Is Foster Care a Crime?

After finishing my manuscript about a young girl, Mary Jo, who was placed in Child Protection Services, I reached out to potential agents. I described my novel as a coming-of-age story about a young girl trapped in foster care. I compared it to Where the Crawdads Sing and similar books.

One of the first agents who responded sent this message: “Thanks for your query. Though I read this with interest, I’m afraid I don’t work much on crime-oriented novels. I wish you the best of luck …”

I roared with laughter when I read the agent’s no-thank-you response. How could she possibly mistake my story about Mary Jo, a naïve nine-year-old, for a crime novel?

I reminded myself that any response from an agent was better than being ignored, and returned to working on my next book. A few minutes later I recalled my query letter said Mary Jo was placed in Child Protection Services by a deputy sheriff and a social worker. The deputy sheriff might be why the agent thought Mary Jo’s story was a crime novel.

That night, just before falling asleep, I remembered mentioning a judge in my query letter. A juvenile judge is always involved in child protection cases either behind the scenes or in-your-face style, although a child may or may not appear in court. Maybe that’s why the agent thought I wrote a crime novel: a deputy sheriff and a judge.

Ironically, parents are rarely charged with a crime when children are placed in state custody, possibly because there is normally very little evidence of a crime. Rules of evidence in juvenile courts allow hearsay evidence and third-party reporting. Juvenile judges can and do arbitrarily reject any witnesses or evidence on a whim. Evidence is not required to place a child in foster care. Even when a child has injuries such as broken bones, bruising, third-degree burns, or even sexual assault, a parent is rarely charged. Some state statutes supposedly attempt to “protect” the underage victims of abuse from “negative” publicity by closing juvenile child-in-need-of-care hearings to the public.

The ridiculous idea of my story being a crime novel stuck in my mind and the next morning at breakfast, the murder at my young heroine’s home before she was placed in state custody popped into my mind. Perhaps that’s what misled the agent: a deputy sheriff, a judge, and a murder.

Later in the day I opened and reread the query I sent the agent. The first sentence tells about a murder, the second introduces the deputy sheriff, the third an arrest, the fourth the judge and sexual predator guards.  

I laughed at myself and thought about how that paragraph would impact anyone who believes the bureaucratic child protection system effectively protects children. No wonder the agent thought this was a crime novel.

My final thought about my “crime” novel: in the USA there are over four hundred thousand children in foster care (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/statistics/foster-care/).  These children are six times as likely to be sexually or physically abused as children in the general population. They are less likely to graduate from high school. Many children trapped in child sex trafficking were formerly in foster care. Many foster children who “age out” of the system are homeless or incarcerated within two years.

Perhaps my story about Mary Jo is a crime novel after all, or at least it is a novel about crimes against children.

©2021, Kari Mumy, all rights reserved.

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