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NCCPR Child Welfare Blog: Another reporter suckered by the myths of Mary Ellen (and an amazing number of other myths as well)

In Best Interest of the Child, Child Custody, Child Support, child trafficking, children legal status, children's behaviour, Civil Rights, CPS, cps fraud, custody, Department of Social Servies, Divorce, Domestic Relations, Domestic Violence, due process rights, family court, Family Court Reform, Family Rights, fatherlessness, fathers rights, federal crimes, Freedom, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, judicial corruption, kidnapped children, Liberty, Marriage, motherlessness, mothers rights, Non-custodial fathers, Non-custodial mothers, parental alienation, Parental Alienation Syndrome, Parental Kidnapping, Parental Relocation, parental rights, Parentectomy, Parents rights on June 28, 2009 at 10:31 pm

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Another reporter suckered by the myths of Mary Ellen (and an amazing number of other myths as well)

It’s been nearly 20 years since my book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents was published (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995). I began the chapter about the history of American child welfare with an attempt to debunk one of the most enduring, and pernicious, myths in the field. In fact, one might call it the creation myth of the entire modern child welfare establishment.

The mountain of myth is built upon a molehill of truth about Mary Ellen Wilson, a little girl who lived in New York City in the 1870s, who was repeatedly and brutally beaten. In court she testified to beatings by her “Mamma.”

The first myth propounded by America’s “child savers,” as they proudly called themselves in the 19th Century, is that it required the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to intervene and seek protection of Mary Ellen as an animal.

To this day, I wrote in Wounded Innocents,

Child savers point to the case of Mary Ellen as a prime example of what life for children would be like without them. The case teaches us, they say, that parents cannot be allowed to control their children like property and that massive intervention is essential to protect “children’s rights.”

But if you know the real story of Mary Ellen, using it to justify the current system of massive coercive intervention into families becomes impossible.

For starters, though the head of the local SPCA did indeed call the case to the attention of the court, he did so as a prominent private citizen, not in his official capacity – and not by suggesting that Mary Ellen be protected as an animal.

But even more important, there’s one vital part of the story the child savers, and the credulous reporters who love the Mary Ellen myth, almost always leave out:

Mary Ellen was a foster child.

The “mamma” who did her so much harm was her foster mother. Mary Ellen had been taken from her real mamma and placed with her abuser by the New York Board of Charities – which then failed to monitor her care.

As I wrote in the book:

The real lessons of Mary Ellen concern the inability of the state to be an effective parent, the risks of abuse in foster care, and the need to help parents – like Mary Ellen’s real “mamma” – take care of their children. In short, the lesson of Mary Ellen is the lesson every doctor is taught in medical school: First, do no harm.

But a few inconvenient facts aren’t going to quash a myth with such powerful visceral appeal – one that panders to all our middle-class rescue fantasies at once. So every generation of young, journalists seems to embrace it all over again. (And they’re not alone, even one of the best reporters ever to cover these issues fell for this one, long ago.)

The latest example turned up earlier this year. I’m not going to name the reporter or the paper since there’s no reason to pick on one, earnest, well-meaning reporter when so many have been fooled. But it was a classic. For her one and only identified source, the reporter relied on a local real estate agent and fiction writer who’d co-authored a book that accepted all the Mary Ellen mythology at face value. Based on this, the reporter declared that

Indeed, the head of an animal protection group helped rescue a child in the 1874 case that ignited the child protection movement. Advocates argued she deserved at least the rights of an animal. [The real estate agent/author] … said children were viewed as property and “it was about not interfering between a parent and a child.” Uneasiness about government interference in families endured.

The reporter then turns to the local judge, whose comments over the years to not suggest overwhelming insight, but someone regarded by the local paper as wiser than Solomon himself. The judge tells the reporter that, in the reporter’s words,

“liberty interests led to parents being allowed to raise children largely how they saw fit until as recently as the early 1970s.”

Absolutely none of this is true. Mary Ellen’s foster mother was convicted of felonious assault, not animal cruelty. New York City’s first statute against child abuse dates to 1833. By 1874 thousands of New York City children, whose parents’ primary crimes had been being poor and being immigrants, already had been taken from those parents and shipped out to the south and Midwest on so-called “orphan trains” – even though many of them were not orphans. And by the early 1970s, there were hundreds of thousands of children trapped in foster care on any given day.

Most important, of course, that little detail about Mary Ellen being a foster child is nowhere to be found in the reporter’s account.

But it’s how the reporter defended her account that would, I am sure, make at least one of my former journalism professors roll over in his grave. It’s true, she wrote on the newspaper’s website, because the American Humane Association says so. You know – American Humane, the animal rights group with a child saving arm – the close cousin of the SPCA. This is, of course, like saying “I know what the candidate said about his economic plan is true because his campaign office vouched for every word!” or “I know the drug is safe because the drug company flack told me so!”

But the mythology and hype didn’t end with Mary Ellen. In fact, when it comes to misinformation-per-column-inch, this story is hard to top.

For instance, in keeping with the “we-treat-animals-better-than-children” theme, there’s the return of this old chestnut: “Foster care board rates … are less than what it often costs to board a dog…” I dealt with that one in this previous post to the Blog.

And there are two big errors right in the lead, which reads: “More than 300 abused and neglected children lack voices in … County court. There are not enough volunteers.”

Error number one: Just because a child has been brought to court – and even just because a child is in foster care does not mean that child is abused and neglected. It may mean only that a caseworker thinks the child may be abused and neglected and a judge is allowing the government to hold that child in foster care while everyone tries to find out. Saying that every child in foster care is “abused and neglected” is like saying everyone sitting in a jail is a criminal. Some are. But others are awaiting trial because they can’t make bail.

The second error is the claim that those volunteer advocates are a voice for the child. They are not. In this state, as in most, the advocates advocate for whatever they think is best. If the child happens to agree, then the child has a voice. But if the child wants to go home and the advocate thinks it is in that child’s “best interests” to remain in foster care (or if the child wants to stay in foster care and the advocate wants the child to go home) the child has no voice. Whether or not one believes this is as it should be (and I certainly don’t) this is simply a blatant error of fact – one of many in a story riddled with misinformation and mythology.

NCCPR Child Welfare Blog: Another reporter suckered by the myths of Mary Ellen (and an amazing number of other myths as well).

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American Civil Liberties Union : U.S. Supreme Court Declares Strip Search Of 13-Year-Old Student Unconstitutional

In Best Interest of the Child, children criminals, children legal status, children's behaviour, Civil Rights, Freedom, Liberty on June 27, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Ruling In ACLU Case Is Vindication of Students’ Constitutional Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old Arizona girl when they strip searched her based on a classmate’s uncorroborated accusation that she previously possessed ibuprofen. The American Civil Liberties Union represents April Redding, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, whose daughter, Savana Redding, was strip searched by Safford Middle School officials six years ago.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized that school officials had no reason to strip search Savana Redding and that the decision to do so was unconstitutional,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU who argued the case before the Court. “Today’s ruling affirms that schools are not constitutional dead zones. While we are disappointed with the Court’s conclusion that the law was not clear before today and therefore school officials were not found liable, at least other students will not have to go through what Savana experienced.”

Savana Redding, an eighth grade honor roll student at Safford Middle School in Safford, Arizona, was pulled from class on October 8, 2003 by the school’s vice principal, Kerry Wilson. Earlier that day, Wilson had discovered prescription-strength ibuprofen – 400 milligram pills equivalent to two over-the-counter ibuprofen pills, such as Advil – in the possession of Redding’s classmate. Under questioning and faced with punishment, the classmate claimed that Redding, who had no history of disciplinary problems, had given her the pills.

After escorting Redding to his office, Wilson demanded that she consent to a search of her possessions. Redding agreed, wanting to prove she had nothing to hide. Wilson did not inform Redding of the reason for the search. Joined by a female school administrative assistant, Wilson searched Redding’s backpack and found nothing. Instructed by Wilson, the administrative assistant then took Redding to the school nurse’s office in order to perform a strip search.

In the school nurse’s office, Redding was ordered to strip to her underwear. She was then commanded to pull her bra out and to the side, exposing her breasts, and to pull her underwear out at the crotch, exposing her pelvic area. The strip search failed to uncover any ibuprofen pills.

“The strip search was the most humiliating experience I have ever had,” said Redding in a sworn affidavit following the incident. “I held my head down so that they could not see that I was about to cry.”

The strip search was undertaken based solely on the uncorroborated claims of the classmate facing punishment. No attempt was made to corroborate the classmate’s accusations among other students or teachers. No physical evidence suggested that Redding might be in possession of ibuprofen pills or that she was concealing them in her undergarments.

Furthermore, the classmate had not claimed that Redding currently possessed any pills, nor had the classmate given any indication as to where they might be concealed. No attempt was made to contact Redding’s parents prior to conducting the strip search.
In response to today’s ruling, Redding said, “I wanted to make sure that no other person would have to go through this, so I am pleased by the Court’s decision. I’m glad to have helped make students feel safer in school.”

The case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, was appealed from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found the strip search to be unconstitutional. A six-judge majority of the appeals court further held that, since the strip search was clearly unreasonable, the school official who ordered the search is not entitled to immunity. In today’s Supreme Court decision, despite deeming the strip search of Redding unconstitutional, the Court found that the school officials involved are immune from liability. The decision leaves open the possibility, however, that the Safford Unified School district could be held liable.

“Neither the Constitution nor common sense permits school officials to treat a strip search the same as a locker or backpack search,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national Legal Director. “Today’s ruling eliminates any confusion that school officials may have had about this seemingly obvious point.”

The ACLU and ACLU of Arizona were joined in the case by Bruce Macdonald, with the law firm McNamara, Goldsmith, Jackson & Macdonald, and Andrew Petersen, with the firm Humphrey & Petersen.

In addition, a broad constellation of adolescent health experts and privacy rights advocates filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Redding, including the National Education Association, National Association of Social Workers (NASW), CATO Institute, Rutherford Institute, Goldwater Institute and Urban Justice Center, among others.

Today’s decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/search/40031lgl20090625.html

The ACLU’s brief in the case is available online at: www.aclu.org/scotus/2008term/saffordunifiedschooldistrictv.redding/39160lgl20090325.html

http://www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/search/40033prs20090625.html

American Civil Liberties Union : U.S. Supreme Court Declares Strip Search Of 13-Year-Old Student Unconstitutional.