Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Happy endings

Want to see why it's so hard to change anything in child welfare? The answer is in this story from the Star Ledger in Newark, N.J. Actually, you don't have to read the whole story (though it's quite a good story) you just have to read the very last line.

The story deals with New Jersey's massive child welfare reform effort, an effort built around securing permanence for children in all directions – not just adoption. There are four case examples, one involving primary prevention, one involving family preservation (though the term is not used), one involving reunification and one involving adoption. Even the adoption story reflects something new for New Jersey: A state once profoundly hostile to kinship care in any form now works hard to help relatives adopt.

Each example ends in success – at least for now; there is no way of knowing what will happen to any of these families in the future. In other words, each of these stories had an equally happy ending.

But that winds up contradicted by the very last line in the very last example, the adoption story: a quote from a lawyer who helped a grandmother adopt her grandchild. The lawyer declares that when it comes to court proceedings in child welfare, adoption is "the only happy thing a judge and an attorney can be part of."

Of course the lawyer did not read the story before making that comment. But she knows about the existence of court proceedings to keep a family together and reunify a family. Yet it does not even occur to her that these, too, are happy things that a judge and an attorney can be part of. Oh, if you specifically asked her I'm sure she'd say "Uh, yes, of course, that's happy too." But when it comes to how she really feels, the all-important "gut feeling" - for this middle-class attorney, only the outcome that fits the rescue fantasy is really, truly happy.

And she is not alone. In fact, I'd say it's how the overwhelming majority of attorneys, judges, caseworkers – and reporters – feel at the gut level. And no wonder. Almost all journalists have a friend or a colleague or a relative who has adopted; they know birth parents who have had children returned to them only as story subjects, if that. So there's not the same kind of joy that comes from seeing the pictures of a new (adopted) member of the family passed around in the newsroom.

As for the lawyers and judges, you don't see them making special arrangements to open the courts on Saturday and hold special celebrations to reunify a group of families en masse. But they do it all over the country, every year, for adoption. And these ceremonies are duly noted in scores of treacly news stories, some of which even include quotes about this being the one time there is happiness in the courtroom.

Child welfare systems get the message. They know that almost the only time they're guaranteed good press is when they get those adoption numbers up, and nobody is going to look too closely at how it was done. (The Star-Ledger story stands out precisely because it is such an exception). Add to that the incentive of federal bounties for every finalized foster-child adoption over a baseline number and it's easy to see why the adoption tail wags the child welfare dog. That creates all sorts of unhappy endings in the form of legal orphans, children whose rights to have any contact whatsoever with their parents were terminated but for whom no adoptive home ever was found. At its worst, the constant pressure for adoption-at-all-costs creates the unhappiest ending of all: the death or near death of a child at the hands of adoptive parents – as happened in a notorious New Jersey case involving four starved adopted children (a case which occurred before the recent reforms in that state).

Efforts like the one underway in New Jersey now are exceptional, and they are very difficult to sustain. The political pressure to roll back such reforms is enormous and it increases whenever there is a new horror story for opponents to exploit – as one can see not only in New Jersey but also in states like Michigan and Georgia where far less robust reform efforts are constantly under siege.

That's only to be expected, as long as, in their hearts, people feel that, in child welfare, there is only one possible happy ending.