Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When anecdotes collide: Foster care policy and the tyranny of personal experience


There is one thing I will never say to a current or former foster child. I'll never say it to a parent whose children were taken from her, or to a foster parent who had to fight the system to get help for a foster child. I'll never say it to a frontline caseworker, or even to someone running a child welfare system. What I will never say is: "I know how you feel." Because I don't; and I never will.

Only someone who actually has been a birth parent who lost a child to the system, or the child who was taken, or the child who was rescued from an abusive home, or a foster parent, or a caseworker can know how it feels to endure such tragedy or, sometimes, triumph. I've never been any of those things.

Those who have had such profound personal experiences bring important insights to the child welfare debate; their views should be sought out and respected. But sometimes those who have had such profound personal experiences take the argument a step further, declaring that because only they know how it feels, or what it's really like, only they know the right solutions and only they should make policy or even know what the right policies should be. But relying only on those who have had personal experiences can skew policy just as badly as ignoring them.

People who have had a searing personal experience that drowns out everything else may seek policies that are good for people who had exactly the same personal experience they had, while making other people's experiences worse. That's because of the one huge problem with personal experience:
It's personal.

I have quoted many foster children who say they never should have been taken from their parents. But I am well aware of other foster children who say being removed from their parents was the best thing that ever happened to them. Who's right? Quite possibly all of them – in their own particular cases. I've read articles by caseworkers expressing frustration at being pressured to take children needlessly – and other articles in which caseworkers complain about not having a free enough hand to take more children.

When anecdotes collide, it's time to look at the data.

I don't believe family preservation is the better option for most children most of the time because so many former foster children have recounted terrible experiences in the system. I believe family preservation is the better option most of the time because of things like the study of more than 15,000 cases which found that children left in their own homes in typical cases typically did better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. I don't believe foster care can be dangerous because of the stories I've read about children being beaten, raped and killed in foster homes. I believe foster care can be dangerous because so many studies find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.

We're all influenced by our personal experiences, and we should be. I doubt that I would notice the ugly anti-union streak among some child welfare leaders and, I'm sorry to say, some in the family preservation movement, had public employee unions not done so much to help my own family make it into the middle class when I was growing up.

But it's one thing to be influenced by personal experience and another to be tyrannized by it. The birth parent who says the whole system is corrupt because a caseworker lied in her particular case has been tyrannized by her personal experience. So has the foster parent who says all children in the system really needed to be taken from their parents because that was true of her foster children. Sometimes making sound policy decisions means rising above our own personal experiences to acknowledge that other people's personal experiences are closer to the norm.

Making child welfare policy based solely or even predominantly on one's personal experience would be like, oh, I don't know, like the approach to global warming satirized in this segment of The Daily Show – which, starting about 4:50 in, turns out to be the best analysis of the tyranny of personal experience I've seen anywhere.

UPDATE, APRIL 9: until Johana Scot of the Parent Guidance Center in Texas reminded me today, I'd completely forgotten that the same edition of The Daily Show also includes the best take anywhere on the invasion of the child savers that followed the earthquake in Haiti.