Sunday, February 10, 2008

The baby market is booming

The Chapin Hall Center for Children maintains its own database of child welfare statistics. About 20 states provide all sorts of data beyond what they are required to give to the federal government. Chapin Hall analyzes the numbers and puts out reports full of broad general statements about broad general trends. They can’t say much more because, while Chapin Hall can list which states are part of the database, in exchange for providing the data, the states demand that Chapin Hall not link particular trends our outcomes to a given state.

Since states volunteer, the states in the study are not necessarily a representative cross-section, but enough states, including some very large ones, contribute data to suggest that trends nationwide probably are similar.

Chapin Hall is not prone to explaining the reasons behind the trends that show up in these data, however.

So they offer no explanation for a couple of startling figures about infants found in a new report they’ve put out on foster care trends. In a nutshell: Infants are far more likely than any other age group to be torn away from their parents – and far less likely ever to go home again.

Of all children entering foster care in 2004-2005, fully 20 percent were infants. No other age group, not even children aged one to two, represented more than seven percent of all children entering care.

Even more disturbing is the trend concerning exits. For children who enter foster care over age one and under age 17, between 40.5 and 46.4 percent exit to reunification. In contrast, about ten percent typically exit to relatives and another ten percent exit to adoption.

The figure for reunification drops for children who were already 17 when they entered care, which is understandable since many of them will “age out” of the system entirely. (And some of them will return home after aging out, something that won’t show up in the figures.)

But there is a much greater drop among infants. Indeed, the figure is staggering. Among children who enter foster care before their first birthday, only 28.6 percent return home. Another 9.5 percent exit to relatives and 30 percent are still in the system after turning one. In contrast, fully 24 percent exit to adoption.

But how can that be? After all, we are constantly assured that the system is careful and objective. There’s that line in almost every news story in which someone questions the system in which the child welfare agency piously responds that “We never make these decisions on our own, a court has to approve everything we do.” Yet somehow, if that is true, then parents must suddenly become vastly more “fit” after the child turns one year old.

It’s hard to believe that parents of infants are inherently more abusive and less capable than parents of children of any other age.

I can imagine child welfare agencies claiming that all this is just because infants are more vulnerable – so someone who can be a good parent to a 12-year-old might not be a good parent to an infant. But children aren’t exactly self-sufficient at 18 months – yet even by that age, child welfare systems are far more prone to return a child to birth parents. Among children aged one to two years old 40.5 percent return home and only 13.6 percent are adopted.

So the real answer is as obvious as child welfare agencies are desperate to deny it: Supply and demand.

Infants are, by far, the most marketable of commodities in child welfare. There is far more likely to be a “nice” (translation, affluent, white professional) couple - people like us – anxious to adopt, so it’s much easier to take them away forever from parents who are “unfit” – translation, poor, minority and so, presumably, nothing like us.

And, of course, the federal government will pay the child welfare agency a bounty of $4000 to $8,000 for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. There is no comparable incentive for returning that adorable infant to her or his own parents.

In Britain, where former Prime Minister Tony Blair imported much of the worst of U.S. child welfare policy, the press has been a lot more willing to take its collective blinders off. Newspapers from the liberal Guardian to the conservative Daily Telegraph have zeroed in on the trend to tear infants from impoverished birth mothers and hand them over to more affluent adoptive parents.

In the United States, as early as 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did an excellent series on the propensity of one county in Western Pennsylvania to rush impoverished infants out of their homes and into the arms of affluent adoptive parents who sometimes had connections to the county’s child welfare and court systems. The Lexington Herald-Leader has done excellent reporting on a similar scandal in parts of Kentucky.

But other than that, discussing why infants, once torn from their parents, are so much less likely ever to go home again, is apparently taboo. Maybe that has something to do with how many reporters have friends or colleagues who are adoptive parents – and how few are ever likely to have a friend or a colleague who once had a child taken away by child protective services.