Thursday, July 7, 2022

“Whose family values do we stand for?”: Remembering Rep. Patsy Mink’s courageous stand against ASFA

Ever since the awful day 25 years ago when what would become the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed the House of Representatives, I’ve known that only one Democrat – Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii – was wise and courageous enough to vote against it.  (A handful of Republicans opposed it, mostly on states’ rights grounds.) 

But only after a tweet from former New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein pointed me to Ben Proudfoot’s wonderful Times “op-doc” mini documentary about Rep. Mink, recounted by her daughter, Wendy, was I inspired to look up exactly what she said. 

So think of what follows as a “guest blog.”  I’m reprinting below her remarks, in full.  

As you read them remember, in 1997 there was no organized opposition to ASFA, just a few of us voices in the wilderness.  And ASFA wasn’t a right-wing plot. The big liberal “child welfare” groups, the Child Welfare League of America, the one that now calls itself “Social Current” and the Children’s Defense Fund, among others, were just fine with it.  And, their efforts at reputation laundering notwithstanding, judging by their current silence concerning efforts to repeal ASFA, apparently they still are.  

Patsy Mink was just smarter than all of them. 

From the documentary, I learned how Rep. Mink’s parents faced anti-Japanese racism in World War II – and how Rep. Mink’s political opponents said she was a bad mother for running for Congress instead of baking cookies for her daughter. 

Maybe that’s why she understood what almost no one else did at that time. Maybe that’s why she said this in 1997.  And what she said then is why we need to repeal ASFA now. 

From the Congressional Record, April 30, 1997.

Mrs. MINK of Hawaii. 

I rise in opposition to the enactment of H.R. 867 because I object to the removal of the safeguards which now protect the rights of parents whose children have been placed in foster care. 

I agree that we all can recite a litany of cases of children who have been abused, and neglected by parents and for whom expedited adoption is fully justified. 

Still since the enactment of the most punitive bill ever to pass Congress in the name of welfare reform, we all know that there will be parents who will lose their cash benefits and be unable to feed and house their small children. State child welfare agencies will move to take custody of these unfortunate children because the parents no longer have any funds to provide for them and are not able to find work. Because of the welfare law children will undoubtedly be found living in abandoned car bodies, and other unhealthful conditions without running water or heat or cooking facilities. Under these circumstances, as predictable, State child welfare agencies will be compelled to move these children from their parents and place them in foster homes. 

Poverty, I do not believe is a justifiable reason for terminating parental rights over their children. The temporary best interests of the child may be to move him or her into a foster home. 

But, I do not believe, that move justifies the national Government to establish adoption as a penalty due to poverty of the parents. If conditions of adoption exist, it should be left to the States to make these determinations. A Congress that has repeatedly argued States rights should not abandon that principle and enact legislation whose title in section 3 provides: States required to initiate or join proceedings to terminate parental rights for certain children in foster care, entering foster care after October 1, 1997. 

The committee report states, ‘‘in the case of children under age of 10 who have been in foster care at least 18 of the past 24 months, the bill requires States to move toward terminating parental rights under most circumstances.’’ 

Prior to the enactment of the welfare reform this bill might have been supportable. But in combination with the welfare reform bill enacted last August 1996, I find that circumstances of poverty and lack of work, could not under H.R. 867 become the sole basis for the termination of parental rights. This offends my fundamental beliefs about the inherent rights of parents and the inalienable rights of children to the love and protection of their natural parents which should not be terminated except when there is serious debilitating circumstances such as drug abuse, physical brutality, torture, and sexual abuse. 

Reading the bill and committee report provides no assurance that the rights of poor parents are protected. 

It is easy enough to state that adoption will be in the best interests of the child, who will have a better home to live in and a higher quality material environment than the one from which they came. This however ignores that basic undifferentiable family value of the love of a parent. 

I cannot vote for a bill that takes welfare reform one step closer to the final penalty of poverty: The loss of one’s children by edict of the Government. 

First you take their money away. Then you force them into desperate conditions of poverty. Then you deem them unfit to raise their children and you remove them from the home and place them in foster homes. Then after 18 months you put the children up for adoption. 

Whose family values do we stand for?