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Bureaucracy on Autopilot

Implacable bureaucracy, heedlessly crushing innocents.

By Will Offensicht  |  May 14, 2008

The media have recently exposed two cases of blatant injustice: An employee of Tim Horton's coffee shop was fired for giving a toddler a 16-cent donut hole; and a child was removed from his home when a refreshment counter employee accidentally gave the child alcoholic lemonade instead of what the father had ordered.

These two incidents had very different outcomes: Tim Horton's reinstated their employee after public protest; but there was no protest against the Child "Protection" agency abusing the child by removing him from his home.  A judge allowed the child to return, but only on condition that the father move out of his house.  Only after the story made the national news was this ridiculous order rescinded.

Let's examine the details:

Tim Horton Firing

Reuters reports:

Nicole Lilliman, a single mother, said she was dismissed from a London, Ontario, outlet of the Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut chain after video cameras captured the 27-year-old giving a Timbit to a toddler.

... Tim Hortons said on Thursday that the firing was a mistake.  "It was the unfortunate action of one manager who unfortunately made an overzealous decision, and thankfully we were able to rectify the situation," said company spokeswoman Rachel Douglas.

Tim Horton's is the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts; they have hundreds of shops all across Canada.  Minimizing personnel cost is a major factor in operating such chains profitably.

The smarter managers have to be, the more the chain has to pay people to manage a store.  Any chain has a powerful incentive to define the job of store manager so that it requires neither initiative nor intelligence, as people with those capabilities cost more than people without them.

One way to operate a store without requiring initiative is to teach processes and procedures for everything.  McDonald's enrolls store managers in "Hamburger U" to teach them how to run a McDonald's.  Tim Horton's has a management manual that tells you everything you need to know to run a store.

If a store manager runs "by the book," he doesn't need to think and in fact, he shouldn't think.  If he thinks, he'll probably get in trouble for not following the book.

Shoplifting and theft are death on retail stores; Wal-Mart posts signs promising to prosecute anyone caught stealing.  Having employees give product away costs the same as shoplifting; the manual makes that a firing offense.  No question about it, you give away product, you're fired.  Ms. Lillman knew that; she said, "I should have gone to my purse and got the change, but it was busy..."

Let's empathize with the store manager for a moment.  When he reviewed the security cameras and caught Ms. Lillman giving away product, he fired her just as the book said.  He'd been taught that he'd be in trouble if he didn't follow the book; he was paid to follow the book.

He could have checked with his boss, but that would have required thought and he's not paid to think.  Expecting him to think, which is something the chain doesn't pay him to do and in fact teaches him not to do, would be unjust.

The story ended happily for Ms. Lillman.  The public believed that calming a screaming toddler who was disturbing the whole store was worth 16 cents to the chain; they protested the firing, and upper management re-hired Ms. Lillman.  It's significant that Rachel Douglas, the company spokesperson, used the word "unfortunate" to describe the manager's decision.  It certainly wasn't "wrong" because firing her was required by the book.  The manager is taught to follow the book, he's paid to follow the book, and that's what he did.

No matter how carefully you plan, it sometimes doesn't always work.  Tim Horton's must run their stores rigidly and bureaucratically to guarantee the same customer experience in every store.  Bureaucracy is the cheapest way to get any job done if the job can be reduced to procedures and the procedures require no thought at all.

One test of a bureaucracy is how they respond when their procedures don't work; in a way, Horton's passed this particular test, but public protest was needed to get their attention.

Government-Sponsored Child Abuse

In an article "Hard lemonade, hard price," the Detroit Free Press reports:

The way police and child protection workers figure it, Ratte should have known that what a Comerica Park vendor handed over when Ratte ordered a lemonade for his boy three Saturdays ago contained alcohol, and Ratte's ignorance justified placing young Leo in foster care until his dad got up to speed on the commercial beverage industry.

Even if, in hindsight, that decision seems a bit, um, idiotic. [emphasis added]

Here's what happened:

Traumatizing a child by removing him from a good home so that he cries himself to sleep in front of a television at CPS headquarters while his parents stand outside wondering if they'll ever see their child again is government-sponsored child abuse, pure and simple.  Throwing an innocent father out of his home as a condition of returning his child is an abuse of power.  Leo was abused by the very agency which is charged with protecting him from abuse.

They Were "Only Following Orders"

The police officer who interviewed Ratte at the hospital said that her supervisor insisted on referring the matter to Child Protective Services.  Federal law makes police officers "mandatory reporters;" they face serious fines and perhaps jail time if they don't report something which might be child abuse.

The CPS workers seemed to be more annoyed with the cop than with Ratte; they told him the whole thing was unnecessary as they drove Leo away.  The Free Press explains, "But there was really nothing any of them could do, they all said. They were just adhering to protocol, following orders."

We've heard this song before.  When did apparatchiks last say, "I was only following orders?"  Didn't we hang some of them for abusing people?

CPS has become a dysfunctional bureaucracy that abuses children and trashes families in return for federal funds.  By removing Leo into foster care, CPS started a federal revenue stream.

When two relatives, one a licensed social worker and foster parent, come to get him, CPS had moved him to an undisclosed foster home; giving him back to his family would have cut off Federal funds.  We've pointed out that the Texas CPS doesn't want to end the federal revenue stream from the 460 kids they recently snatched.

It's Gone International

This case is so stupid that it's gained overseas attention.  In "Land of the Free?" the Economist wrote:

The American legal system also seems to have lost any sense of proportion. Christopher Ratte, a professor of archeology, recently tried to buy his seven-year-old son a bottle of lemonade at a baseball game. He was handed a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade, an alcoholic drink, by mistake. Officials noticed the boy sipping the drink and immediately whisked him off to hospital. He was fine. But the family was condemned to legal hell: the police at first put the seven-year-old into a foster home and a judge ruled that he could go home only if his father moved out. It took several days of legal wrangling to reunite the family.

Where are the Protests?

When Tim Horton's bureaucracy treated an employee unfairly by following the rules as written, media attention forced the bureaucracy to back down.  Following rules and removing a perfectly healthy child from a good family is unquestionably child abuse which is far worse than a questionable firing, yet where are the protests?  Why hasn't public pressure forced the bureaucracy to reform - not just to give the kid back, but actually to make changes so the agency doesn't keep trashing families and abusing their children?

The Freep quoted Don Duquette, a U-M law professor who directs the university's Child Advocacy Law Clinic, as saying that the emergency removal powers of CPS, though "well-intentioned" are "out of control and partly responsible for the large numbers of kids in the foster care system," which is almost universally acknowledged to be badly overburdened.

Here we have a bureaucracy which experts say is "out of control" and is "universally acknowledged to be badly overburdened."  In other words, everyone familiar with the system knows it's out of control.  Yet there are no protests.

Consider the effects of this "out of control" bureaucracy.  Unjustified child removal traumatizes children.  My sons' friends who were wrongly removed distrust government deeply; their parents see government as a vast conspiracy to trash the citizenry.  Is it sound public policy to turn good parents into enemies of government?

As far back as 1989, the page-one article "Child-Abuse Charges Ensnare Some Parents In Baseless Proceedings," in the Wall Street Journal reported that two-thirds of children who removed from their homes as a result of child abuse interventions turned out not to be abused at all.  Abrupt removal is always traumatic for a child.  This means, mathematically, that our government abuses twice as many children as parents do.

Where are the protests?  If people would protest an unjust firing from a coffee shop, you'd think they'd protest the unjust kidnapping and abuse of a child, but you'd be wrong.  Why?

We Know We're Sliding Down the Confucian Cycle

There are no protests because people recognize that protesting government abuse is futile.  Our constitutional right to "petition our elected representatives for redress of grievances" notwithstanding, Federal law makes it a crime to say anything about a child abuse action, even if you're innocent.  CPS workers routinely bludgeon their victims, threatening them with jail time for saying anything about how they've been abused.

People knew that Tim Horton's would respond to protests because Tim Horton's cares far more about selling coffee than about following bureaucratic procedures.  People have learned, however, that coming to government's attention is like being run over by a bus.  No matter of whether you are rightfully in a crosswalk, you'll get squashed like a bug and there's nothing anyone can do about it.  This is because government doesn't care about anything other than following procedures and asking for a bigger budget next year.

Back in the early 1990's, CPS workers went after a relative of the head of the New Hampshire Senate; she couldn't help him.  A few years later, they initiated a false accusation of child abuse against a state senator during an election campaign.  He lost the campaign; the matter disappeared.  As it turned out, this particular senator had been quite vigorous in protesting the agency's ill-treatment of his constituents.  Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat criticized.

CPS on Autopilot

As Confucius pointed out, when bureaucracy gets caught up in process and ignores product, you might as well rebel because the only way to fix a broken government agency is to fire everybody and start over. It's impossible to shut down any individual government agency once it's funded; the only recourse is to tear down the entire government.

Once upon a time, elimination of the federal Department of Energy, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other cabinet-level departments was part of the Republican party national platform.  After 28 years during which we've had 20 years of Republican presidents, this plan is gone without trace.  The targeted departments are still there, and our most recent Republican president added yet another Cabinet department - the Department of Homeland Security - which is universally ridiculed as utterly incompetent if not corrupt.

Confucius had never heard of democracy.  He never anticipated that citizens would have the right to elect their rulers.  We taxpayers could in theory elect people who'd cut back the bureaucracy and keep bureaucrats from trashing families, but the "Republican" nominee and both Democrats are talking about increasing taxes and giving the bureaucracies more and more power.

Hillary in particular believes that parents are not competent to raise their own children; she says it takes a village and wants to increase CPS funding so they can afford to abuse more children.  Messing up children in this way makes them "Children In Need of Services" (CHINS) which requires ever more government employees.

When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter back in 1980, one of my conservative friends went into mourning.  He believed that the Carter Presidency had been a total disaster; four more years would have led to collapse and we could start over.  He would approve of either Mr. Obama or Hillary in that either of them will bring on collapse if they actually implement the programs they advocate.

The Free Press article ended:

Ratte and his wife have filed a formal complaint with the CPS ombudsman's office.  "I have apologized to Leo from the bottom of my heart for the silly mistake that got him into this mess," Ratte wrote in the complaint. "But I have also told him that what happened afterward was an even bigger error, and I would like to be able to say to him that institutions, like people, can learn from their mistakes."

Unfortunately for Ratte and for all of us, bureaucracies don't learn from mistakes.  Bureaucrats use mistakes - they blame lack of funds for anything that goes wrong and ask for more money so they can afford to make bigger and better mistakes.

What will happen if the Rattes sue and win some money?  CPS will gladly pay the money - and ask for more from the taxpayers next year to cover the expense. They'll never reform their broken system to give back the children who should never have been snatched because the feds cover their expenses as long as they are able to hang on to the children.

Any agency will lie, cheat, and steal to get federal funds because their own politicians don't like raising taxes to get more money from their voters.  The feds won't deny them funds just because of procedural errors; the more money the federal bureaucrats shovel out, the more they can ask for next year.

Even if it's found that CPS violated the law in snatching and abusing this child, they'll say that the error was due to overwork which is caused by lack of funds and ask for more.  The worse job they do, the more children they abuse, the more money they get.  That's how the bureaucracy drags us into the abyss of the Confucian Cycle.

In the meantime, you'd better pray that CPS doesn't notice you.  Get on their radar, and you're toast.