originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I've reprinted it on
several occasions since, with revisions and updates as appropriate.
How do we know what's
really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?
One way, of
course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before
how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what
we choose to celebrate.
who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets
his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare
agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to
reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second
choice, but chooses to celebrate only
the supposed second
general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right
first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver
for a child; it should be one
important component of any good
child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one
How child welfare systems view keeping families together
But if the true intent of
child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most
noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted
into a synonym for adoption and only adoption.
Reunification gets lip service
until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top
judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and
placed with middle class families; families like their own.
The real agenda of
most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent
every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called,
National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.
KNOWS THE DRILL
How child welfare systems view adoption
actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always
in November and most places will hold their celebrations on Saturday.
You know the
drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize
foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every
stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents
and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents.
And, of course, get a
guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This
one, from the St. Petersburg Times
(Now Tampa Bay Times
) in 2008, is typical:
general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to
fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to
prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing
that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and
bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county
courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were
legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving
them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …
The treacle aside, it's
almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption
"disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip.
And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and
others, a little more likely.
else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare
system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true
colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same
players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is
Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating
it? Why do so many fewer communities take part in National Reunification Day, a
project that only began in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing
what you yourselves claim is priority #1? Why don't reporters note
that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after
months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a
Clearly, reunification is
not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue
fantasies – taking children from people like them
them with people like us
; people of the same race and, especially
the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter.
(No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally
as Foster's Daily Democrat
and its sister papers in New
Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo
about adoption day included a
in which the saintly foster mother –who kept
complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was
none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)
For almost everyone working
in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on
the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare
Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's
eaten their broccoli.
The exceptions are few and
far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time
reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He
was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified
and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started
spreading the word about this, a few other communities followed suit.
Then the Parents’
Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children
and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but even now
that's it's become National
, relatively few places take part, compared to the
hundreds of Adoption Day events. And some of the best reunification
events are sponsored not by child welfare agencies or courts, but by groups
like the Family
and Legal Services of
DANGERS OF ADOPTION DAY
It's not just
hypocritical, it's also dangerous.
When the only
kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the
message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate
parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a
scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick
trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in
cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents.
only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky,
was paying attention. That caught the
attention of NBC Nightly News
which offered an
But there are other dangers
as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual
adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their
parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons -
either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption
bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the
number of children who "aged out" of foster care in 2015 with no home
at all soared nearly 35 percent over the number in 1998. And it's been
like that, or worse, every year for nearly two decades.
That means the mad rush
to embrace adoption-as-panacea has left us with more than 100,000 additional
And then there is the
matter of where these children wind up.
Another reason for the mad
rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers
up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone
knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask
any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and
how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out.
And then, the same
journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland
and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by
adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death. In just the past year, in Iowa
alone, there have been four cases of horrific, sometimes fatal abuse, involving
adopted from foster care
Of course abuse in adoptive
homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is
adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match
and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens
– child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to
know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's
Issue Paper on adoption
And journalists rarely follow up on those adoption "happy
endings" - unless the adoption itself got an exceptional amount of
attention - as
But whether the problem is
legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive
homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality,
both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.
Even Marcia Lowry, who used
to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's
has said that "… Congress should realize that far
too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption
numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along
with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these
children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers."
own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a
contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.