Tuesday, September 14, 2010

UPDATED SEPT. 15: Oregon foster care agency to Canadian family: In lieu of a pound of flesh, we’ll take your money

UPDATE: The Oregon AP has a very good story about the Kirkman case today.  The story appears on the websites of several newspapers, including the Oregonian - and that's probably the only place in the Oregonian where Lisa Kirkman will get a fair shake.  
Meanwhile KATU-TV in Portland and Canadian media are reporting that legal proceedings in Canada have been delayed - because Oregon DHS screwed-up the paperwork.  So now, in addition to looking vengeful and greedy, Oregon DHS looks pretty dumb.
I've written several times on this Blog about the case of Lisa Kirkman, a Canadian mother whose son was thrown into foster care while he was staying with his stepfather in Oregon. After two years, and multiple foster homes, the boy finally was returned home; largely, I believe, thanks to international media pressure.

    But clearly, the Oregon Department of Human Services doesn't like being made fools of in two countries. And they've found a great way to get even: Go to court in Canada, and try to make Lisa Kirkman pay Oregon for expenses the state incurred after it wrongfully took away her child. A hearing on Oregon's demand is scheduled to take place today.

    Though crossing an international border in search of these payments is unusual if not unprecedented, sadly, the practice itself is not. In another case, one of the most poignant I've ever read about, Oregon DHS is adding insult to the enormous injury it inflicted on a family by seeking the same sort of payment.

    In many cases, the payments can be the final obstacle standing between a foster child and return to his own parents.

    There is a word for taking away someone's child and making that person pay money to get the child back: Ransom. And it hurts everyone in the system, even the agencies themselves.

The overwhelming majority of parents who lose children to the system have no money to spare. Often that's why their children are in foster care in the first place.

● Because the standard of proof in child welfare proceedings is so low, this provision inevitably punishes many innocent families.

The purpose of foster care is to keep the child safe. Everyone concedes it is harmful to take a child from his or her parents and the longer the foster care the greater the harm. If you make ransom a condition of returning the child and the birth parents manage to do everything else but still owe the ransom, the foster care is prolonged even though the home is now safe. That is punishing the child for the alleged financial failings of the parents.

Prof. Daniel Hatcher of the University of Baltimore School of Law has an excellent article about the entire issue in the Brooklyn Law Review.

One can certainly imagine a child welfare system like Oregon's not giving a damn about the harm to the children. One can see how they'd be desperate for the money – after all, when you take away children at a rate that now is more than 80 percent above the national average, those costs really mount up.
But what really makes ransom an insane practice, even by the standards of child welfare agencies, is the fact that not only does it do enormous harm to the children and their parents, it actually costs the government money.

Collecting ransom actually increases the cost of foster care. No impoverished family ever will come up with the full cost of foster care – instead they are charged for their "share" of the costs. But for every extra day a child is held in foster care because the birth parents haven't paid their "share" of the costs, the state has to foot the entire bill. The birth parents wind up in a deeper and deeper hole and the state winds up paying more and more.

Even if the birth parents scrape together the money to get their child back; or, in cases like the Kirkman case, where the child already is home, the payments only make it harder on the family financially, a particularly steep burden for families that already are poor.

Poverty often creates stress can lead to actual child abuse, or poverty itself is confused with neglect – so the ransom increases the chances of actual child abuse and/or having the child taken away again because of poverty. Once again, you harm the child – and cost the state more money.

So why do these policies exist? Because grandstanding state legislators love them. They get to issue press releases about how they're "cracking down on child abuse" and since in their fantasy world, only parents who are evil, sadistic brutes lose their children to foster care, it's only fair to make 'em pay, right?

Not in the real world.

The Canadian Press, CBC News, CTV News, and the Calgary Herald all have stories about the latest turn in the Kirkman case. And so does the Eugene Register Guard, which has done a far better job than the Oregonian on the whole case.

In the Register Guard story, I posed a question, which I'll repeat here: If DHS is supposed to do everything it does "in the best interests of the child," how is it in this child's best interests to make his family poorer and inflict even more stress?