Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alexis Hutchinson, foster care and the perils of “deployment”

    By now the story of U.S. Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson has made it all the way up the media food chain. Ordered to Afghanistan, she initially planned to leave her infant son with her mother. But her mother already had three sick relatives to care for and found she couldn't cope with an infant as well.

Hutchinson's lawyer said the Army's response was, in effect: Too bad. You're going to Afghanistan, and if you can't find anything else, your son is going to foster care. So Hutchinson didn't show up for deployment. She was arrested and, for two days, the boy was in foster care. He's now reportedly with his grandmother for the time being.

    This is not the first case raising similar issues. But it may be the first since the explosion in social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. And that may explain how, in about 72 hours, the story made it from the alternative Inter Press Service, which first broke it, to the Associated Press, to more than 400 news outlets around the world.

    It is encouraging to read how many people understand how enormously harmful it is to an infant to throw him into foster care under such circumstances. (I particularly like the tweet from someone who suggested the Army have a "take your child to war" day.) People get that mom did not brutalize this child or starve him or torture him; she simply didn't have someone to take care of him.

    But the only thing unusual about this case is the fact that this single mom's job was about to be moved to Afghanistan. There are, in fact, thousands of children of civilian parents trapped in foster care when their parents didn't abuse them or neglect them either. Many of these parents, mostly single mothers – have what amounts to the same problem as Spec. Hutchinson.

    These are the mothers who are told: "We don't care if your child is sick, show up for work or you're fired." Mom knows if she's fired, she won't be able to pay the rent. She'll be homeless and child protective services can take the child because of lack of housing. So mom shows up for work. Someone calls child protective services. The child is taken away on a "lack of supervision" charge.

    Indeed, in many communities, "lack of supervision" is the single largest category for "substantiated" allegations of maltreatment. Sometimes, of course, that's entirely the parent's fault – maybe she left a child home alone to party, or do drugs, or all those other stereotypes that leap to mind about parents who lose their children to foster care.

But often, it's a mother whose child was sick, or who couldn't afford child care, or who couldn't get such care because she works odd hours. They may be mothers like Lillian Lucas-Dixon, whose story was discussed in previous posts to this Blog. Her seven-year-old son was held in foster care for months because she had to leave him home alone for an hour to get to her job before an adult sibling could get there to babysit. "My choice was, do I lose my job or stay home with my son?" Lucas-Dixon, told the New York Daily News.

Typically, we hear about "lack of supervision" cases only when the worst happens, and only rarely are the stories told with the sensitivity shown in this New York Times story.

    So I hope those who understand how wrong it was to subject Spec. Hutchinson's infant son to foster care for even two days will think about how many thousands of other children are trapped in foster care right now, while their mothers are "deployed" to their jobs here at home.