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Alaska child-protection law has a loophole that puts newborns in danger

Elise Patkotak
Jason Pratt / cc via flickr

I was thinking about Labor Day and that got me to thinking about labor, which segued off to a woman in labor, which brings me to my current topic – women having babies to replace the babies taken away by the state or tribe because they are not capable of providing a child with basic safety, nourishment and support.

For those of you who have never been involved in the field of child protection, the laws that govern it can be pretty weird sometimes. Replacement babies are a classic example. Here’s the way it often goes. If a state social worker deems a child’s home life to be too dangerous to leave him or her there, the child is removed until the parents correct the situation. If the situation is not corrected within a certain amount of time, then further steps are taken to provide the child with a safe home. This usually involves terminating parental rights and putting the child up for adoption. Or, if the child is old enough to know his or her parents and not want to be adopted, placing the child in foster care until he or she ages out of the system.

Here’s the kicker in all this. If a mother has a child removed and is unable or unwilling to take the steps needed to make the home safe, she often will just replace the child taken with a new baby and start the process all over again.  What I find most disturbing in these situations is that the same mother who cannot have one child because her actions endanger that child is allowed to walk out of the hospital with a newborn. The reasoning is that the mother has not yet harmed the new child or put it in a dangerous or unsafe situation. So until such time as she does, the mother lives in a world in which she is only allowed supervised visits with one child while being allowed total access to another, often more vulnerable, child.

Does that make sense to anyone?

I know of one family where multiple children were removed and either put into long-term foster care or adopted. The mother showed up for the termination trial pregnant with another child. She walked out of the hospital with that child and the child was not removed until she endangered it with the same behavior that caused the first group to be removed.

I have often argued that laws requiring social workers to attempt to heal a family work only if there was a family to begin with. Unfortunately, what you all too often have are a drunken and abusive sperm donor, an egg carrier with similar problems and nothing whatsoever that anyone in any culture in this state would recognize as a family. You can’t put something back together that never existed in the first place. So, going back to my original concern, if a mother is so unable to provide for her children’s safety that the state is keeping the children from her physical custody, why in the hell would you turn around and claim you can’t deny her the right to take her newborn home because you have no proof she’s hurt the new baby. Why does the law require that the mother prove all over again that she’s not fit to raise a child while, in the process, the new baby is damaged emotionally and often physically?

And please, before the emails start piling up accusing me of letting the dads off the hook, I’m not. The simple reality is that if a child’s been removed from the home, it’s because neither mom nor dad – if he’s even hung around – is able to provide for the baby’s safety. If there were a strong dad around, the other kids wouldn’t be in state custody. Biology being what it is, mom delivers the new baby and mom usually takes it from the hospital.

Believe it or not, social workers didn’t become social workers to destroy families. They would like nothing more than to think they were able to help a family heal and get their children back. But these same social workers can only shake their heads in disbelief as a mom who has proven herself incapable of providing even the minimum of safety to her children is allowed to leave the hospital with a very vulnerable newborn. It just doesn’t make sense.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com