If Halle Smith Had Been White, Would She Be Alive Today?


I had a client recently—call him Sam—who got in the law’s bad graces for some conduct involving alcohol and the brandishing of a firearm in his garage while his young daughter slept upstairs. The daughter—well-fed, well-loved, well-adjusted and well-cared-for—was never in any danger and never even knew what had happened.

Only a total idiot would think it was a good idea to take that child out of that home, but CPS was all over Sam’s case, questioning his daughter at school, filing suit against him, threatening to take her away from him and his wife. By spending a bunch of money on lawyers, Sam and his wife were able to fend off CPS and keep their very lucky child in their home.

Sam commented to me at the time that he thought the CPS bureaucrats were racists; if he had been the same race as them, he said, he would not have had to fight so hard to keep his child. I shrugged and ascribed his view to bitterness at a terrible experience with a stupid bureaucracy; surely, I thought, CPS overreacts to everyone regardless of race.

Then I saw this story in the Houston Chronicle:

For 17 years, Texas Child Protective Services workers suspected that Almita Nicole Lockhart, a drug addict now accused of starving her daughter to death, was unable to care for her children.

They investigated in 1993 and 1994. In 1996 and 1999. And five other times between 2000 and 2009, the year her 8-year-old daughter, Halle Shamille Smith, died of starvation, records show.

That an eight-year-old child should starve to death in Houston in 2009 is horrible, tragic, sick. There’s plenty of blame to go around: it takes a village to starve a child. Almita Lockhart was not competent to take care of her children; this is obvious, and should have been obvious to CPS when she tested positive for drugs on the days of two children’s births. Almita needed help, or an intervention, that CPS was not willing to give her.

The effort used to snatch Sam’s child could have been put to better use. If Almita’s case had been attacked with the same vigor as Sam’s, children would have been removed from the home. There’s no way Almita—drug-addicted mother of 10—could have afforded the same defense that Sam got.

In fact, CPS was going after Sam while Halle was starving to death. Everything has an opportunity cost, and the opportunity cost of trying to take one child out of a loving, safe, and nurturing home may have been to abandon another to an anguished death of starvation.

For whatever reason CPS employees didn’t try as hard in Almita’s case as in Sam’s, it contributed to Halle’s death. So I have to ask: is Sam right? Was the difference between Sam’s treatment and Almita’s the race of the parents? Do CPS employees give preferential treatment to people of one race over another?

Almita, you see, is African-American, and Sam is as white as can be.


0 responses to “If Halle Smith Had Been White, Would She Be Alive Today?”

  1. CPS has been falling down on the job in high profile ways for years now and the result always seems to be the same — a dead child. I don’t know whether or not the problem is the overwhelming caseload or the fact that the social workers aren’t adequately trained to deal with the warning signs.

    I wonder if we had more qualified attorneys working as ad litems if that could make a difference. Something needs to change with the way children are protected, and CPS sure as hell doesn’t seem to be doing it.

  2. There are many factors at work here, but one near the very top has to be the incredibly high rate of turnover at CPS. I don’t have the exact stats to back me up, but I suspect the average career length is well under 3 years, and maybe under 2. And bear in mind that is counting a few “career” CPS workers who rise to administrative jobs. Caseworkers come and go — and who can blame them? Why would they want a high-stress, sometimes even dangerous job that barely pays more than they would make flipping burgers at McDonald’s? It is a thankless, losing battle they have to fight, day-in and day-out, to try and make lousy parents care for their children, and, failing that, to take children out of awful situations to put them in merely bad situations. While many CPS caseworkers are dedicated, big-hearted individuals, the unfortunate fact is that a low-paying job with so many negatives to it necessarily tends to attract less-educated individuals who cannot find or do not qualify for better jobs. Generalizations, yes, but broadly accurate.

    As a result of the high rate of burnout and attrition, cases get passed from worker to worker and are not always followed up on properly. An overwhelming caseload doesn’t help.

    We will probably never know with certainty what went wrong in Halle’s case. I’m not sure Mark’s allegation that CPS “didn’t try as hard” can ever be substantiated — there may have been other factors at work — but I agree it certainly looks bad. I will say that, without a doubt, the personal biases and prejudices of the caseworkers and supervisors play a significant role in the direction CPS involvement takes. Some don’t like guns; others don’t approve of spankings. Individuals, with all of their foibles, fallacies, and failings, ultimately control what this massive bureaucracy does. Since politics and religious beliefs influence those individuals, it is not really that much of a stretch to conclude that race must, too.

  3. The joke in the CPS courts, one of them anyway, is this: What’s the difference between CPS and a pit bull? You might actually get your kid back from a pit bull.

    CPS’ problems are myriad, but one common thread I’ve noticed in my growing dealings with CPS is that when they’re not really needed, there’s no getting rid of them. And where they’re desperately needed, they’re nowhere to be found.

    Personally, it’s hard for me to accurately judge if race is a factor in comparing these two cases alone against one another. CPS depends a lot on the information provided by individual case workers assigned to each cause number. It seems that Almita’s case workers(s) was/were totally negligent and a total discredit to the agency. And it’s also possible that the case worker(s) in Sam’s case was/were wildly overzealous and unreasonable. Hard to say with a sampling pool of two cases only. But I definitely don’t discount the strong possibility that you’re onto something, Mark.

    What is definitely true is that CPS is badly underresourced, and that their workers are not well-compensated It’s easy to see how a negative institutional mentality can set in there, and it’s tragic that such a critically important agency so often finds itself very justifiably looking inept.

  4. My experience litigating CPS cases — which goes back to 2004, so it’s not that extensive — is that CPS tends to pay more attention to minority children than to whites. Thus, when I read your blog, I assumed that Sam was black and Halle was white; I was surprised to find out the opposite was true. I believe the problems in the Lockhart case were myriad, but I doubt they were motivated by race. I’m not saying there isn’t racism in that agency; but to the extent it exists, it cuts the other way.

  5. A correspondent who wished not to be publicly named wrote:

    Non-white children are disproportionately represented in the CPS system nationwide. According to Dorothy Roberts in a report called Race and Class in the Child Welfare System,

    Just as important as poverty in determining families’ fate is race. Because the film deals with cases in Maine, it hides the true color of the U.S. child welfare system. Every family in “The Caseworker Files” is white. But white children are the least likely of any group to be supervised by child protective services. Black children make up more than two-fifths of the foster care population, though they represent less than one-fifth of the nation’s children. Latino and Native American children are also in the system in disproportionate numbers. The system’s racial imbalance is most apparent in big cities where there are sizeable minority and foster care populations. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care are black. Out of 42,000 children in New York City’s foster care system at the end of 1997, only 1,300 were white. Black children in New York were 10 times as likely as white children to be in state protective custody. Spend a day in the agencies that handle child maltreatment cases in these cities and you will probably see only black or Latino parents and children. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

    I’ve seen some sites that put cases like this one out there and state that there is an attitude in some CPS offices that will go after a white family more aggressively than a black family because of the situation where more black families are under investigation–the theory is that CPS does this to show that they are “just as hard” on white families. I’m not sure how valid this is, but I’ve seen the argument.

    There are, of course, lots of socioeconomic reasons that non-whites (who are most of the poor in most American cities) would be more likely to get CPS attention than whites. Adjusting for those reasons to gauge how much CPS’s decisions are based on race is probably impossible.

    That CPS is an underresourced agency with an overwhelming caseload and high rates of burnout and attrition is no excuse for expending its scarce resources where they are not needed (to show that they are just as hard on whites?) while leaving unaided those families who most need their services. It shouldn’t take a lot of training to see that Almita and her children desperately needed intervention.

  6. Are you (or, rather, Sam) saying CPS is biased towards white parents? Or that they could potentially be more protective of white children? I don’t really buy the theory that CPS needs to prove that they are just as hard on white families.

  7. One factor jumps out at me far more than race:

    Sam’s case involved a firearm. I believe, based on many other stories I’ve read (i.e., anecdotal avidence) that CPS workers have a very strong prejudice against firearms and firearm owners.

    Of course, Sam behaved irresponsibly. However, he in fact caused no harm. He very properly should have been rebuked with a fine. I think a mandatory gun safety course would be an excellent step. I might even support his gun being confiscated for a repeat offense.

    But to confiscate his child? When no harm came to her or anyone else?

    There is indeed prejudice here, outright bigotry. But it’s not against Sam’s melanin deficiency. It’s against his exercise of the Second Amendment.

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