When Families Fail

Because of my background in working with emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, and generally abused kids, I am often to drawn to stories about the results of extreme neglect of children. I saw some awfully hard cases with some of the kids I worked with, including a kid who was found as a toddler scrounging for food in a trash can with his younger brother before being put into the foster care system, and a young girl who, although not even ten years old, was “traded” by her mother for drugs on a routine basis. There are some really sick cases out there.

For example, a few years ago some foster parents were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and child endangerment after someone finally checked up on their kids and discovered a gruesome sight:

Two of the teenage boys were so badly nourished that they each weighed less than 50 pounds and stood about 4 feet tall, authorities said.

An investigation into the family began after police found the Jacksons’ 19-year-old son, Bruce Jackson, rummaging through a neighbor’s trash.

The young man, who was adopted in 1995, measured 4 feet and weighed 45 pounds. He also had apparent heart irregularities.

The three other boys, ages 14, 10, and 9, were removed from the home and hospitalized. The 14-year-old was 40 pounds and 4 feet tall.

Investigators said the couple received a yearly stipend of up to $28,000, but kept the boys locked out of the kitchen and fed them dry pancake batter.

Every state’s foster care system has a few stories like this, some more than others. The sad fact is that there are really bad people out there, for whatever reason, and some of them become parents and foster parents. How can these people become foster parents? Well, as bad as they end up being (and, it is actually pretty rare), they are still better than the home from which the foster kids are typically removed. For example, there’s the case of Danielle Crockett:

Just before noon on July 13, 2005, a Plant City police car pulled up outside that shattered window. Two officers went into the house — and one stumbled back out.

Clutching his stomach, the rookie retched in the weeds.

Plant City Detective Mark Holste had been on the force for 18 years when he and his young partner were sent to the house on Old Sydney Road to stand by during a child abuse investigation. Someone had finally called the police.

They found a car parked outside. The driver’s door was open and a woman was slumped over in her seat, sobbing. She was an investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“Unbelievable,” she told Holste. “The worst I’ve ever seen.”

The police officers walked through the front door, into a cramped living room.

“I’ve been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad,” Holste said later. “There’s just no way to describe it. Urine and feces — dog, cat and human excrement — smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting.”

Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.

The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath legions of scuttling roaches.

“It sounded like you were walking on eggshells. You couldn’t take a step without crunching German cockroaches,” the detective said. “They were in the lights, in the furniture. Even inside the freezer. The freezer!”

While Holste looked around, a stout woman in a faded housecoat demanded to know what was going on. Yes, she lived there. Yes, those were her two sons in the living room. Her daughter? Well, yes, she had a daughter . . .

The detective strode past her, down a narrow hall. He turned the handle on a door, which opened into a space the size of a walk-in closet. He squinted in the dark.

At his feet, something stirred.

• • •

First he saw the girl’s eyes: dark and wide, unfocused, unblinking. She wasn’t looking at him so much as through him.

Photo By: MELISSA LYTTLE, St. Petersburg Times

Photo By: MELISSA LYTTLE, St. Petersburg Times

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

“The pile of dirty diapers in that room must have been 4 feet high,” the detective said. “The glass in the window had been broken, and that child was just lying there, surrounded by her own excrement and bugs.”

When he bent to lift her, she yelped like a lamb. “It felt like I was picking up a baby,” Holste said. “I put her over my shoulder, and that diaper started leaking down my leg.”

The girl didn’t struggle. Holste asked, What’s your name, honey? The girl didn’t seem to hear.

He searched for clothes to dress her, but found only balled-up laundry, flecked with feces. He looked for a toy, a doll, a stuffed animal. “But the only ones I found were covered in maggots and roaches.”

Choking back rage, he approached the mother. How could you let this happen?

“The mother’s statement was: ‘I’m doing the best I can,’ ” the detective said. “I told her, ‘The best you can sucks!’ ”


Her name, her mother had said, was Danielle. She was almost 7 years old.

She weighed 46 pounds. She was malnourished and anemic. In the pediatric intensive care unit they tried to feed the girl, but she couldn’t chew or swallow solid food. So they put her on an IV and let her drink from a bottle.

Aides bathed her, scrubbed the sores on her face, trimmed her torn fingernails. They had to cut her tangled hair before they could comb out the lice.

Her caseworker determined that she had never been to school, never seen a doctor. She didn’t know how to hold a doll, didn’t understand peek-a-boo. “Due to the severe neglect,” a doctor would write, “the child will be disabled for the rest of her life.”

Hunched in an oversized crib, Danielle curled in on herself like a potato bug, then writhed angrily, kicking and thrashing. To calm herself, she batted at her toes and sucked her fists. “Like an infant,” one doctor wrote.

She wouldn’t make eye contact. She didn’t react to heat or cold — or pain. The insertion of an IV needle elicited no reaction. She never cried. With a nurse holding her hands, she could stand and walk sideways on her toes, like a crab. She couldn’t talk, didn’t know how to nod yes or no. Once in a while she grunted.

She couldn’t tell anyone what had happened, what was wrong, what hurt.

Dr. Kathleen Armstrong, director of pediatric psychology at the University of South Florida medical school, was the first psychologist to examine Danielle. She said medical tests, brain scans, and vision, hearing and genetics checks found nothing wrong with the child. She wasn’t deaf, wasn’t autistic, had no physical ailments such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

The doctors and social workers had no way of knowing all that had happened to Danielle. But the scene at the house, along with Danielle’s almost comatose condition, led them to believe she had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held. She was fragile and beautiful, but whatever makes a person human seemed somehow missing.

Armstrong called the girl’s condition “environmental autism.” Danielle had been deprived of interaction for so long, the doctor believed, that she had withdrawn into herself.

The most extraordinary thing about Danielle, Armstrong said, was her lack of engagement with people, with anything. “There was no light in her eye, no response or recognition. . . . We saw a little girl who didn’t even respond to hugs or affection. Even a child with the most severe autism responds to those.”

Danielle’s was “the most outrageous case of neglect I’ve ever seen.”

Outside those cases where parents have deliberately killed their children, I’ve never come across anything as gut wrenching as this. Even the lecherous dungeon master of Austria kept is incestuous children comparably well cared for, to the point that they can at least communicate and form relationships. Turning a child into a feral human, as with Dani (as she’s called now), despite never leaving human care, is a feat that’s nearly impossible to contemplate. By all rights, she should have died. It’s a testament to her strength and vitality that she’s alive at all, much less that she is now beginning to thrive as you’ll learn if read the whole story. So in that way, Dani’s tale is as equally inspiring as it is painful to witness.

But it also raises questions, as do all of these stories, as to how this could happen. What sort of monster would deprive her child of even the benefit of simple touching, or being spoken to, so much so that language is all but a foregone conclusion for Dani? How can someone ignore their own flesh and blood, especially at such a dependent age (the first years of life), that they grow (barely) for almost seven years into little more than an animal operating entirely on instinct? Dani’s mother must be some sort of monster, right? Well, not exactly. Instead, the extreme neglect most likely resulted from the fact that the mother is little more than a child herself, mentally speaking:

Michelle Crockett lives in a mobile home in Plant City with her two 20-something sons, three cats and a closet full of kittens. The trailer is just down the road from the little house where she lived with Danielle.


A judge ordered Michelle to have a psychological evaluation. That’s among the documents, too.

Danielle’s IQ, the report says, is below 50, indicating “severe mental retardation.” Michelle’s is 77, “borderline range of intellectual ability.”

“She tended to blame her difficulties on circumstances while rationalizing her own actions,” wrote psychologist Richard Enrico Spana. She “is more concerned with herself than most other adults, and this could lead her to neglect paying adequate attention to people around her.”

She wanted to fight for her daughter, she says, but didn’t want to go to jail and didn’t have enough money for a lawyer.

“I tried to get people to help me,” Michelle says. “They say I made her autistic. But how do you make a kid autistic? They say I didn’t put clothes on her — but she just tore them off.”

Michelle’s hard-luck story is awfully sad as well. Although it doesn’t diminish the outrage at her neglectful behavior, it does render her a somewhat more sympathetic creature than the cruel monster it appears she must be. That she still cares for Dani, and misses her, suggests that she simply didn’t know any better (a scary enough thought), rather than willfully denied her existence. Calling her stupid, and likely depressed, rather than evil, is to damn with faint praise, but it’s likely closer to the truth.

Even so, the question still lingers as to how this woman could have accomplished such a horrible feat as to deprive Dani of the ability to be human. From the story we learn that social services had been called numerous times before, but each visit resulted in the same outcome: nothing was done, and Dani remained with her mother.

She [Michelle] goes to the boys’ bathroom, returns with a box full of documents and hands it over.

The earliest documents are from Feb. 11, 2002. That was when someone called the child abuse hotline on her. The caller reported that a child, about 3, was “left unattended for days with a retarded older brother, never seen wearing anything but a diaper.”

This is Michelle’s proof that her sons were watching Danielle.

The caller continued:

“The home is filthy. There are clothes everywhere. There are feces on the child’s seat and the counter is covered with trash.”

It’s not clear what investigators found at the house, but they left Danielle with her mother that day.

Nine months later, another call to authorities. A person who knew Michelle from the Moose Lodge said she was always there playing bingo with her new boyfriend, leaving her children alone overnight.

“Not fit to be a mother,” the caller said.

The hotline operator took these notes: The 4-year-old girl “is still wearing a diaper and drinking from a baby bottle. On-going situation, worse since last August. Mom leaves Grant and Danielle at home for several days in a row while she goes to work and spends the night with a new paramour. Danielle . . . is never seen outside the home.”

Again the child abuse investigators went out. They offered Michelle free day care for Danielle. She refused. And they left Danielle there.

Why? Didn’t they worry about two separate calls to the hotline, months apart, citing the same concerns?

“It’s not automatic that because the home is dirty we’d remove the child,” said Nick Cox, regional director of the Florida Department of Children and Families. “And what they found in 2002 was not like the scene they walked into in 2005.”

The aim, he said, is to keep the child with the parent, and try to help the parent get whatever services he or she might need. But Michelle refused help. And investigators might have felt they didn’t have enough evidence to take Danielle, Cox said.

“I’m concerned, though, that no effort was made to interview the child,” he said.

“If you have a 4-year-old who is unable to speak, that would raise a red flag to me. “I’m not going to tell you this was okay. I don’t know how it could have happened.”

The point of this post is not to chastise the social service organizations involved, although they certainly deserve a healthy portion of the blame for what happened to Dani, but instead to ponder what could be done. And to ponder it from a free-market, small-government, leave-me-alone, stance, where a policy of inviting the government into the family home in order to make judgments as to the fitness of someone to parent their own children raises serious issues. In short, what’s the libertarian answer for what to do when families fail?

On the one hand, although I don’t relish the idea of bureaucrats having any say whatsoever in the affairs of my family, it’s unquestionable that in cases like that of Dani someone had to step in. Clearly that someone would have to have the right and authority to override the decisions of the child’s parent. The police power of the state, which theoretically supposed to be employed in the protection of the constituents, is the most obvious authority to step in. So is this simply an area where the normal tenets of libertarianism don’t apply? Is the sentiment “Stay outta my life, but if I cross a certain line (e.g. abusing children) then it’s perfectly OK to invade my home and take away my family.”

It’s easy to say “yes” to such bright-line drawing, especially after reading about someone like Dani. But what about when the state is wrong? After all, who gets to decide where that line is drawn in the first place, and how much evidence needs to be presented to show that it’s definitely been crossed? Worse yet, what about all those instances where the government sets the line, establishes the burden of proof, and then neglects to follow through with enforcement? Usually that’s how we get cases like Dani’s and the emaciated Jackson brothers mentioned earlier. With a government bureaucracy in charge, employing the police power of the state, we seem to have the worst of both worlds — too much and too little enforcement. And both outcomes needlessly violate the individual rights of parents and children. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that using the state’s police power through government agencies is not the best method for dealing with these problems. As ineffective as it might be at times, state foster care programs have saved a lot of kids, even including Dani who is now the adopted daughter of a family of saints. Nevertheless, the tension with my libertarian tendencies leads me to question whether there might be a better alternative.

Perhaps a better way is to devolve the police power back to the citizenry. The typical way to do that is by creating private rights to actions through what are called “private attorney general” statutes. These sorts of provisions are often used to enforce civil rights and environmental law statutes, where individuals are given the right to pursue the enforcement of rights that are deemed to benefit the general public. Maybe if we empowered the people who call in to child abuse hotlines, or those who become the abused children’s foster parents, to prosecute the birth families for neglect, there would less lag time between the first indications of abuse and the eventual removal of the kids from harmful situations. Instead of having hundreds of overworked, and disinterested social workers, we would have thousands of motivated families seeking to better the lives of abused children. The ability to monitor abusive situations with so many more eyes would appear to offer a great advantage over the system we have now.

Of course, there would still be cases where either no one did anything (and thus the abuse continued), or where the system itself was abused (subjecting unwarranted interference with family relations). No system is perfect. Yet, bringing the attention of the courts to situations like Dani’s early on in the process may have the effect of limiting the cases of over- and under-inclusiveness. Assuming that a reasonable standard of proof were applied, a judge could immediately determine that a child should be removed from an abusive situation immediately, only after certain conditions were met, or not at all. In cases where more monitoring was ordered, the court could direct child protective services to investigate and report before issuing further rulings. Under this regime, there is less likelihood that children will fall through the cracks since there is motivated and interested party involved (e.g. potential foster parents), and the overworked agencies would only be charged with investigating those home situations as directed by the courts. Furthermore, with the court already involved, the risks of making false claims would rise, since the court can always take it upon itself to punish such misbehavior, which should lead to a reduction in prosecutorial abuse.

Unfortunately, the court system runs the risk of being overworked in my scenario. Perhaps by simply expanding the Juvenile & Domestic Relations departments with the system that problem can be avoided, although it may just be rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. As I said before, no system is perfect. The question is, could it work more effectively than the one we have now.

The other question is, how is my scenario any different from a libertarian perspective than the one we already have. The police power of the state is still involved, via the court-directed agencies, and families are still subjected to the potential for intrusion by the state. The major difference, I think, is that by involving the courts rather than executive or legislative agencies, the rights of everyone are protected. In addition, we remove the state from the initial discovery and monitoring process, where it seems like the most difference can be made. In its place, we introduce private parties who tend to manage their own interests with greater alacrity and speed than the state manages for the common good. So although the state is still involved, it’s in the more comfortable libertarian area of the court justice system where competing rights can be hammered out before the state is allowed to intervene. The way we do it now is precisely backwards, and allows for much greater and uninhibited interference with private decisions by the state.

That being said, there may be a great many other problems with my hypothetical system, both theoretical and practical, that render it less useful than what we have now. It just seems to me that neither the results we are experiencing under the current system, nor the anti-freedom principles it engenders, are terribly comforting. If libertarianism is at all a viable political system, it should have a means of dealing with the grave problems accompanying failed families. I’ve proposed one that may or may not work.

Are there any others?

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5 Responses to “When Families Fail”

  1. on 06 Aug 2008 at 9:11 pm synova

    Extended families.

    Because it’s a cultural answer I suppose it would be impossible, but I was thinking just today that a family unit of 2 is simply not big enough (and certainly a family unit of 1 is impossible even for a competent person) to absorb the care needs of even  a single person unable to care for him or herself.   (If you’re alone and you’re sick, who cares for you?)

    But we’ve convinced ourselves… not that it’s not our job to take care of unrelated neighbors (by calling social services or the police) but that it is not our job to take care of family members.    And frankly, the push for independent living for the handicapped is part of that.

    I’m a competent adult person without a disability and I am unable to live independently.    I need my mother.    I need my father.     My husband.    My siblings.    My friends.     Moving as much as I have it’s been hard to partake of that mutual support…   my parents also need me, my sisters have small children and could use help I’m sure, and it goes on.

    Children take a lot of care and generally that means more than one adult.   An adult who needs care needs more than one other adult.    An extended family with a number of adults can absorb the care of one adult or several small children if necessary.   But our culture insists that we’re *supposed* to do this alone.   And if we can’t, we set up our government to intervene in the privacy of our lives.

    We talk about failed families because one marginal woman was not able to keep up with life *and* a number of children all at the same time.    Family is a word that ought to mean cousins and Aunts and Uncles, siblings, parents, and children.    When it’s paired down to the smallest possible unit there will be more failure because only that one single part needs to fail for the whole thing to collapse.

  2. on 06 Aug 2008 at 9:53 pm MichaelW

    I certainly don’t disagree with you about the family support system, Synova.  But I think there’s a chicken-egg issue.

    But our culture insists that we’re *supposed* to do this alone.

    Does it?  Or is that the end result of having the government take over that part of our lives? 
    There’s an economic theory that government money pushes private money out, either shrinking the economy or restricting its ability to grow.  I think the same thing applies when the government takes over our personal (to include familial) responsibilities, and even our community responsibilities.  The more government takes over, the more people think “eh, someone else will take care of this problem, so I don’t have to worry about it.” 

    In cases like that of Dani, I think people tend to view the phone call to CPS as the end of their involvement in the matter, and that’s if they bother to call at all.  It’s like we’ve created a tragedy of the commons in the realm of social institutions, and we can’t seem to figure out how to break away from it.  We just wallow in the mediocrity, cry at the abuses, and yet think “well, surely somebody will do something about that.”

  3. on 06 Aug 2008 at 10:58 pm peter jackson

    Although you have some points to make regarding attorney general statutes, I don’t like them. It simply hands the government’s club to private entities, many of whom have less compunction than the state itself against employing such power for their own purposes. And I don’t care what any anarcho-capitalist says, this is one area where government is needed to protect and to serve. And both of these horrible stories demonstrate a catastrophic failure of the government to perform. 


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  5. on 27 Dec 2009 at 10:09 pm My Scene Igre

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