When Mistakes Are Okay For Government Agents
It's a bizarre thing, the notion of accountability. If I commit a mistake in my line of work that deprives a person of his or her rights, liberties, or property, then it's considered "malpractice" and I'm liable for it. When the party committing the mistake is a government agent, however, they usually get a free pass, especially if the work is done to stop a bad person from hurting others or especially if it's done "for the good of the children." The work of police, child services workers nationwide, and the various prosecutors that back them are no better or no worse professions than the adversarial parties that check their powers to prevent government abuse, but the big difference is we castigate the defense attorneys and give the government workers a free pass.
And where does this leave us? With people who can make mistakes that deprive people of their liberties, their property, and even their very lives--and get away with it by saying "oops."
Much has been said about the work of police in recent months, and I don't want to take away from Radley Balko's, Scott Greenfield's, or Ken White's work on the subject. What I want to focus on are the mistakes that child services workers commit and how those impact the lives of children in the State of Tennessee.
If a person is indicated for child abuse or neglect, that will be used against them in the Juvenile Court system by DCS workers to show that child abuse or neglect has actually occurred--even if the alleged acts never took place. This will be used as basis to justify the removal of children from the home, and placement into a foster care situation. With the registry now public, the person will be placed on a list that anyone with a computer and internet access can use to deny people homes, credit, loans, even jobs so they can support the children that are now no longer in their care. If the substantiation is later overturned by an administrative judge--which rarely happens because people don't know enough to exercise their rights in a given area--DCS can still say that there's still a reason to justify removing a child from a home and putting them into foster care because "a court found that removal was appropriate."
Starting to connect the dots yet? A person is found to be a bad parent or caregiver due to a letter that has no basis in fact--something that is decided by an independent tribunal in secret without the accused knowing of the evidence used against them, and then that decision is used later in a court of law as evidence if the government agency decides that it's "in the best interests of the children." If that tribunal's decision is later overturned, the government agency issuing the original decision can then say "whoops, we're sorry we made a mistake in our original investigation, but a Court found that we were still right anyway even though we used faulty evidence and it's for the good of the children so it all worked out right in the end!"
No. You don't get to do that. You don't get to wrap yourself in the notions of truth, justice, and the American Way and then later use your mistakes to justify how righteous you are because a Court found your faulty evidence as justification for destroying familial ties. It's offensive to traditional notions of justice and fair play, and an affront to the Court system, and yet we do it every day "for the good of the children."
This is the system we have created, and there's no end in sight.