Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Horrors! A judge is thinking twice about foster care!

In a previous post to this Blog, I wrote about a Tennessee law requiring that, when a juvenile court judge in a given county is so fanatical about tearing apart families that entries into foster care exceed triple the state average, that county has to pick up the tab for the additional placements. This small brake on removal-obsessed judges would slightly counterbalance all the other incentives, personal, political, and financial that push for needless removal of children.

Of course, the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" is trying to block the law.

And no wonder. Because now the "horrors" caused by this law have been revealed for all to see.

They are outlined in a deposition played at a court hearing yesterday. The deposition is from April Meldrum, the juvenile court judge in Anderson County, the one and only county that actually is affected by this law. According to the Associated Press, Meldrum says she and her staff now are working much harder to find ways to keep children out of foster care – to the point that, in one case, a child fell asleep in the courtroom at 11pm, while they kept looking.

The story doesn't say what ultimately happened, but, since you can be sure the judge would have mentioned it if these efforts failed and the child wound up in foster care anyway, odds are the result was that this child found something better – perhaps placement with a relative. Chances are the child was spared from the one-in-three risk of abuse in foster care with strangers, and spared from the inherent emotional trauma of what should properly be called "stranger care." In short, this child probably was spared from fates far worse than a long night in a courtroom.

The judge also lamented the fact that she is now deterred from stashing children away in foster care "for a few days" while the state tries to find a family friend or a relative.

But that's exactly as it should be. For a young enough child, even a few days torn from everyone loving and familiar and parked with strangers can feel like a kidnapping. The psychic damage can be significant. That's why good systems use a model called "first placement, best placement" which means exactly what it says.

But here's the real horror: The AP story revealed that the actual rate of child removal in Anderson County is five times the state average. That would make the rate of child removal in Anderson County not just the worst in Tennessee, but among the very worst in the nation, by far. It would make Anderson County one of about a half dozen candidates for Child Removal Capital of America.

If the new law is allowed to stand, that finally might change. Judge Meldrum and county officials would have to start building their own infrastructure of prevention and family preservation to supplement the state's efforts. She'd have to stop engaging in knee-jerk child removal. Maybe she'd even sign up for a training course in child development and finally learn a little about what she's done to all those children she's parked in foster care "for a few days."

Ultimately, she'd probably discover how wrong she'd been about so many previous decisions – and maybe even thank the legislature for giving her just the nudge she needed to reconsider her approach, and learn how to truly decide cases on their merits.

One can certainly see how all that would horrify a group like CR.