The Fallacy of Proximal Cigarette-Bumming?

Last night I was watching Monday and Tuesday’s Dr. Phil–I do all my psychological research with only the best accredited resources–and it occurred to me that there’s a phenomenon that either needs a name, or has a name and I need to know it. One guest was a young woman who lost her baby to social services in her mid-teens because, as she put it, “I stepped out to bum a cigarette.”

So. The story as presented is: When she was 15, she, her baby, her mother (also a guest), and her 12-year-old sister (in the audience) were living in their car for a while because her mother couldn’t find work. When CPS found out, they stepped in and took the kids into foster care. It wasn’t clear to me why CPS did that–drugs weren’t an issue for any of them, the mother says the kids were going to school, etc. What is clear is that CPS muffed the case royally. They put all three children into different homes, separating the teen mother and her baby and putting the 12-year-old with a foster parent who didn’t speak English. What follows is the usual mess: bouncing between placements, running away, getting back on their feet and then falling down again, court hearings, requirements, a morass of legal paperwork.

At one point the teen mother had custody of her baby, who was now 2 years 9 months old. An event happened that caused her to lose custody temporarily, and it snowballed into permanent termination of her parental rights and adoption by the baby’s foster mother. This event the young woman and her mother described as, “They said I left the baby alone. For two minutes! With a friend!”

Dr. Phil asked for more details. All the quotes are paraphrases because I can’t replay the clips right now, but the mother and daughter said the daughter was at a friend’s with the baby, and she left the baby with the friend so she could run out to get a drink from the corner store–Dr. Phil interjected, “The police report says you were buying cigarettes.” “Yes, okay, fine, I was buying cigarettes. I’m a smoker. it’s legal.” She stepped out to buy cigarettes, or bum a cigarette, and a police officer saw her and said, “How old are you?” She was underage; he got suspicious; he arrested her and called CPS, which took the baby. The mother and daughter had a couple different theories about why he was on her immediately, involving various people with an interest in getting the daughter’s “beautiful baby” away from her so CPS could make a ton of money from the adoption.

Other details that the mother and daughter were less forthcoming about: It was a school day; the daughter was skipping school (“because I wanted to be home with my baby”), which had been a chronic problem; the daughter had custody of the baby on condition that she attend school. A detail contributed by the adoptive mother: The daughter was having psychological problems because she had borderline personality disorder. Evidently this was an official diagnosis, not the adoptive mother’s diagnosis, because neither mother nor daughter disputed it.

The picture that emerged, as tangled and gap-ridden as the timeline was, was a teen mother who couldn’t take care of both herself and her baby, and who was on a predictable downward spiral. CPS chose to save mother and child separately rather than together. A painful call, but a good one, at least for the baby: She had only one foster home, with a woman who adopted her as soon as she was available. The mother has since finished school, is working, has an apartment, and has had another child. She’s on her feet.

She’s also borderline as hell. Just like her mom.

Throughout the two-part show, both mother and daughter referred to the cigarette-bumming event as the reason the daughter lost custody. The terms they used changed as Dr. Phil dug down into the story: “Because I left my baby with a friend for two minutes.” “Because I stepped out to buy soda.” “Because I stepped out to bum a cigarette.” But their sense of cause and effect didn’t alter a whit. Ignore the downward spiral the daughter was on; ignore all the hearings she’d been through where she was told what she needed to do to keep custody; ignore everything except the one thing the daughter was doing at that very second.

That’s the phenomenon that needs a name.

The Fallacy of Proximal Cause? Cigarette-Bumming?


ETA: Blog posts the birth mother wrote about the show before and after watching the show.

ETA 2: Miscellaneous quotes from the show. These aren’t from the same exchange.

The birth mother, Olivia: “I asked my friend if he would watch Evelyn really quick while I go across the street to the Jack-in-the-Box. A police officer stopped me and asked me how old I was. The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a cop car.”

The adoptive mother, Jyllian: “Olivia’s parental rights were taken away because she had been leaving the group home. She was diagnosed bipolar and borderline personality disorder.”


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