Who’s To Blame? Not “The State”

I’ve been having an interesting “discussion” on Twitter regarding the recent uproar over Indigenous kids representing a ridiculously high proportion of children in care being kept from their parents for long periods of time.

At issue in my end of the discussion is the tendency of people upset by this situation to want to blame it on “the state”.

As someone who spent 7 years working with kids and who sat in on various meetings related to child placement in foster care, returning kids to their families, and assessing progress in ‘treatment’ and thereby justifying continued residential care, I find the notion that this is somehow “the state” behaving badly as “the state” somewhat ridiculous.

To begin with I admit my take may be somewhat biased because of my Ontario-centric point of view. Indigenous kids are not as overwhelmingly predominant in Ontario foster care as they are in other provinces- 30% vs 80-90% according to the Macleans article I linked to above. Not only that, but child protection services in Ontario are the purview of Children’s Aid Societies, legally designated NGOs, so not what we normally associate with “the state”.

I have a very clear memory of a series of meetings my agency had with social workers from Children’s Aid as part of the process of having one of our children adopted after years in our care. The CAS people came with profiles and analyses of potential families and we discussed the appropriateness or inappropriateness thereof. There was a lot of disagreement and argumentative discussion about two of the families, the characters of the would-be “moms”, the jobs and attitudes toward child-rearing of the wannabe “dads”.

The third family, however, offered the possibility of a “kumbaya moment” for the two sides in these meetings. Dad was a politician, a sitting provincial MP if I recall correctly, and both the “hippies” from our children’s mental health center and the “bureaucratic authoritarians” from the CAS agreed wholeheartedly that there was no way this child was going to be given over to the sleazoid hypocrisy of a politician for a dad.

I remember leaving that particular meeting feeling vaguely dirty. I was probably the most “hippoid hippy” on our team- and so more or less hated politicians and government and “the state” as a reflex- and yet when I really thought about it, I couldn’t help wondering whether our shared prejudice was what determined the outcome of that discussion rather than any sense of what was actually best for the child. After all, the family was well-off, well-educated and mom was at home to give the kind of time and attention that our soon-to-be former “patient” would doubtlessly need over the next few years.

Our center served a large area of the province because we were viewed as the “last resort” for kids who either couldn’t be cared for by other agencies or who other agencies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: too violent, too crazy, too little likelihood of progress. I loved most of the people I worked with and respected their attempts to do their best for the children that we worked with. I also loved the kids. It was a rich time for me in many ways and I have been permanently affected by my experiences with the people I met and worked with, children and adults alike.

But by the time I left I was disappointed in how we worked with our kids and their families.

ADHD was in the process of “being invented” and so more and more our kids were being medicated. I entered the field in the dying days of psychoanalytic influence in treatment modalities. We read Erikson and Anna Freud, attempted to generate a treatment approach based on a combination of Erikson and Piaget, and most of us believed that the Browndale approach to retrogression therapy, while flawed and potentially dangerous, was nevertheless essentially correct in its understanding of how our kids had been damaged by toxic relationships. Using Ritalin and antipsychotics to mask symptoms and suppress behaviour was chemical imprisonment, not therapy.

I spent years campaigning to put an end to “therapeutic holding”, first in my unit and finally in the agency. Around the time I left, the ministry issued guidelines that therapeutic holding was to be avoided. I have no idea how consistently that has been upheld or whether in fact another change in the weather has led to holding making a comeback in therapeutic spaces. I hope not. The line between ‘therapeutic holding’ and corporal punishment is one that is too fine to be left up to the momentary judgement of an adult who has just been spat upon and is being told to go fuck his mother.

But perhaps most significant was my recognition that all of our jobs- CCWs, social workers, psychiatrists, pediatricians- were dependent on kids remaining in treatment. I can’t recall the number of times I or someone else asked at an assessment meeting when we were going to finally acknowledge that one or another of our kids was “done” and ought to go home. Occasionally someone would joke that if we let them all go we’d all be out of work.

It seemed that someone, often the designated case worker, was always arguing that either the child or the family were just not ready. If the kid seemed to no longer need our support, then it was noticed that on return from home visits he was antsy or depressed. If mom was back in a stable relationship and no one was drinking to excess in the new family home, then there was a fear that everything would fall apart if our kid was sent back to live in that environment. The child would ruin the family’s progress or the family would ruin the child’s.

Most of the children I worked with from 1974 till 1980 stayed in treatment for at least 3 or 4 years, some longer. When we opened up an adolescent unit some of our kids just “graduated” from our center to the other unit. Saying goodbye to the majority of kids we had had in care for most of the workers was always a wrenching experience. It seems that being kicked in the shins almost daily for years on end can be a stimulus for a kind of love that I can still feel at a distance of ten thousand miles and almost forty years.

Some of our kids we tried to place in foster homes, but were rarely successful for the same reasons other treatment centers and agencies had passed on the kids we treated. I can honestly say I never met a foster parent I liked. Often they were moralistic Christians who you just knew were going to be into “spare the rod”, even if the “rod” in question was just going to be harsh words and time outs and constant criticism and preaching. It was also obvious to me that financial supplement to family income was often the real motive behind fostering and I don’t care how small the stipend is or was. I have never been a fan of “good intentions” and I doubt my view of foster parents would change much if I were to get back involved in the system now.

At one point after I left the agency and was studying at university, I ran into financial difficulties and tried working in a group home for adolescents. I lasted about two weeks if I recall and was just about ready to start a movement to have the private company running the chain of homes shut down. It was so much not what I expected from my years as what I came to realize had been spent as a prima donna CCW in a well-funded treatment center that I was in a state of outrage for months. The kids were no problem but my coworkers, my “supervisor”, and the corporation itself were a travesty. All of them. Talk about systemic abuse, here was the very definition.

The center that I worked at for six years from ’74 to ’80 was located in my hometown. I noticed at one point that out of the 18 boys we had in residence, roughly 70% of them came from the neighborhood that I grew up in. None of the other workers had grown up there and I often felt that my distinctly working-class background set me apart from my coworkers, especially where judging the appropriateness of certain behaviours was concerned. What was normal and necessary for my brother and I and all of our friends growing up and living on the streets of our neighborhood was nothing more or less than pathological for my coworkers and especially for the solid bourgeoise who came in as consulting psychiatrists and pediatricians at regular intervals.

So, yes. The state. We were established and funded under the Ministry of Health when I started and had been moved under the Ministry of Community and Social Services by the time I left. Every year we had to shop like madmen to spend our budget on new canoes and tents and backpacks because we couldn’t afford to lose funding for the next year. At some point we started having problems with getting our kids out of our in-house classrooms and into regular classes at local schools because a funding battle was looming with Boards of Education making moves to take over responsibility for all special ed service provision. Some kids died on a canoe trip organized by some agency so word came down from the Ministry that we had to start cutting back and reconsidering our focus on outdoor programs.

When they started closing “reform schools” in Ontario we were more or less commanded to hire one or two people from those facilities but the philosophy and approach of people in corrections could not have been a worse fit with an agency built on treatment approaches. One of the people we hired was let go within a year because I had initiated a campaign to have him fired for abusing one or two of the kids. “The state” made us hire him and we decided to fire him. And that is a paradigm case for the relation between our agency and this “state” that so many people want to blame for Indigenous kids being taken and kept away from their parents. “The state” mandates that children be protected and sanctions certain powers to be exercised by those working in agencies established to enact that protection, but the individual agencies and workers make all the decisions within that broadly established mandate.

There is a series of tweets from @DepencyLaw that I think get at exactly why it is absurd and vaguely infantile to identify “the state” and the currently popular “systemic racism” as the ultimate cause of the problems experienced by Indigenous families in this regard:thread

It seems to me impossible to read that series of tweets, which corresponds to what I observed very closely, and see it as confirmation that it is somehow “the state” which is responsible. Workers and their agencies are empowered by the state but not directed by the state to behave in the way that series of tweets suggests is common. You don’t blame automobiles for the accidents their drivers cause and this is not a case of “the state” somehow mistreating citizens. It is citizens of one race and class mistreating citizens of another race and class.

It is very far from fashionable to point to “classism” in a discussion of “racism” in the contemporary environment, just as it is anathema to point to individual responsibility and moral/ethical failings when a handy “state” can be blamed for “systemic racism”.

But fashion and genuine understanding are far from the same thing.

As long as there is such a thing as Child Protective Services mandated by Child Protection Legislation there is going to be discrimination based on race and class, not because the state embodies systemic racism or classism but because the definitions involved in establishing what constitutes a “safe” environment, “potential for harm” and “nurturance and care” are always and inevitably going to be expressions of class and culture.

In the end, the only way to avoid the horror of a mother and her children being kept apart for a decade by “well-intentioned” social workers is to dismantle any and all legal systems backed by state power that permit such things to happen with state sanction. There is no “tweaking” these agencies so that race and class will no longer matter as long as they are staffed by human beings.

Just as there is no chance that children are not going to be abused and neglected by their parents as long as their parents are recognized as sovereign within the family structure.

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