During an anti-slavery speech, Sojourner Truth was heckled by an old man, who yelled, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”
“Perhaps not,” Truth replied, “But the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
I’d like to think that I’m a flea for justice, and that millions of others are, too. I know that each of us is rather small, really, while the degree of callous disregard for the people by the powerful is staggering. Injustice is a big dog. But I’ve had big dogs who’ve had flea problems, and they don’t appear to be all that happy about it. Those fleas keep them scratching.
I teach in a legal clinic devoted to child welfare law, and a huge injustice that’s on my mind is Michigan’s so-called “one parent doctrine.” It goes something like this: based on one parent being found by a court – either through a trial or by entering a plea – to have abused or neglected the child, the other parent faces severe burdens and legal sanctions. The non-adjudicated parent, even if they had nothing whatsoever to do with any abuse or neglect, and even if they stand ready, willing, and able to take custody of the child, can be forced to engage in a “treatment plan,” can have their child kept from their custody, and can have visits with the child limited to supervised visitation at the child welfare agency for one hour per week. This can happen even if the parent not only wasn’t ever proven to have been abusive or neglectful, but in cases where the parent wasn’t even accused of having done anything wrong. Once ordered to do a treatment plan, failure to adhere to it perfectly could eventually lead the child welfare agency to seek to terminate your parental rights. Forever. And they may well win that case in court.
So imagine that you’re a parent, and the child’s other parent has primary custody. Something happens when the child is with the other parent, and Children’s Protective Services (CPS) looks into it. Whatever happened is bad enough for them to remove the child from that parent. To your horror, your child isn’t placed with you. Why? Well, CPS doesn’t know much about you. True, you have no record with them or with the criminal justice system. But they tell the court that they don’t know much about you, whatever that means, and despite the fact that you demand custody, you’re not given the child. Instead, you’re given visits, and you’re given a treatment plan. No, there’s no evidence for why you even need treatment services, much less why you shouldn’t have custody of your child. Apparently, evidence doesn’t matter.
Is this unconstitutional? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make it easy to fix.
There’s a lot of ghastly stuff like this going on behind the scenes or in the shadows, and a lot also happens right in front of us. Yet if there’s one thing that we’re seeing more and more, it’s that with awareness, outrage, and persistence, we actually can change or fend off some pretty bad stuff. And with that, I’ll close and go back to biting that darn dog.