Thursday, April 15, 2010

Foster care in Michigan: moving beyond blaming the parents – to blaming the kids

A lot of readers of this Blog probably know that there is still another study out to tell us what we already know: the outcomes for many children who "age out" of foster care are rotten. A lot of them face a grim future marked by poverty, crime and homelessness. The odds against their finishing college are staggering. (One finding that's gotten a lot less attention than the others: In spite of all this, a majority of the young people in the study said their lives now actually are better than their lives in foster care.)

It didn't surprise me that some people were quick to blame these young people's birth parents. What did surprise me is that in Michigan, there are people in the child welfare system who actually are blaming the young people themselves.

Don't believe anyone really would blame foster children for what happens to them when they "age out"? Well, here's a post to a Michigan lawyers listserv from Eric Scott, an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Sanilac County. I'm reproducing the entire post, so no one claims it's out of context. (I've added a link to the news account he mentions, but all spelling errors are in the original.) Mr. Scott writes:

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to the plight of foster kids everywhere, I thought I'd weigh in. I was listening to NPR talk about this report on my way into the office this morning, and was struck by an observation. This report seems to study this issue from the perspective of the foster kids themselves, and doesn't necessarily reflect the entire story. Don't get me wrong, foster kids don't do well after foster care. But, that is not always a reflection of the state failing these kids.

We have a great many kids on our foster care caseload up here, where the caseworker has literally removed every roadblock to success, only to have the foster kid thumb thier nose at the assistance, and wind up in jail, or worse. So my thought is that it isn't always the state that is failing these kids. Sometimes its the kids themselves that the cause of thier own woes. Many of these kids that come into care, are used to having no rules, no boundaries, and have literally been parenting themselves for years. How is the state supposed to address that? I think this report has value, and should be considered, but we should consider it with an understanding that its only part of the story. Some of these kids are going to age out of the system into the adult system regardless of the efforts the state may take to prevent it. I for one would like to see a report that addresses the full story, not just a news worthy one.

Right. Let's have more news stories about things that are not newsworthy. One certainly can see why it's strange to do a story about young people aging out of foster care "from the perspective of the kids themselves," right? And I can't imagine why Mr. Scott would worry about "sounding unsympathetic to the plight of foster kids…"

It really shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but no, Mr. Scott, when children are taken from their own homes, whether rightly or wrongly, then bounced from foster home to foster home, denied any real love for years, sometimes a decade or more, and then kicked out on their own at 18, they are not, in fact, "the cause of their own woes."

There is plenty the state can do to reduce the harm it did by inflicting all those placements and all that time in foster care on these young people in the first place. No, it can't come anywhere near undoing all the damage. That's why the best way to reduce the problems of young people "aging out" of foster care is by preventing so many of them from ever aging in – since most of the parents who lose children to foster care are nothing like the stereotypes Mr. Scott seeks to perpetuate.

But we can reduce the damage to the point where these young people can have better options than jails, psych wards and homeless shelters. Anyone who holds the fate of some of these young people in his hands has no business being unaware of those best practices, and no business throwing up his hands in an e-mail instead of fighting to obtain those practices in his own community. A good place to start learning about what can be done is at Jim Casey Youth Opportunities.


But wait, it gets worse.

This post was followed by one from Wally Kent.

"Right on, Eric," declares Kent. Then he reverts to the more traditional Michigan approach of bashing the parents. Again, here is the post in full:

Unfortunately, by the time children enter the foster care system, many of them have been damaged almost beyond repair, and the system should not be blamed for failing to effectuate a 180 degree turn-around. And yes, the system does attempt to do a better job providing for the needs of these damaged children than their parents, and in large part succeeds, if only by bringing an end to the terrible things which have been damaging them in the first place. The question that is not being asked is how much worse off would these children have been if they had been left in the homes where their basic needs were not being met, and where they were being actively abused, both physically and sexually? Food for thought.

What makes this post even worse than the one from Mr. Scott is not the content; bashing parents is bad, bashing kids is worse. Rather, it's the fact that these comments come from
a judge – Judge Wally Kent has presided over these cases for decades.

So, to answer the judge's questions:

For starters, the whole point of the study is that, for most of these young people, the state does not, in fact, succeed, in large part or in any part. The lead author of the study, put it this way, in The New York Times:

"We took them away from their parents on the assumption that we as a society would do a better job of raising them," said Mark Courtney, a sociologist at the University of Washington who led the study with colleagues from the Partners for Our Children program at Washington and the Chapin Hall center at the University of Chicago. "We've invested a lot money and time in their care, and by many measures they're still doing very poorly."

As to that question that Judge Kent says is not being asked; on the contrary, it's been asked and answered repeatedly. Judge Kent either doesn't know that, or just doesn't want to hear the answers:

The overwhelming majority of children taken from their parents are not, in fact, "being actively abused, both physically and sexually."

In those cases that are typical, children left in their own homes typically are better off than those placed in foster care.

When the issue is meeting children's basic needs, it is far better to help provide those basic needs than to rush in and deprive them of another basic need, love, by tearing apart their families.

The implications here are pretty frightening. For decades, Judge Kent has been approving the removal of children from their homes, approving the continuation of foster care, and approving turning some of these children into legal orphans by terminating parental rights, all without having a clue about how much more harmful it is for most children to be trapped in foster care.

So here's my question:

Do they even bother trying to train judges in Michigan?