Thursday, November 19, 2009

UPDATED, NOV. 20: Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2009

This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared a year ago. Since the event is annual, perhaps the post should be as well.  And now it's updated again - see the brief note at the end of the post.

How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations this Saturday. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times last year, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why is there no National Reunification Day? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1? Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

    The answer is obvious: It's not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

    The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few – very few – other communities followed suit. New York City has done it for the past few years (though their effort is tarnished by other statements and actions undercutting their own reforms). New Jersey has done it at least twice, and the Miami region of the Florida Department of Children and Families is doing it regularly. There probably are one or two others I haven't heard about. But that's it.

    In comparison, there are hundreds of Adoption Day events.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "age out" of foster care each year with no home at all has soared 41 percent since 1998.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.


Nowhere is the adoption-at-all-costs mentality more deeply-ingrained than in Michigan.

For that, we can thank a number of politicians, most recently Maura Corrigan, Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. When she was Chief Justice one of her first moves was to create a task force on adoption – not a task force on permanence – a task force on adoption. But her pride and joy has been creating more Adoption Day celebrations than any other state. Thanks to Justice Corrigan's crusade, the website of the Michigan Supreme Court – the state's chief "impartial" arbiter of termination cases - is slathered in promotional material for adoption – without a word on behalf of reunification.

In theory it is possible for one or more justices of this court to give a speech touting adoption in the morning, preside at an adoption luncheon at noon – and hear an appeal of a termination of parental rights that afternoon.

In contrast, when birth parents addressed a task force of which she was a prominent member, Corrigan decided she was too busy to stay and listen to them.

One can only imagine how much courage it took, therefore, for a lowly trial court judge to point out the harm Michigan's adoption mania has done to children. In a scathing essay, Judge Kenneth Tacoma exposed the giant surge in legal orphans and the sharp rise in children "aging out" of Michigan foster care. Wisely, the judge targeted not Corrigan, but earlier fanatical efforts to promote adoption-at-all-costs in Michigan as well as the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, the law that pays those bounties for finalized adoptions. The article prompted even Corrigan to have some second thoughts – but not enough to prompt her to push for, say, a "reunification day" in Michigan courts, or to turn her adoption crusade into a permanence crusade.

(Actually, I got a sense of how much courage it took, and how hard it is to maintain, when I singled out Tacoma and his essay for praise in NCCPR's first report on Michigan child welfare. Tacoma felt compelled to write an op ed column declaring that some minor tweaking of state law had made everything just fine now. It hasn't.)

Not even the tragedy of Ricky Holland could get Corrigan to bring balance to her adoption crusade. Ricky Holland was taken from a birth mother who might have been able to care for him had she gotten the right kind of help. He was placed with well-to-do adoptive parents. The adoptive mother tortured him, and ultimately murdered him. This was one of those cases with more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade. Throughout the process, the Michigan Department of Human Services ignored one blatant warning sign after another. Even during the time after Ricky Holland had disappeared but his body had not yet been found, during the time police already strongly suspected the Hollands of murdering Ricky, DHS gave the Hollands final approval to adopt another foster child in their care.

Such behavior is to be expected in a system that lavishly rewards pushing adoption, and frowns on anything that would interfere with getting those adoption numbers up. (At least the Michigan press paid attention when Ricky died. When Timothy Boss was adopted to death years earlier, it barely got a mention.)

Most Michigan counties celebrate adoption day Tuesday. Perhaps this year, somewhere in that state, a reporter will ask a tougher question than "How's the sheet cake?"

They didn't last year.

            It doesn’t look like they’ll be asking this year either.  A particularly gloppy story is in the Lansing State Journal today.  Not only are there no tough questions, the story does not mention that the particular judge they quote is so fanatical about tearing apart families that even the Michigan Supreme Court can’t stomach it.  This year alone, in scathing decisions, they reversed her twice. 

In one of those cases the court agreed with a dissenting appellate court opinion which found that this judge seemed almost obsessed with a father’s poverty as a reason to take away his children forever.  In the other case, the Supreme Court found one due process violation after another – and Justice Corrigan, to her credit, was particularly appalled.