of stable income in eighteen months, and placing that limitation means parents who are truly in their darkest days have made their children “dependent and neglected,” no matter the safeguards potentially in place with other relatives.

I deliberately left certain items out, because I do believe those standards should be in place.  However, the right to parent as one sees fit is a right we take seriously in this state, and I think eight out of the ten provisions listed in the definition for “dependent and neglected” open the doors to serious overreach by a government agency.  After a review of these factors, I could point to any number of ways in which my mother might have faced a call from the Department of Children’s Services.  I shudder to think of anything I might have done that could place my daughter in a “dependent and neglected” state, or things that I could have done that made my daughter “dependent and neglected” under the law.  All eight of the above listed “offenses” are not a judgement call from a law enforcement official or a legal professional either–it’s usually an individual with expertise in social work or a related field who has the ability to charge you with being a Bad Parent.

These “well meaning” individuals are the standard of what I will term “legal parenting.”  They are the guardians of what makes a Good Parent and a Bad Parent.  Any number of parental judgment calls can see your children taken from you because you pose a “substantial risk” to the child’s “health and well being.”  Your right to be a parent–to make the judgment calls of raising your child–is not your own; it is the judgment call of a government authority.

Are you scared?  You should be.

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