Friday, March 4, 2016

The overprivileged foster parents of Idaho

I have often said that there are too many people in child welfare who seem to view the system as the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

To those who doubt this, I’d like to introduce you to some foster parents in Idaho. Foster parents like Jamie Law.  Here’s what she told the Idaho Statesman about what happened when she first met a two-day-old infant she would take into her home: 

“I picked him up from the hospital, and thought, ‘This is totally my kid.’”

I’m sure Ms. Law meant well. I’m sure she truly wanted to help the child. But he wasn’t her kid. He was someone else’s kid.
That someone else might have been a sadistic brute or a hopeless addict. Or that someone else might simply have been poor. Jamie Law had no real way of knowing. Yet she decided on the spot: “This is totally my kid.”
Nineteen months later, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) found an aunt in another state who was willing to adopt the child.
How dare they! After all, if a total stranger says, “this is totally my kid,” then no mere relative should be allowed to interfere, right?
Law has banded together with other similarly situated foster parents. They got a sympathetic legislator–who also is a former foster parent–to introduce a bill to sharply restrict the preference for relatives in placement decisions.

If the bill becomes law, as seems likely, DHW will have only 30 days after removing a child from her or his home to find and notify any relatives who might be interested in taking custody of that child. The relatives would have only 45 days to make the profoundly life changing decision to seek custody–or the child could lose forever the chance to live with them.
In addition, once a child is in foster care for more than six months, preference for placement actually would shift to the foster parents if they’ve “bonded” with the child.

There are several problems with this:
§  Most foster children are poor, so most relatives are as well. They may know nothing about the child welfare system and what supports–if any–are available to them. Demanding they make the decision in 45 days is absurd.
§  Child welfare agencies often are less than diligent in seeking out relatives. They may harbor the same prejudices as some foster parents. In addition, if the relatives live out-of-state, the hassle of complying with the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children is enormous.

Of course, these foster parents cloak their middle-class privilege in the rhetoric of “best interests of the child.” Presumably Ms. Law thought she could determine instantly, on sight, that it was in the “best interests” of a two-day-old infant to live with her for the rest of his life. I’m sure she sincerely believes it.
But study after study has found that placing children with relatives is far better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care. Kinship care placements also tend to be more stable. When those adorable infants become rebellious teenagers, relatives are less likely to give up on them–the “bond” is more likely to hold. For similar reasons, relatives are far less likely to resort to potent, sometimes dangerous, psychiatric medications to keep children docile when they “act out.”

But the overprivileged stranger care parents of Idaho are right about one thing. Over and over they complain about child welfare agency decisions that are arbitrary, capricious and cruel. I believe them. There are few real checks and balances on agency decision-making, and we all know what absolute power does. So in principle, another part of the proposed legislation–increasing court oversight of these decisions–makes sense, though not necessarily in the form proposed in Idaho.
When foster parents share these complaints, I always respond the same way: “The system really needs you. If they’re treating you that way, imagine how they’re treating birth parents. If they’re wrong to remove the child from you, were they wrong to take the child from the birth parents? Are those horror stories you were told by the caseworker for real? Foster parents who’ve looked into that sometimes find surprises. Reach out to birth parents, and you may find more in common than you think.”

As for the notion that strangers should have preference to take a child forever after they’ve been together for a set period of time–no matter how that came to pass–I have one question: If I kidnap your child at birth, flee with him to Mexico, take really good care of him, and then return two years later, can I keep him?