Thursday, July 9, 2009

A post in response to The Post

There is a whole subgenre of child welfare writing that might be called "the-adoption-failed-but-it-wasn't-my-fault lit." In it, white upper-middle-class adoptive parents write about their noble efforts to rescue a Black a child from foster care, about how terribly hard they tried to make it work and how, because everybody else failed, ultimately, they had to throw the child back. Such accounts usually engender enormous sympathy from readers. Since most of the readers also tend to be upper-middle-class, they have no problem sympathizing – no, make that empathizing – with one of their own.

A classic example turned up in the Washington Post "Parenting" blog yesterday. This is one of the Blogs that also criticized Gary Staton, the father who came under attack in a Nebraska Safe Haven case. (This is the Blog I mentioned in my previous post about the case where at least the criticism was civil.)

Yesterday, the Blog owner, Stacey Garfinkle, turned over the blog to Wendy Bilen Thorbjornsen, an adoptive mother who told the story of adopting a child from the D.C. foster care system, and then throwing the child out less than a year later. She was deluged with empathy. Her "guest blog" was preceded by a glowing endorsement from Ms. Garfinkle.

In fact, it would not be fair to pass judgment one way or another based only on the information in Thorbjornsen's blog. The real problem with the blog was the way the Thorbjornsen passed judgment on everyone else – especially any and all birth parents caught up in the D.C. child welfare system.

So I posted a response – which Ms. Garfinkle went out of her way to include in the blog's comments section despite its length. I'm also offering it here:

Suppose somebody were to read [Thorbjornsen's] column and, just hypothetically, conclude the following:

These are spoiled upper middle class white people who treated a flesh-and-blood human being like a BMW that was out of warranty, throwing her back when she turned out to have too many defects.

The more mom professes "love" for her adopted child, the more it's as she approaches the moment she throws the child away. She gave the daughter she loves less than a year to overcome everything in her past and, when the system finally offered intensive help, she wouldn't even try to use it.

Thousands of parents, birth, foster and adoptive, do a lot more for children who are harder to deal with. They try longer and they go to greater lengths.

Never mind sympathizing with the parents, how about some sympathy for the child, who now has endured the ultimate rejection and may never trust again.

Unfair? Actually, yes. I've just stereotyped people I've never met – let alone walked in their shoes. They tried to do something I wouldn't even attempt. At a minimum, we who haven't "been there" should suspend judgment of those who have.

So why be unfair on purpose?

I did it in the hope that the readers of a column that clearly is of the upper-middle-class, by the upper-middle-class and for the upper-middle-class finally might feel how much it hurts to be stereotyped, even by just one poster to a blog, even when everyone else is rallying around you.

Now try, just try, to imagine how much worse it is to be stereotyped over and over again just because you're poor, Black and caught up in DC Family Court. Imagine what it's like for those stereotypes to be so ingrained that they have cost thousands of children the chance to be raised in loving homes – the loving homes they were born in. Because that's exactly what you did, Ms. Thorbjornsen, when you wrote that the children whose fates are decided by that court:

"have largely been removed from unfit homes rife with abuse, neglect, abandonment, and myriad other social and emotional ills. These kids have encountered more of life's seamy side than many of us will over a lifetime."

In some cases that's exactly what happened; in many more it's not. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with "neglect" others fall between the extremes. Yet you saw fit to paint them all with the broadest of brushes based, apparently, on one case file (which only tells the agency's version of events) and some horror stories from the headlines.

Ms. Garfinkle also seems prone to some stereotyping, what with this column coming so quickly on the heels of the one about Gary Staton, the father in the Nebraska Safe Haven case.

So I challenge you, Ms. Garfinkle: Now that you've published Ms. Thorbjornsen's version of how the system works, publish the first-hand account of someone who actually saw what goes on in D.C. Family Court day after day, because he's one of the few allowed past the curtain of secrecy the system uses to cover up its blunders.

The University of the District of Columbia runs one of only two programs in the entire nation in which law students represent exclusively birth parents in cases alleging child maltreatment. Some great students, who themselves don't get the respect they deserve – they're from UDC after all – stand up for families who have been disrespected their entire lives.

One of those students spoke of his experiences during a news conference organized by my organization to mark the first anniversary of the discovery of the deaths of the Jacks children [a particularly horrific D.C. case]. If you're willing to have your preconceived notions challenged instead of reinforced, go here: and scroll down to page 11.

Then, how about letting your readers in on what you find?

In an e-mail Ms. Garfinkle said she will, indeed, take a look at what the student wrote.