THE BLOG
01/04/2015 10:11 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2015

Relisha's Brothers, Part II: Endangered By Secrecy

Secrecy in child welfare throws its dark curtain over yet another low-income family of color. This time, it is Relisha Rudd's brothers whose fate is being decided behind the closed doors of the family court.

We know little about Relisha's family other than that their poverty was so profound that they lived in an abandoned hospital, now used as the District of Columbia's emergency family homeless shelter. The shelter is a grim and decrepit shell, a "dead" building, in the words of the District government official responsible for running it. Relisha hasn't been seen in 10 months, since she was allowed to be in the care of a shelter janitor - whose dead body, a suicide, was discovered in late March.

When Relisha disappeared, her three brothers were taken from their mother, Shamika Young, by the District's Child and Family Services Agency. Nearly 10 months later, according to reports, the boys remain in foster care.

The secrecy masking child welfare proceedings means that we can only speculate whether Relisha's siblings are better off in state custody or with their mother.

It's a familiar story by now, with countless examples. For instance, the District's confidentiality laws kept us from learning why Renee Bowman, who killed her adopted children in a freezer, was allowed to adopt in the first place. In South Carolina, why did a judge think it would be better for a child to live in foster care, separated from her mother, simply because the mother allowed the child to play in a park? And we can do no more than speculate whether a Florida family court judge was asleep at the switch when he kept a newborn in foster care for five months because the baby's mother kept him on a soy-protein diet. Maybe all of the cogs in the governmental machine worked perfectly in sync in these cases -- but confidentiality laws mean we'll never really know.

Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post asks, "Does Relisha Rudd's mother deserve to be reunited with her three sons in foster care?" Dvorak points out that Young claims her mother gave Relisha to Khalil Tatum, who apparently kidnapped the little girl -- but Relisha's grandmother denies it. Ultimately, Dvorak concludes, "[U]ntil we know the whole story of what happened to Relisha, her family can't be reunited."

And we don't know the "whole story" because it's against the law for us to know. The media and the rest of us ordinary folks are blindfolded by District laws which, as in most states, make child welfare court proceedings confidential. We can't attend court hearings to observe what happens, and can't review the court records. With information suppressed, we are left to throw darts in the dark.

Letting this all happen in secret means that judges and social workers make their decisions without accountability. The vigilance of taxpayers, voters, and concerned residents would improve those decisions, promote public discourse, and pave the way to improved governmental systems.

We need to know what Relisha's mother did and didn't do, and why. We need to know what CFSA did and didn't do, in our name and with our tax dollars. Are the lawyers for Young and the children serving them well, and providing the judge with relevant information? What information is before the judge, and how does he or she use it? Social psychology and common sense tell us that the judge will gather more information, consider more options, and take more care in evaluating evidence if he or she knows the decision will be open to public scrutiny.

Maybe these boys would be in danger and should be kept from their mother. But maybe, as with most children in foster care, it is harming them more to be separated from their mother. For example, a 2008 MIT study found that among similarly-maltreated children, those simply left at home fare better with respect to employment, juvenile delinquency, and teen pregnancy than those put in foster care. Thus, Relisha's brothers need accountable judges to weigh the damage being done by foster care against the potential harm that could befall the children in their mother's care.

If we were watching the court hearing to determine their custody, we would be looking for a few things:

Did CFSA do a thorough investigation? Did they talk to everyone who knows the boys and knows the mother? If CFSA is asking that the boys remain in foster care, do they make a convincing argument that the children would be in danger if returned to their mother? Have they taken into account the harms the boys are experiencing by being separated from their mother? If CFSA recommends that the boys live with their mother, will she have the support she needs? Does the social worker speak in generalities, or do she provide concrete, specific details so that the judge can really get a sense of who this particular family is?

And we would want to know whether the mother's lawyer makes a good argument on her behalf. Does the lawyer seem to know Young? Is the lawyer able to tell Young's individualized story, or does she seem to be just a generic client to her own lawyer? Has the lawyer found Young's parenting strengths, and emphasized those? Does the lawyer cite for the judge the applicable legal standard?

And does the judge seem familiar with the law? Does the judge have a rock-solid foundation for his or her decision? Or is the judge hamstrung by a paucity of information put forth by the lawyers and social worker? Is the judge rubberstamping the request made by CFSA, or making an independent judgment about what is best for the children?

If the judge decides to keep the children in foster care, what is the articulated reason that these children can't be kept safe in the home? Is there a plan for the mother to address any concerns that the judge continues to have? Does the mother know why her children are remaining in foster care? If the children get to go home with their mother, what are the details of the social worker's ongoing monitoring of their welfare? Will CFSA arrange child care, if it is needed?

We wonder about the fate of Relisha's brothers -- are they being well cared-for in foster care? Should they be allowed to live with their mother again? We can only guess at the answers. Do the decision-makers - judge and social workers - have all the information they need? Lawyers, case workers, and judges in child welfare are famously overburdened and pressured, and are just as human as the rest of us. Professor Dorothy Roberts points out that the vague standards for child neglect "allow race, class, and gender biases to influence decisions." So, in a system populated almost entirely by women, the poor, and people of color, do harried child welfare professionals inevitably take a few morsels of information and fill in the blanks with imagination, supposition, assumptions, and prejudice?

It is true, as Dvorak writes, that we don't know the whole story of Relisha Rudd or her mother or brothers. But our child welfare systems are characterized by federal court mandates and epidemic racial disproportionality. Thousands of children enter unnecessarily each year, and thousands more leave foster care for lives of homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.

With this lengthy national track record of failure and tragedy, we ought not delegate to social workers, lawyers, and judges the duty to unearth and retell the "whole story" of Relisha's family. Open government in this important arena would permit the kind of robust national conversation currently illuminating race relations and police practices. We all have a responsibility to Relisha's brothers and to all children who are in danger of being caught up in child welfare.

We hope that children remain in foster care when they need to, and are sent home when that is best. But with a system shrouded in secrecy, all we can do is throw up our hands and hope.