Friday, March 18, 2016

Model for Idaho foster care bill has ugly history

That bill I wrote about earlier this month, which would further privilege the already overprivileged foster parents of Idaho, appears well on its way to passage.

The bill would offer only a tiny window of opportunity for relatives to step forward to take custody of children removed from their parents by Idaho child welfare authorities.  And once a child has been trapped in foster care for six months, no matter why she or he got there, or why she or he was still there, preference for placement actually would shift to the foster parents if they’ve “bonded” with the child.
In short, it’s a bill intended to make life easier for middle class foster parents like Jamie Law, who, the moment she laid eyes on somebody else’s two-day-old infant, declared: “This is totally my kid.”

And why did the Idaho House of Representatives pass this bill unanimously?  Because they were fed a steady diet of horror stories from articulate middle class foster parents, people any state lawmaker could identify with.
According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review,

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told of a 14-month-old boy who was removed from a loving foster home, where the foster parents wanted to adopt him, and sent to an out-of-state home where there was no interest in adoption. Instead, Moyle said, the interest was “because with that child comes a paycheck. Think about that. With that child comes a paycheck. I have a problem with that. It’s morally wrong.”

Hard to know where to start with that one. Does Rep. Moyle believe that foster parents normally don’t get paid?  How does he know why the people in the out-of-state home (presumably relatives, though he doesn’t say that) didn’t choose to adopt the children?  Because one of those overprivileged Idaho foster parents told him so? And, of course, no Idaho foster parent ever has seen a child as a “paycheck.”

But let’s assume for the moment that the story is true. If we’re going to go the legislation-by-horror-story route, we need to recognize that the horror stories go both ways.
So let’s start in a state which passed a law that the overprivileged foster parents of Idaho used as a model: Florida.
In that state, 10-year-old Nubia Barahona was beaten and murdered, allegedly by her adoptive father.  Her decomposing body was found in the back of the father’s truck. In the front seat, her twin brother was in convulsions from chemical burns.

Compounding the tragedy: Loving relatives had sought to adopt the children.  But an “expert” said the children were “bonded” to the Barahonas, who had first taken in the children as foster parents.  And Florida law–the one the Idaho foster parents are using as a model–said “bonding” could take precedence over any preference for relatives.
Of course the overwhelming majority of adoptive parents don’t behave as Barahona allegedly did.  It’s an aberration.  But so are the tales told by Idaho foster parents seeking a Florida-style law.  When anecdotes collide, it’s time to look at the data.
As I noted in my previous column about this bill,  study after study has found that placing children with relatives is far better for children’s well-being and, most importantly, safer than what should properly be called stranger care. Relatives also are far less likely to resort to potent and sometimes dangerous psychiatric medications to keep children docile when they “act out.”

The history of the Florida law is also instructive. It has its roots in a protracted custody dispute involving a little boy named Christian who was taken from his mother at birth in February, 2002.
Within days, a second cousin, Tiffany Delk, living in Tennessee, and her husband came forward seeking custody. The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) ignored her.  In fact, they ignored at least 100 phone calls from Tiffany Delk over the next several months.  She was not allowed to see Christian until May or possibly October (news accounts differ).

Instead, DCF placed Christian with Denise and Ivar Baklid, strangers who wanted to adopt him.
In October 2002, for reasons that never have been explained, DCF changed its position and supported placing Christian with the Delks. A series of court rulings led to Christian being moved to the Delks and then briefly back to the Baklids until finally the Delks were allowed to adopt Christian.
Even though Christian wound up spending more time living with the Delks than with the Baklids before finally being adopted, backers of the stranger-care parents kept playing the bonding card, arguing that the child was “bonded” to the strangers, and that was far more important than blood ties.
And, once again, because it’s so much easier for legislators to identify with middle class strangers, they got a law passed to give preference to strangers when those strangers provided “continuity of care.”
That law was in effect when Florida DCF decided that the Barahona children were “bonded” to their foster parents–and chose them over relatives to adopt.

Now, Idaho appears headed in the same direction.