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Andrea Elliott and Darcey Merritt in Conversation about Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City

  • Andrea Elliott and Darcey Merritt
  • January 12 2022
  • PC106-2022

Andrea Elliott
Andrea Elliott
Darcey Merritt
Darcey Merritt

IRP recently had the privilege of hosting New York Times reporter and author Andrea Elliott and NYU Professor of Social Work Darcey Merritt for a conversation about Elliott’s book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. They talked about the family in the book, the child welfare system and race, how we think about meeting the needs of children, and how we can do better.

Visit the event page to watch the video recording of the conversation.

View Transcript

Dave Chancellor [00:00:00] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. Yesterday, on January 12th, we had the privilege of hosting New York Times journalist and author Andrea Elliott, an NYU professor of social work. Darcey Merritt for conversation about Eliot’s book Invisible Child Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City. They talked about the family, the child welfare system and race, how we think about meeting the needs of children and how we can do better. This is a bit of a different format than a regular episodes, but it was a powerful conversation and we also one to share it with you. IRP director Katherine Magnuson hosted the event, so we’ll hear from her first as she introduces Andrea Elliott and Dr. Darcey Merritt.

Katherine Magnuson [00:00:47] My name is Katherine Magnuson, I’m the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, IRP is the federally funded Poverty Research Center. We are thrilled and honored to have with us today. Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter and the author of Invisible Child. I’ll plug it for her: worth a read, a new book that came out this fall. And also Dr. Darcey Merritt, who’s professor of social work at NYU and who researches the lived experiences of families in the child welfare system with an emphasis on families of color. Again, I couldn’t be more happy that we have you with us today and look forward to your discussion of this really heartbreaking but really important book. And so I look forward to the discussion. So thank you both very much, and I will hand it over to you.

Darcey Merritt [00:01:39] Thank you so much. First, I want to say thanks for I’m humbled to have been invited to have this conversation with Andrea, and the book is a must read immediately. So there’s so much to talk about. So I’m really excited about the conversation. So, Andrea, I’m just going to jump right in. And just as you could just tell us, I’m wondering how you if you knew at the time of your of your New York Times series highlighting Dasani that your journalism would end up on such a journey, resulting in this incredible account of reality for so many that are unseen and unheard. There’s just way too much. You’ve actually spent most of the youngest child’s life with Dasani and her family with their blessing, and we now have their lived experiences and voices documented. As you know, my research is highlighting these voices and lived experiences, particularly of darker-skinned families impacted by what I prefer to call the racialized poverty child oversight system for reasons that you’ve covered in your book and the nuances of a host of surveillance systems. So if you could just start off by telling us about your journey and how it evolved with her family, that would be great.

Andrea Elliott [00:02:44] Yes. Well, first of all, I would like to say that this is just such a privilege for me and honor to be in conversation with you, Dr. Merritt. And I’m just very cognizant of the fact that a lot of the what I call the brain trust of scholars who helped me make this book both survive and then come out and made it as solid as it could be in terms of my getting the research right, are with us. And so I’m just very, very grateful. The path was filled with surprises. As you were asking that question, I was writing down DHS, ACS, DOC, Department of Corrections acronyms. I didn’t come into this to write about systems, you know, I’ve always been someone who’s been drawn to people and wanting to just get inside the world of people, of people different from me usually. And of course, understanding their cultural and political and other contexts as part of that, right? But this was the most human of all kind of endeavors because I really was focused on A: this being a child and B: this being a story of child poverty, which is such an experience that I thought, you know, it was just it’s a very important human experience to understand. And when I entered into it, I met Dasani standing outside of a homeless shelter. She was 11 years old. I looked all over the country really to find what I thought would be the right way into the story of child poverty in America. She was at that time attached to a system that I became a very close student of. And I do see that as my work. Just, you know, I never consider myself an expert. I’m a student. I study more than anything what I’m writing about and always feel like I have more to learn. The thing I was studying there was DHS Department of Homeless Services, so it was Dasani’s life in the context of housing. And as I followed her over the next eight years, it was actually a total nine. We’re now over a decade of knowing each other. She went from one acronym, DHS, to a new one, ACS, which I knew very little about, which was the Administration for Children Services, which is part of the child protection system, nationally. And by the time the book ends, you know, you see this arc from DHS to ACS to DOC, Department of Corrections, where her brother is now at Rikers facing a murder charge. And I just think about that a lot because you never when you go in and you’re following someone’s life, you don’t know where it’s going to lead you, but the fact that her life and her family’s struggles wound up. Going sort of through these three systems says so much, I think about what their struggles represent and the pipeline that we always hear about it was living itself out in front of me. It was playing out in real time and it was constantly having to play catch up. I remember going to Chris Gottlieb at NYU. Completely overwhelmed because I had just seen the children get taken from their parents in October of 2015 and was scrambling to make sense of this new system that suddenly they were going to be in foster care system and what it all meant. And I just remember her saying to me, usually when reporters come to me, they’re already interested in the subject. And then we help. We help them reconstruct a case that’s already happened and they go back in time and put it together. But this is different. You’re coming to me and saying, how do I make sense of I know these people, I’ve seen it happen. It’s very rare. So I just felt an incredible obligation to this family and to the people who would be reading this story to learn it and to get it as right as possible. Every one of these systems that I write about and that going back in time and trying to understand the way that history connects to the present, which is a big part of your work. And that’s part of the reason I’m so excited to talk about this. It’s what people don’t realize about, especially the impacted families in the system. Families of color and the history that, of course, that they bring to the table that is often unseen, unheard and goes unaccounted for.

Merritt [00:07:21] Yeah, yeah. And so that struck me too, the acronyms that that families become accustomed to and use all the time. And it is by design and based on that history that this pipeline exists. It’s by design. And that’s part of the problem. And I’m glad you gave us an update on paper I was I’ve been concerned about Papa. So a concern that ACS has is child safety. And I’m wondering what you think about the notion that in practice, this mission might ultimately be a subterfuge, given we know that poverty results in unsafe environments, and that’s then followed by surveillance and followed by ongoing trauma, which is also not safe. Poverty is alive and well, especially under racialized context. So what would you say? This oversight system or all the oversight systems are protecting children from is a cruelty or poverty, or rather is the underlying message that poor folks intentionally neglect their kids and need to be managed?

Elliott [00:08:19] So a quick word about Papa, the brother I was referring to, was actually Khaliq.

Merritt [00:08:23] Oh, Khaliq.

Elliott [00:08:26] Oh, Papa is we can talk maybe a little later on about where all the kids are now, but he he’s doing OK. I thought maybe I would. I would read quickly from the prologue because I think it captures… I was here this day and I saw this, but I also knew these people. I had been with them for three years at this point when this happened on October six, 2015. “First, they came for Papa. The eight-year-old boy asked no questions. He knew to be quiet in the presence of strangers. Two women led him into a silver van papa looked out the window as the ignition started. There was his school, a rectangle of brick that got smaller and smaller as the van pulled away. 11 miles south, another van collected Papa’s brother from his school and four sisters from their schools, delivering all six siblings to the same place the Staten Island office of New York City’s child protection agency. Only the youngest child remained. The van turned east heading up Laurel Avenue toward a white copper duplex with a boarded up window there on the sidewalk stood Baby Lee-Lee with her father. The toddler hid behind his legs as the van slowed to a halt. The father wiped his face. His daughter was too little to understand what was happening, that the people in the van were child protection workers. That the court had ordered them to take Lee-Lee and her siblings away, that the parents were being accused of neglect. That they had neglected, among other things, the condition of their home. A moment past the van door opened a case where workers stepped onto the sidewalk and paused. The father gathered Lee-Lee up and placed her in the van, promising to come for her tomorrow. That evening, the siblings were transferred to a child protection facility in Lower Manhattan, formerly the site of the Bellevue Hospital morgue. They stepped through a metal detector, trading their street clothes for matching maroon jumpsuits. Their father’s words kept ringing. Whatever happens, stay together.” You know, one of the reasons I wanted to read that passage, Darcey, because you talked about in your work the history that families bring within their own family history of the harm that is brought by the system and the way that it intrudes. And Supreme was a kid who was removed from his parents and went into group homes at a very early age and when he’s saying whatever happened, stay together. He’s speaking from his own personal history. I think that this, this moment captures so much about what this book really tries to. Dasani’s story, as I witnessed it, shows me about these various systems and how they impact a family like this. First of all. I think there is a. For me, what was stunning again coming in very, very new, not as the expert that you are as a complete outsider and as a mother, right, was all of the parallels unspoken or even spoken to the criminal justice system? The fact that the little things, even in the scene that they had to walk through a metal detector? These are children who’ve just been removed from the only people that they love, that they know and love as parents, that they’re wearing these matching uniforms, which I understand now, is not maybe as commonplace, but it did happen. I was there have video it happened. That, you know, they were quote unquote paroled before that back to their parents who are being monitored, all the language. It’s just it was striking to me and. They are facing charges of accusations, I should say, of neglect. So that’s the other big piece of this, and I think that I learned this very early on because I knew these parents. I knew them to be utterly loving 100 percent. They lived and would die for their kids. they lived and would die for their kids. they were not being accused. We all know what abuse is, so abuse is something intentional and it’s harmful. And those are cases that no one should tolerate that year, that this happened in New York City. Abuse cases or abuse and neglect combined was comprised of a total of seven percent of the cases. The 93 other percent of other cases were neglect-only charges and neglect is failure to provide. Right. And so it’s that they weren’t. And in this, in the beginning, the whole focus was on the home. The home was falling apart and this is a father who had tried everything. And he was. And as you’ve pointed out in your work, the diminished resources, the lack of access to the kinds of resources that middle class families take for granted. And then when that caseworker walks in with that lens and says, Well, why didn’t you make the phone call? He did make phone calls to try to get the gas put back on and to try to get the things fixed in his apartment. He was simply overwhelmed. So there’s so much more to say about it. But I was struck by, I think. Overall, just two really important messages in this in this experience of watching this happen and then later writing it, which is how strong that family bond is, how deeply important it is, not just in a kind of emotional or whatever you want to call it, sort of sappy and way, whatever in an actually in a. In a preventative way and in a sort of anti-poverty, if we’re talking about programs, if we’re talking about assets that should be invested in, I think a family is so critical to these kids to keeping that family together and keeping that home stable would have meant different outcomes for them than the ones we saw when they went into foster care. So seeing that family bond is so strong, but also has the strength it needs to be supportive is a huge thing. And then just seeing. How this system, which is massive and which is certainly flawed, but also a spectrum of humanity, right? It’s it’s a human construct, so there’s people on the ground and that system good and bad and in between. And, you know, my mother’s from Chile, she’s Catholic and always talks about the Catholic Church as a human construct that it’s not representative of God. And you know, the priest made mistakes, but you have to remember, you know, I always think about that because every system is, you know, it can be tremendously flawed to the point of absolutely unacceptable. And yet there were people on the ground who I think care deeply about these kids. And it was it was just a kind of crapshoot. You know, they get the right caseworker. Do they get the right judge?

Merritt [00:15:31] Well, the barriers are insurmountable. And what I see in my research is a lot of this intergenerational involvement. So I see a lot fathers and mothers who have grown up in the system and then they are stuck in this cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity and lack of resources. And that was what you just touched upon. Was leading to my next question, particularly around the fact that parents love their children. And so we know the lion’s share of kids that are interacting with the child welfare system, if we want to call it that are interacting because they have a dearth of resources, because they’re not meeting the so-called minimum degree of care, which is adequate food and clothing shelter, which is how you began, and education. And so most of these things are outside of their control. Yet we’re placing the onus of fixing, of having the parents fix these issues when the structural barriers, the systemic racism that’s at play, the histories of oppression and being financially disenfranchised just make it really nearly impossible. And so one of the questions that I asked and doing research study, I’m asking parents about how they come about making decisions with regard to behaviors, whether they’re neglectful or not neglectful. And I asked parents, What do you think a child’s basic needs are, overwhelmingly to the tune of about ninety nine percent say the very first thing they say is love. Yes. The very first thing they say is love. When I’m asking about basic needs. So in my little academic head, I’m thinking the definition that the statute has outlined, which is food, clothing, care, safe sleeping, all that stuff, they say love. And I think that we need to move forward with an approach that really, if we’re going to do an assessment, we need to rethink what the hierarchy of needs are. Because with that love also comes the desperate need for Supreme to make sure his family stays together. And we’ll get into the Dasani’s experience at Hershey as well. But that struck me as well. Her family was her way of surviving. That was her understanding of what that meant.

Elliott [00:17:37] So it’s so true now. Oh my gosh, there’s so much to say here. I mean, this is what absolutely Chanel, Dasani’s mother, would always say. I mean, love is. Is another way of saying you’re whole. You know, you belong, you know, that you’re safe. I mean, you know, I’m not, I’m fascinated by the hierarchy, and I think I think about the Maslow pyramid a lot. I do think it’s flawed because if it’s seen as first, we do the thing at the bottom, we take care of those needs and then then we’ve done our job if we’re just on the front lines, if we’re providers on the front lines of deep poverty. That’s our job because you can’t access the things above it without those things. That’s true, which you certainly can’t have the things at the top you’ve got. It has to be a kind of holistic approach. And it’s interesting you were talking about families and resources and coming into the system. That’s also precisely what struck me was that Dasani’s family was already in a crisis when the prevention piece of the of the case began, when they began to be heavily surveilled. And I was trying to kind of figure out why the response by the provider was number one therapy, but also just all these meetings. And it just seemed to I just my my my initial kind of just lay person sort of just immediate gut reaction was, Oh, wait, their lives just got worse. their lives just got harder is what’s the goal here if it’s to keep the family together? They’re just this is going to be even harder now because there’s so much added stress with these. These unannounced visits and the parents having to do parenting classes Supreme refused to go the first three times. He’s like, I’m not going to take lessons from some grandma about. I know way more than anyone else, I have eight kids. No one’s going to tell me. And he was a very devoted cook. He was very focused on the kids staying clean. He was an orderly parent. He he absolutely adored his children. He was far from perfect. And a lot of moments, by the way, so do I as a mother and as Mary Karr once said, the definition of a dysfunctional family is any family containing more than one member. So in that way, this story is quite universal because anyone who has a family can relate to this family on some level. And look, some families are going to look more dysfunctional than others. But I would argue that even families that look very dysfunctional. Are a better alternative than the foster care system. There’s a social worker in the book, Linda Lowe, who works for the provider, who said never, almost never is the foster care system the answer, and she was on that side. It’s just so. So yeah, you’re suddenly freighted with all these added things you have to do. And I was trying to make sense that I remember talking Nora McCarthy, who at the time was working at Rise as she founded it parent advocacy, and she explained it to me in a way that really made sense, she said. Look, families of means when they go into crisis mode, what does everyone around them do? They provide material help. Like I bring over a casserole, I make the phone call to the doctor. No one says to them, OK, you’re in a massive crisis, and now you need to go to therapy. You actually need to up your game in the middle of this. We take care of the material part first, and then once things are humming again, we get to the deeper issues. But it’s sort of like the reverse happens. And yeah, there’s a lot more to say in terms of parenting and behavior in the way that this family was judged, and we can get into that more as we go. But I could go on and on. So I’m going to stop.

Merritt [00:21:46] You know this, this theme of judgment has come out in my research as well. And it’s part and parcel for the oversight and the surveillance that parents are engaging in. I’m a parent as well and probably as dysfunctional because, as you said, the dynamics are just never there. Never just. Static, everything’s moving, right? Right, right. So what concerns me and I always say one touch from CPS, ACS, whatever you want to call it, I always say one touch is a bad touch because the expectations for remedy and mitigation of these issues are so different for people who are privileged, such as yourself, such as myself. And we’re not addressing the crises at hand. I was struck that the family was going to therapy because they needed to get the money to. They were just to drag all the kids to therapy, to get the money for whatever they needed food. So it’s setting them up for failure and also for making decisions that are going to keep them in the system and not complying with whatever’s being told. But the judgment part bothers me the most when we have Child Protective Service workers going and passing judgment on people without considering the love. Also. Who are we to decide what success looks like for a family? So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how Dasani and her family felt about other people, authorities deciding what it is to be successful or having a functional family because it seems a bit rude?

Elliott [00:23:22] Yeah. You know, that’s it’s interesting. You know, stepping back a little bit from child protection and even just thinking more broadly about just reader reaction, I’ve gone for the book. I think a lot of people are troubled by the responsibilities that Dasani shouldered as a kid at serving as a kind of third parent, and there’s a lot of judgment thrown at the family for that. And I was even talking about it with a good friend of mine. And, you know, she was she’s met Chanel many times and loves them, and she said, You know, I just really struggled with that. Like, why is it OK? And, you know, sometimes also feeling like she was undermining Dasani on phone, for instance, when Dasani had gotten this opportunity to go to a boarding school. And, you know, Chanel would kind of break some bad news from home, and that would bring Dasani down. And was she trying to kind of undermine her? And it occurred to me only recently and I but I think sometimes when you’re writing a book, the ideas are there in the writing, but you only realize what they were after fact. But I really do believe that for Chanel, as for Dasani, that bond was absolutely central to survival. I think survival is so key. This this this concept, this reality, right, that you must survive is such a central part of the story. And Chanel knew that she had a better chance of making everything work with Disney’s help Dasani being the quote unquote adult to fight child again. I say quote unquote, because I think these labels, while well-intended, they almost make it. It kind of feel clinical to me like I. My Latin American side, you know, my family from Chile, everyone pitches in. No one goes to a nursing home. You know, your family is your family. My mom’s going to flip with me. There’s no way I’m not going to get out of that one. You know, I was always changing my little brother’s diaper. I mean, everyone is working together in a way, and it’s sort of almost expected, in fact. There is another lens that would look at the family where the children don’t do anything as really messed up, right? So I think for Chanel, keeping her daughter close was just an instinct, right? A very important instinct. And for Dasani, changing her little sibling’s diapers and stuff like that, it wasn’t good or bad. Look. Could she? Would she have chosen an easier childhood? For sure. But she was just she was showing up for her life. She just knew this was her life. This was her family. These are the people she loves. This is how we get through the day. We do all this stuff together, we hope. It’s not that it was perfect by far. There were a lot of problems. In fact, one of Dasani’s great matriarchs, the late and great Paula Holmes, the principal of her school, a very influential black educator in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Also, Faith Hester, her teacher. I mean, they. They quarreled with this, they did not like what what was happening at home, they thought that it was keeping Dasani back in terms of attaining what she needed to attain in school. But you know, there’s so much you can say about it. At the end of the day. I just think that we have to understand the culture not of a community, but of each family. Every family has its sort of own individual culture and its own way to grow improve. Certainly mine. I have two little girls and I share custody with their dad and I’m, you know, for I spend large swaths of time as a single mom and we have lots of room to grow. We have our own culture. And if someone were to come in and take a look at what needed to get better or what you know was fine or what could be praised. I think that there would be a lot to say that’s unique, almost kind of unique to us, right?

Merritt [00:27:30] Well, you. Yeah. And again, back to survival, back to this concept of survival. Families do what they need to do to survive. And so a lot of these behaviors are a way in which they cope. I mean, no community is homogenous. So we need to look more individually about each family’s specific context, including the histories that they’ve lived and whatever experiences they’ve had with other systems. So oftentimes authorities will come in and a completely deficit based, deficit based lens say, you’re not doing this right. These are these are the right behaviors. But what I found with my research is that a lot of my parents make choices in raising their kids that are actually protective for the environments in the context in which they live. OK, so the fear

Elliott [00:28:20] was, I would so love to hear an example like that’s that’s similar to what I found, but I’m just so curious if there’s a.

Merritt [00:28:26] Yeah. For instance, I will. I’ve heard caseworkers say, Oh, this parent is encouraging. I don’t like the language that they use. But the caseworker say that the parent is incorrect is encouraging more aggressive behavior. I hate that word. More aggressive behavior in the children and not nurturing the children enough or coddling them enough at home. And the parents have told me I have to teach my children two different ways to be because of the neighborhood we live in, so they need to go outside and have a tough demeanor in order to survive. But they also need to know when they come up across a policeman that they need to fall in line immediately. So there’s just all of these different messages that parents are trying to navigate just to keep their kids safe. But we’re not considering that. So something that we might think is a negative behavior might actually be protective in that particular context.

Elliott [00:29:18] That’s so interesting, and it shows the high wire act of raising children in poverty. I feel that there are so many instances in which Chanel kind of shows her genius. She shows, you know, she’s again, this is a quote unquote disorganized family. There’s all these words, and I, I bow down to academics. I would be lost with that going to that. But I’m just saying it’s interesting because I’m like, Yeah, OK, they are disorganized in this like sort of in the social science definition that I just read, but. This woman is a genius of organization, I mean, in so many ways, she just automatically seems to remember, you know, every court date, she figures out a way to hustle… To get this notion. There’s so many things that I think I just brought in to the to the work that were sort of popular concepts about the poor that just got upended by what I saw this notion that the poor don’t work, for example. You know that yes, technically they are unemployed. But if you’ve been around deeply poor people, you know they’re working all the time. This doesn’t look like look like work in a kind of formal way, right? It could look more like bartering. So again, going back to your question before about how to define success and how is how does society judge this family versus how does Dasani judge her own family? How does decent society want dishonest future to go versus how does Dasani want it to go? And I think what watching her grow up forced me to do was to reckon very much with these traditional notions of success that that to to be successful. Of course, no one wants to be living in a living a life that is unstable where the person is subjected to violence, housing and food insecurity. OK, we can agree on that. But the message for a kid like Dasani so often is that you must leave, you must depart. You must transcend. You must go somewhere else. And for her, that place was actually Hershey was a boarding school where she was taught the code switch that you just described. And and it works. Obviously, for some kids, it didn’t work for her. She was 13 at that time. It’s a pivotal age to leave. And I think what she ultimately felt was that to enter the American middle class as defined, success is defined by the American middle class to geographically displace herself and then go to college and then maybe get a graduate degree to all the trappings right to get that house in suburbs, to marry. All the indicators that you’ve succeeded. She would love those things, but she’d like to have them in her own cultural context. She’d like to have the right to thrive in her own neighborhood and to even just in a cultural sense, like to speak the way she wants to speak, to dress the way she wants to dress, she you know. And at the same time hit new milestones and make her mother proud. So I think she just start to feel like that version of success. Just to go back to your question was an inauthentic, inauthentic path

Merritt [00:32:42] and jump off the pages when she was at Hershey about that internal struggle. I could feel it how it was so difficult for her to strut to go between these two worlds. Yet she was beholden to what her father said, no matter what. Stay together, right? Yes.

Elliott [00:32:59] So whatever happens, stay together. And he kept repeating it. And you were talking earlier about the word aggressive and you hate that word. There’s so many words I started to hate, in part because it just coming up in the records and the one that really bothered me was unkempt. Mm hmm. And this was a word that was said in court the day that Dasani and her siblings were removed from the custody of their parents. And you know, there’s a lot of judgment wrapped up in that word, but it’s also affected me. My own kids will go to school looking really, really unkempt some days, and I think I didn’t notice it before I really like entered into this work of this, of this, of knowing, deciding her family and spending so much time with them and seeing these systems play out. It made me, you know, it made me aware of things I was just blind to before,

Merritt [00:34:00] which I think is part of the privilege because I was going to ask you, you said that Dasani’s mom would not have allowed you entry into the family were you not a mom. And in my work, I interviewed this particular study I’m working on now. I only interviewed black moms who are impacted by the system, and I am absolutely certain that I have been able to develop a much faster trusting relationship with these families because I am also a black mom. Despite their differences socioeconomically academically, all of that, that baseline, you’re a black mom, you get it because you live in the same skin as I do. That goes a really long way. And so I just find it ironically ironic for for financially disenfranchised parents how they’re this… there’s the risk factor for oversight systems involvement and with the surveillance and scrutiny is usually associated with the very things that we want good parents to do, such as taking their kids to school into medical appointments. Yet that’s where the bulk of these allegations and reports come from. So we’re going to take your kids to school, take them to the doctor. But if you live in dark skin, you are at risk. What are your thoughts about that, especially from your your place of positionality as a white woman?

Elliott [00:35:17] I was so… There’s so much to say, I. let me let me take this in two parts. I will talk about my role and my own positionality. And then separately, I’d like to talk about the. The kind of funding reality that I saw play out, which I think is just striking, which maybe I’ll start there and then go to myself just while it’s fresh. So this is a family that. Was desperately poor. The mother had been removed, Dasani had left the house, so that’s a key cog in the wheel out of a system that was very much it worked as it was. Suddenly, it’s working a little less well. Mom is is removed on the suspicion unproven that she was using. Now, anyone who’d spent any decent amount of time with these parents, as Linda Lowe, the social worker who eventually went on the record in the book did could see that they adored their children and that they were absolutely devoted as parents. They were not perfect. They had problems. They struggled with addiction, which we know cuts across class and race. That’s a whole separate thing, but they were there for their kids. They wanted to be there for their kids. They wanted their family to, to stay together. And once you remove mom, dad is now with seven of the kids Dasani’s in boarding school. And the wheels just start to come off, in part because of as so often happens with the poor. It’s a small problem that snowballs into a catastrophe because he doesn’t have the… I think it was Steve Banks who once called it bureaucratic entitlement, but this sort of like now, I mean, Chanel would always say to me, I feel like I need to borrow your white voice? Get on the phone? And I’m like, Well, as long as I’m not, if I’m reporting, I’m going to call them and report and an interview this person and say I am. But if if you’re just talking about like, you’re mad, that lady on the phone, like you’re on the phone with Con Ed and they like, you don’t trust them or something, I’ll just get on the phone and be like, Excuse me, ma’am. I mean, there was this constant like, they were just overwhelmed. They had eight kids. They had to sit stand in these lines. The poor pay with their time. This is another thing sometimes, and I stood in these lines with them. I mean, I remember once being at the intake office in the Bronx for 10 hours and at one point sort of towards the end, we were waiting. I snuck in with the family. This is a few years ago and we were waiting and I fell asleep on the bench. Both Chanel and I were asleep and Dasani took a picture of us that her mother hates. But I loved it because it was like she was documenting me back. You know, I’m always the one taking the video and the audio and stuff. But you know, there was just there was so much pressure on this family, so much waiting in line, so much trying to call and not getting the person on the phone. They didn’t need parenting classes. They needed someone to work the phones. They needed just some practical help and they didn’t get it. And then their kids went into a foster care system that spent an estimated thirty-three thousand dollars a month on these eight children, which is nearly $400,000 a year. And it took Linda Lowe saying to me, If you just took a fraction of that amount and you invested it in keeping the family together, not in this sort of preventive model that we have right now, but maybe it looks like someone’s in the home with them helping get the meals on the table, draw the bath, make those phone calls. It might feel intrusive. It will feel intrusive, but it’s not as bad. I don’t know what the answers are. I will say that I just am struck by the. Those two figures, the fact that there was that this family was so or those two facts, I should say that the family was so struggling had gone without food stamps for four months, got gas had been cut off. They were trying everything they could to survive into a system that suddenly was spending $33,000 a month, then they lost their parents. Yeah, with me, with respect to me, you know? Yes, I think it was very important to Chanel that I was a mom and she. I think I never stopped being an outsider, I am close to the family, I call my role in their lives. they call me Drea. That was always my nickname, even in high school. I wear these two hats and they’re an awkward mix. You know, one hat of the observer, the reporter. I love talking to ethnographers about the stuff, the person who’s there to just to observe and to and to and to capture, right? And the other is that I’m a human being. I’m a mom. I’m someone who cares. I’m flawed. Both things are flawed, but I’m, you know, I cracked jokes. I love eating Supreme’s honey barbecue wings. It’s I’ve learned a lot of Wu-Tang with this family. I, you know, I am me and those two things coexist, and it’s an awkward balancing act. I don’t even know if it’s a balancing act. It’s just it is what it is. But, you know, they got used to that and I think it was, but it was never easy. And certainly my skin color was a big teacher for me. And, you know, Chanel was so brilliant from the very beginning in educating me constantly about this. Like just we were constantly talking about race. It was almost every day, I would say. Just in the street, her saying, see how they respond differently to you or see how they think you’re my social worker just because we’re walking side by side down the street, see how. I could feel. That the energy in the room would shift sometimes when an official was present like a doctor in the hospital and I was suddenly there, they wanted to know who I was. They get nervous. The authorities in question was I someone who could get them in trouble because I was white by the same token among neighbors and friends of the family? My skin color was absolutely understandable cause for alarm, because a white person coming in usually I mean, she always talked about it is when white people showed up. They brought calamity that, you know, usually it was like. And this is Ben Stein of the of the 80s. But it’s like, you know, usually the person has a clipboard and they’re there to oversee an eviction or the person is in an ambulance there to carry out a gurney or the person is a case worker there to take the kids away. Or it’s someone who’s been paid to come in, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes even as a helper, but not that they are one of us. And I think so. That’s also true. And then also my daughter, one of my daughters, is very accident prone. She’s a very athletic kid and she’s always taken risks and she’s broken a bunch of bones, different, you know, skateboarding, a trampoline park. And I think in the early days of that, I just never thought about it. It’s like we’d be in the hospital. Her dad and I would be asking, we’re both reporters, our questions and trying to get her the best care. No one asked me a damn question. And I started to notice 2015, mostly on, Oh my god, this is different for Chanel. Yeah, it is not a safe haven. She’s there, terrified because a kid is sick. And yet she’s got this added layer of They’re watching me. Am I going to say the wrong thing? It’s not what a hospital is supposed to be. Obviously, you screened for abuse, but it’s just generally look at these parents as suspects. Yeah. Is the feeling that she carries inside her when she goes,

Merritt [00:43:23] as do most of the parents that are interacting with the system. I mean, white people with authority are threats if one is poor. It’s just they’re so calamity is the right word. It is an absolute threat. And even in my in my dark skin, I still enjoy a lot and have enjoyed a lot of privilege because of my education, my socioeconomic background. But I can’t imagine just knowing that you’re vulnerable to no end in walking around in those systems and going from place to place. And I think that your humility is is commendable. And I think that you just were able to develop that trust. I think more people need to understand what this looks like from a different perspective with regard to what can be done in terms of going back to what you were saying earlier, it was the amount of money they spent on these kids for the foster care placements. You also noted in your book which I knew this the federal government spends twice as much money on foster care, so it’s

Elliott [00:44:26] it’s twice as much as what ACS gets. So I’m trying to remember exactly so.

Merritt [00:44:34] So the bulk of the federal money is slated for

Elliott [00:44:37] the federal government gives 10 times as much right to programs that separate families, including foster care, than to programs that keep them together. And you know, ACS, which is New York City’s foster child protection service, is actually the the agency that spends the most on prevention nationwide. And yet to, you know, twice the funding goes to foster care, takes center to prevention. And I think part of that is just because the federal government gives way more. Right? I yeah, I mean, it’s stunning that that not that, not more. And even stepping back a little bit from child protection and looking just more generally at just the the world that poor families live in in terms of government systems that more isn’t invested in the family. Of course, we’re seeing that with the child tax credit. And yeah, I saw versions of that with this family, an influx of cash would come and it was like suddenly everyone could breathe again. It wasn’t like mom and dad running out and buying beer. Yeah, it’s like, let’s pay the cell phone bill. Let’s get the new shoes for our kid. They are like most parents. They they they want their kids to be whole. I think this notion that the money will be squandered and that children, I think that America’s response to poverty historically has been, yeah, it’s a children must be separated from their parents.

Merritt [00:46:11] For my students when they’re doing policy analysis or an organizational analysis, pay attention to where the bulk of the money is in the budget because that’s the priority. So we’re not putting our money as a priority for prevention or if what you experienced with this family is that they were getting preventive services. But when they needed to have somebody help them with home management and making phone calls, they were told to go to therapy. So we’re applying the wrong remedies to the issues. And it’s it’s really problematic and. Would you believe that we’re running out of time right now? And I wanted to talk to you about Dasani’s experience with with the Hershey School, but we need to open it up for questions, but. Yeah, good on you for for embracing Wu-Tang, and I mentioned to you earlier, like with our labor of love writing, it’s so funny I was I was hammered by the fact that you name the first part of your book, A House is Not a Home by Luther Vandross an icon, whom I love that song and my labor of love, my dissertation, was named after the Clash. So a British rock band, so I just find that hilarious. So I guess we’ll open up for questions now. I wish I could. I wish we could just see

Elliott [00:47:26] a question about Does the family benefit? Yes. Can I can I just jump in and answer that one? OK, so first of all, I want to just mention that there is a trust that benefits college and goes to helping with material needs for Dasani and her siblings. It’s called Invisible Family Trust and The Information’s on Twitter. It’s also on my website Andrea Elliott dot com. A portion of the proceeds should the book generate proceeds, which I really hope eventually it does, will go to the family. It is absolutely critical to me that that happens. But even if that that income stream doesn’t happen for some reason, I hope it does. You know, it’s hard to sell books on poverty, but and I’ve never gone into my work thinking about it from a sales perspective. You know, it’s interesting. This is my first book, and it’s like this idea of sales. As I there were long, lonely stretches of the writing and recording process where I thought, You know, is anyone going to read this? Will this see the day of life? But I it is. I’m working and it’s preliminary right now, but with some of the folks in my brain trust, including folks at Russell Sage and other places, to create a foundation that I will have some seed money for that is going to go towards families like this. And so, you know, there’s a lot that can be done. Let me stop there because we don’t have that much time.

Magnuson [00:48:59] So I think one of the questions that has come up in a few different ways is how do we learn from these experiences and think about what actions can be taken either by individuals or by the systems themselves? Hard question,

Elliott [00:49:17] I when I feel like I feel like Darcey has the answer a little bit more than me, I I go back to just I see this as a very important case study, right? And so to go deep into one family is to see all the ways in which our presence in another person’s life is felt. And I think my mother is a therapist and she worked with a lot of disadvantaged populations, and you can get to a point where you get jaded or where you just sort of forget your impact. And I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that the folks on the frontlines of this, whether it’s welfare, whether it’s homeless services, whether it’s child protection are not just they’re not, they shouldn’t just be seen. And of course, there’s a lot of animosity towards them, from support from system impacted families. But some of them are really want actually to effect change and help. And I think that they have an opportunity to, from the ground up, make their own voices heard. Because I think like, like the caseworkers who are really, really involved in the science life know way more about this system than some of the people running the system. So I don’t know where that leaves us, but I would

Merritt [00:50:37] say it takes a multi-pronged approach. It takes you as a journalist to actually spend the time to get these stories and these voices out. And as an academic, I work towards doing the same, but from a different perspective and being able to touch different folks that can make different changes at the caseworker level. But it’s a systems issue, is what I see because the caseworkers are following the protocols that the system is mandating. So until we can understand the actual impact, the negative harmful impact that these families go through, I don’t think that we’re going to be able to really implement something meaningful in terms of change. I think that’s important for us to just think of it more holistically

Elliott [00:51:23] and then also just to build on that. Darcey, the impact. I mean, one of the things you talk a lot about in your work is trauma. I mean, it is an act of violence to separate a child from their parent. Right? And we saw an awakening around this with migrant children on the border. And it was striking to me because that was a year that was right around the same time that the kids I was following were put in foster care and I kept thinking, like, man, this has been happening for decades right here. But it happens every day. This day, they’re slightly different. But the separation in some ways, very similar this outside kind of structure coming in and deciding these children will not be with their parents is kind of the greatest power that any agency could potentially have is terrible. And then there’s just a total. I think there’s quite a lack of due process. There’s a lot to say. There’s a lot more to say, but we have

Merritt [00:52:21] systems need to be trained. It’s a whole it’s it’s a mess. But the very minute a child is taken from their home, it’s trauma and it has long term consequences. And there’s it’s just it’s unacceptable to make a mistake.

Merritt [00:52:39] I would say, I mean, just to your point about long term consequences, Papa. Papa suffered mightily. He was the one who was seven years old who ran away from home, set off the investigation and wound up children being removed. He went into institutions. He was put on various medications. He had a lot of violent outbursts. He had suicidal ideation. There was a. This child suffered so much, and as soon as he was, and I know someone’s going to ask, where where is the family now? The short answer is that after a long court battle, Chanel was reunited with three of her children and is living with them Papa, Dasani, and Avianna. And as soon as Papa went back, it’s like he was a different kid. It was extraordinary, and a doctor told Chanel he never needed to be on those medications. He just needed love. He needed to be with you to back to your point in the beginning. And so, yeah, it’s just remarkable. He’s a different kid now.

Magnuson [00:53:38] Yeah, I’m glad to hear that. If you have other thoughts on how to amplify that, amplify the voices of these families so that they’re heard more clearly in the system and more authentically, how do we enable them to have their own voices heard more clearly?

Elliott [00:53:59] I mean, I will say, you know, in New York City, there’s a really interesting has been a long history of, you know, strong parent advocacy. And I think a lot of mothers impacted mothers have been speaking out. They just haven’t had the right megaphone. I mean, they’re want their voices heard. And I think there’s a growing kind of movement towards creating a bigger space for those voices. I think, you know, you know, J-Mac and other organizations. But for journalists speaking, just going back to the place to my wheelhouse, I think it’s really important in our work. First of all, not to rely on memory, but to record stuff with the permission and time to make people feel comfortable with it so that you can capture. Long quotes, for instance, that really allow a person to speak the way that person speaks the say that what that person wants to say, it’s why there’s so much dialogue in this book. I feel that that is a part of the voice, right? Is not constantly intervening and trying to narrate, but letting people narrate their stories. But it’s very much a work in progress.

Merritt [00:55:12] Yeah, I think that I think that the impact on moms and dads need to be included in the process from my perspective as a researcher. They need to be included in the process from the beginning, starting with what happened to you? What would you see as a need to move forward so that you can live a healthier life of survival, that you determine what that looks like? But in terms of getting there, their voices out, it’s just important to, as you just said, record in real time and document and disseminate and do one’s best to eliminate any stigma, even in sharing the story, because we just haven’t been paying attention to the experiences. And that’s critical. We have to pay attention to the lived experiences which you have just so brilliantly documented.

Merritt [00:56:00] I would, I would say one quick thing. Also, Chanel Dasani’s mother just said to me on the phone and with her permission, I share it. She wants to create an app and let it be known publicly. This is her idea. So if anyone wants to help her do this, maybe we can all talk and I can facilitate that. But it’s just her idea, and she should. She should be in direct conversation with anyone who supports it. An app for parents who are who get a knock on the door, they can quickly look at the app and know their rights because they actually have rights that just not read those rights typically. And maybe there’s also, you know, a way for this app, for poor people to share their stories because I think everyone is so afraid they’re going to tick off the authorities and there, when there’s a groundswell of voices sharing this happen to me, this happened to me. Maybe the fear diminishes a little bit. But I loved her idea and it came to her because she didn’t have enough resources, like if I could have just grabbed my phone, looked on the app and said, These are your rights. This is what do you have a court order? Otherwise you need to leave. You don’t just get to come into my home like those are the things she wishes. She knew she had to be able to say she, you know, so.

Merritt [00:57:17] Yeah, it’s a brilliant idea. I love it. Yeah. I think it should be done now.

Magnuson [00:57:23] Well, we have just a minute or two left, and what I want to share with you is that the chat has been incredibly busy with people commenting and uplifting the work that you have done to bring this story into everyone else’s life. So I want to thank you both for your time and give you. I think you each get one minute to wrap up and give a closing thought.

Elliott [00:57:49] I would simply just say thank you for this time and for reading the story and for, I think hearing, hearing what it what it, what the messages that are in it that need to be heard because that’s that’s our job as journalists is is to tell these tell stories that that aren’t being heard. So thank you.

Merritt [00:58:14] I want to first thank you, Andrea, for for the for these good works and particularly as a black person on behalf genuinely for my community because I would like for people to know about my community that just because folks are poor does not mean they don’t love their children, does not mean that they don’t deserve to have the same privileges and protections to raise their children in the way in which they deem appropriate and fit. So, so that’s the message that also my black mom research participants would like to have shared out on behalf of dishonest story. So I’m humbled to have been here and somebody I just glanced at the chat because I’ve been so engaged in conversation and somebody asked how you are given the trauma that you may have been experiencing just over the years? And so I want to thank you.

Elliott [00:59:04] That’s very kind. I would rather take this platform to to to end with a quote from Dasani. I’m just looking at it because it just I can talk all about what I’ve been through. Maybe next time we can all gather. I feel like it’s secondary, but it’s changed my life. I will say that. Home is the people, the people I hang out with. Because she was her mother was saying to her, there’s no home to come home to. You have to stay at Hershey. No, the people I grew up with. That, to be honest, is really home family who’ve had my back since day one. It doesn’t have to be a roof over my head. In New York, I feel like I belong, I feel proud. I feel good, I feel accepted. I think that that’s such a profound. Message to end on. Absolutely. Because I think this book is about belonging, ultimately, it’s about who gets to belong and who doesn’t, and she’s fighting to belong to be a part of an our, not of them, right?

Magnuson [01:00:02] Thank you both so much for joining us. And for folks that are still listening, we’re at time, but this has been recorded and will be available for viewing and again, thank you both Darcey, Dr. Merritt and Andrea Elliott. It’s just been an honor to hear from you. Thank you so much.

Chancellor [01:00:27] Thanks so much for listening, and thanks to Andrea Elliott and Dr. Darcey Merritt for this conversation. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the head office, any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music is by Martin de Boer. Thanks for listening. 


Child Development & Well-Being, Child Maltreatment & Child Welfare System, Child Poverty, Children, Education & Training, Eviction & Foreclosure, Family & Partnering, Family Structure, Food & Nutrition, Food Insecurity, Health, Homelessness, Housing, Inequality & Mobility, Intergenerational Poverty, K-12 Education, Parenting, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Social Determinants of Health, Transition to Adulthood


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