[THIS PARAGRAPH WAS UPDATED IN FEBRUARY, 2018] In 2016, I had an opportunity to debate child welfare finance with Sean Hughes in the Chronicle of Social Change. Of course I knew that, wince I was writing for the Fox News of child welfare, the deck would be stacked. And sure enough in his introduction to one latest installment, Daniel Heimpel chose to repeat what I view as The Big Lie of American child welfare – the idea that child protection and family preservation are at odds. (Later, Heimpel proved to be so afraid of any dissent that he moved this column behind the Chronicle's paywall. So I moved it here.)
In his discussion of our columns on the foster care “entitlement” under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, Heimpel tells us:
No, Daniel, it’s not.
I believe the child welfare system is about child protection. So does every family preservation advocate I know. But we don’t equate child protection with child . Focusing on keeping families together is not “go[ing] beyond child protection,” it’s how you child protection in the overwhelming majority of cases.
The real philosophical debate is: Which works better to keep children safe: Foster care or family preservation?
Obviously, I believe the answer, backed up by a mountain of research, is that for the overwhelming majority of children, in the overwhelming majority of the instances, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care and less expensive than foster care, it’s also than foster care. Links to that mass of evidence can be found here.
It is equally obvious that Heimpel disagrees. We can and should debate that. (As noted above, Heimpel turned out to be afraid to do that.)
But neither I, nor anyone else I know in the family preservation movement, take second place to anyone in our concern about keeping children safe. It’s why we became advocates for family preservation in the first place.
In my case, it didn’t happen all at once. It’s been almost exactly 40 years since I did my first major story about foster care, a radio documentary while I was a journalism student. I interviewed a woman who was, at the time, 21.
By the time she was nine years old, she had been in nine different foster homes. She told me she survived by keeping the rage inside, “unlike my five brothers who have been in every jail in New York State.”
This is some of what she said:
After speaking to this woman for two-and-a-half hours, I reached three conclusions:
First, I was very glad I’d chosen journalism as a career.
Second, I knew I would keep coming back to the story.
And third, we could fix this if we just got all those rotten birth parents out of the way and got all these children adopted.
Hey, two out of three isn’t bad!
But as I did keep coming back to the story, I kept finding that the facts on the ground were not matching what the most widely-quoted, so-called “experts” were saying. I kept hearing “child abuse crosses class lines,” but all I kept seeing in the system were families who were poor, and the “neglect” for which they lost their children itself.
When the dichotomy became too much to bear, called . Working on the book led me to lots of experts who usually were ignored. And that led me to the research showing family preservation to be the safer option, a body of research that just keeps growing.
So after 40 years of following this issue, 26 of them as an advocate, I’ve about had it with seeing people who invent outstanding alternatives such as the program, and people who fighting to transform child welfare systems being stigmatized and stereotyped as being less concerned about child protection than all those people who built the terrible system we have now. The kind of people who gave us , and , and ; people who almost always mean well but nevertheless keep right on destroying in children “whatever it is that makes people human.”