The advocate for tearing apart even more families, who proudly compares her work to that of Charles Murray, dismisses the lived experience of some young people themselves.
Michelle Voorhees finally has a permanent home – at least until 2033: a cell in the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas. The road that led her there began long before, when she was taken, needlessly, from the home where she was born.
She tells her story in this video, part of a landmark Kansas City Star series, Throwaway Kids.
“Had my mom just had a little bit of help, had she had enough money to buy her own vehicle, had she had enough money to relocate herself from an abusive situation, had she not had to have been dependent on men in the first place for any kind of financial stability, I don’t believe that she would have made some of the decisions that she made,” Voorhees says. “I don’t believe that she would have struggled as a mother, because my mom is a good mom.”
But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Michelle Voorhees know their own life stories.
Lexie Gruber spent seven years in foster care in Connecticut. She’s been a policy associate at the American Public Human Services Association, and she is a member of the Young Professional Leadership Council for the group known as Children’s Rights. In 2015, she wrote this:
If the Family First Prevention Services Act had been in place when I was fifteen, my parents could have received the help they needed to keep me safe and at home and prevented me from entering the foster care system in the first place. And if I still needed to enter foster care, there would have been a greater focus on allowing my uncle to keep me in his home.
And five years later she told a forum in New Mexico:
“It’s important to understand that our foster care system only appears to be broken. In fact, it is currently working exactly as it was designed — separating children from their loved ones and underinvesting in helping families in crisis … it’s one of the most violent acts that the government can do.”
But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Lexie Gruber know their own life stories.
Nico’Lee Biddle also survived her experience in foster care. Today she’s a licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist. Here’s some of what she wrote in Teen Vogue:
When I look back now on my family’s experiences, I realize that the child welfare system only saw our family’s trauma and hurt, our dysfunction and abnormalities. They didn’t see parents who raised me for fourteen years, who taught me the values of honesty, education, humor, and compassion. … The system only saw a missed appointment, or a positive drug test, and seemed to assume the worst about our lives. The system removed me first, and provided services second — after the trust was broken and the damage was done. …
My mom and dad made mistakes, but they were good parents who made me feel loved every day of my life. I miss them, and every day I wish things had been different. If they would have been offered treatment before I was removed, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up in jail, and would have been in treatment sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to switch schools and become part of a statistic of teens in foster care. Maybe they would be alive today, and my father could have walked me down the aisle at my wedding. With better support for them before I was removed, maybe I wouldn’t have spent seven years in foster care.
But apparently Naomi Schaefer Riley doesn’t think former foster youth like Nico’Lee Biddle know their own life stories.
Why does Riley seem so anxious to dismiss the lived experience of former foster youth such as these? Because their real-life stories add power to what otherwise are dry statistics: the mass of data showing that they are among the tens of thousands of children and youth each year who could have remained safely in their own homes had their families gotten the right kinds of help. And that undermines Riley’s crusade to take away even more children – and yes, she’s explicitly called for doing just that.
Riley's track record
Riley is the “visiting fellow” at the American Enterprise Institute who was kicked off a blog run by the Chronicle of Higher Education after one of her columns was widely condemned as racist. Not surprisingly, she’s found a warmer welcome in some quarters for her writing about child welfare. She proudly compares her forthcoming book on child welfare to the work of her fellow Fellow Charles Murray, who is best known for claiming that nonwhites are genetically inferior.
At AEI, Riley’s approach involves convening panels stacked with speakers who more or less share her point of view. That was the approach Riley took when trying to cope with all the positive attention being paid to the Kansas City Star series.
The series was built around finding out what actually happens to former foster youth by going where so many such youth end up: Jails. The Star surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in prisons across 12 states, of whom nearly 1,500 had been in foster care. The former foster youth often wrote additional comments on the backs of the survey forms. In other cases, as with Michelle Voorhees, reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas did follow up interviews.
But they didn’t stop there. As they explain:
Reporters interviewed dozens of other sources: social workers, child welfare experts and advocates, law enforcement, judges, foster parents, doctors, scientists and lawyers. … They reviewed decades of class action lawsuits filed against state systems. They pored over years of child welfare budget statistics as well as numerous reports and studies.
It all adds up to a powerful indictment of the massive removal of children into a foster care-to-prison pipeline. What particularly seems to upset Riley is part two of the series, which ran under the headline “As U.S. spends billions on foster care, families are pulled apart and forgotten.”
No former foster youth were on the panel, and, for this discussion of systems that vastly overinclude people of color, all of the panelists were white.
One panelist actually seemed to suggest that it’s the fault of the youth themselves – he rattled off horror stories about delinquents in the foster care system and how they should be someone else’s responsibility. More often, of course, they blamed the parents. But the only way to make that case is to discredit all that lived experience.
At one point Riley turned to Bauer and said:
You did these just amazing interviews … some of them look back and some of these young men and women have testified at statehouses and Congress and said, you know, my mother loved me and if I had just been allowed to stay in her home I think things would have turned out much differently in my life. And I think we are all moved by that … But how much do these young men and women understand about what was happening in their family at the time and the judgments of the adults around them? And do they even have access to the case files, to the reports of what was going on in their families at the time? Because I think we are swayed by these things and I wonder to what extent we should be by these anecdotes?
Foster youth often don’t have access to their records. Riley and I agree that they should. But it is ludicrous to think the second-hand compendium of some facts, but also quick observations, gut feelings, hearsay, guesses, impressions, misimpressions and defensive social work that often constitutes a case file is a more reliable indicator of whether a former foster youth really needed to be taken away than what that youth saw, heard and lived.
And that’s often the best that can be said for case records. At worst, they may be prepared by people like some of those at the scandal-plagued Court-Appointed Special Advocates program in Snohomish County, Washington. The behavior of that program was aptly summed up in a single headline from a local newspaper: “They lied, spied and destroyed evidence.” Are records from that program really more reliable than the lived experience of foster youth? While such scandals are not the norm, there is plenty of reason to question the reliability of case records in general, something discussed in more detail here.
When I said during the extremely brief question and answer period, that Riley was dismissing the lived experience of foster children, she denied that – and then proceeded to repeat her earlier remarks; this time suggesting that a hypothetical ten-year-old (at the time of removal) couldn’t possibly know what was really going on.
For starters many ten-year-olds are, in fact, hyper aware of what’s going on around them. But also:
● Forty-seven percent of the inmates who responded to the Star’s questionnaire were 11 years old or older when they entered foster care.
● Though Voorhees was very young the first time she was removed, she also was taken a second time – at the age of 14.
● Nico’Lee Biddle also was 14.
● Lexie Gruber was 15.
In their writing they make clear they know full well what was going on their families – but also that placement in foster care was the wrong answer.
A full range of experiences
Riley could have made a reasonable point about such case examples without dismissing anyone’s lived experience. She could simply have pointed out that the experiences vary widely.
Some of those who filled out those questionnaires from the Kansas City Star said they absolutely had to be removed from their homes. And consider what 24-year old Whitney Gilliard wrote about her foster parents in the Chronicle of Social Change:
Bill and Rosemary taught me unconditional love, something I’d never really felt before.
They were there for me through so much. When I moved out to go to college, they remained fixtures in my life. When I got my associate’s degree, they were there. When I got pregnant before marriage, they were there. When I was in a car accident that broke my back and legs, they were there. Bill and Rosemary never left me. When I walk out the door of work tonight, I’ll call them and ask how their day went. They’re still a big part of my life. … My foster parents were my big break, my saving grace.
It would be just as wrong to dismiss Gilliard’s lived experience as any of the others. Indeed since child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel, erring in all directions, of course there are as many different experiences as there are foster children. All of them deserve our respect and admiration for coming forward to share those experiences in the hope of helping others. None deserves to be demeaned, disregarded and dismissed.
But Riley can’t take that position because once you acknowledge that former foster children usually are right about their lived experiences, then you have to ask: What do the data tell us?
● The data tell us that some children absolutely must be removed from their homes – but in typical cases youth left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
For example, in a massive study involving more than 23,000 children, the foster children were two to three times more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes. So yes, there is a foster-care-to-prison pipeline.
● The data from independent studies show us the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than shown in official figures.
● The data from independent studies show us there is widespread confusion of poverty with neglect – and that the solution is money.
Schaefer argued that the research is “mixed” - a claim she's made before. Of course there is nothing in social science for which the research is absolutely unanimous. But calling the research on foster care outcomes mixed is like watching a baseball game in which the final score is 21 to 2 and saying only: “Well, both teams scored runs.”
Nico’Lee Biddle concluded her Teen Vogue essay with advice to other current and former foster youth:
These days, I share my story because we need the system to change, and we need for workers and judges and attorneys to ask children and parents about their strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. I share my story because my workers and judges accepted when I said I didn’t want to be adopted, but didn’t accept that I wanted to go home. I share my story because I’ve witnessed the system repeat the same mistakes with more and more families, years after my own was torn apart. I’m sharing my story because I didn’t speak up then, but I know I must speak up now.
You should speak up, too. Your experiences, both bad and good, matter. Your voice can make a change. The agencies tasked with helping foster children are titled Children, Youth, and Families — and if you are ever in a position where someone forgets that, I encourage you to remind them.
I am sure that neither Ms. Biddle nor the other former foster youth who are now telling their stories will let anyone dismiss them.