It will if some
lawmakers attacking kinship foster care get their way
A few months ago on
this blog, I posed a hypothetical question to some folks in Oregon. Now I’d like to pose the same question to
some politicians – and some journalists – in Kansas:
Suppose a couple of
strangers kidnapped your child at birth and fled to Mexico. Suppose they took really good care of your
child. Suppose a year, or two years, or
three years later they came back. Should
they be allowed to keep your child?
Of course not, you
But wait. The kidnappers took great care of your
child. They just figured they’d do a
better job than you. And now your child
has bonded with them. After all,
the kidnappers are the only family your child has ever known!
Still no? Are you sure?
Then why are Kansas
lawmakers and their media allies backing a bill that would do essentially the
same thing in foster care cases?
Oh but this is
different, you say. When foster parents
(especially white, middle-class foster parents) play the bonding card against birth parents or their extended
family (who are more likely to be neither middle class nor white) the foster
parents didn’t do anything illegal – in fact, the placement was authorized by a
government agency, and the foster parents probably have the best of intentions.
If alleged bonding
is superior to every other consideration and this child supposedly would be
terribly harmed if moved from “the only family he’s ever known;” if such a move
would be contrary to his “best interests,” why should that alleged harm be
inflicted on a child just because, in the case of a kidnapping, the initial
removal was illegal?
I ask because, right now, in Kansas, the bonding card is being played do denigrate everything from sibling connections to choosing relatives over strangers when placing a foster child for adoption.
In fact, the research is overwhelming that when children really have to be placed
in foster care or adopted, kinship foster care – placement with extended family or close
family friends – is more stable and better for children’s well-being than what
should properly be called “stranger care.”
Kinship placements also are safer, and kin are less likely to dope up
foster children on potent psychiatric medication.
That’s why federal law has a preference, albeit far too minimal a preference, for
placing children with relatives. To receive federal foster care funds, states
preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining a
placement for a child, provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant
State child protection standards.
In Kansas, when the
state has terminated parental rights and the state is looking for an adoptive
home, state law also has an extremely mild preference for kin. Under current state law:
the court shall
give preference, to the extent that the court finds it is in the best
interests of the child, first to granting such custody for adoption to a
relative of the child and second to granting such custody to a person with whom
the child has close emotional ties. [Emphasis added.]
Even this mild preference has the all-purpose loophole
“best interests of the child” – the most dangerous phrase in the child welfare
lexicon since “best interests” is subject to the whims – and prejudices – of
those making the decisions.
But even this is
more than some Kansas lawmakers can stomach.
mass of research showing kinship placements are far more likely to be in “the
best interests of the child,” they’re proposing to specifically downgrade kin, and give preference to stranger-care
parents if the child has been in their physical custody for more than two years, or for more than
half the child’s lifetime -- or any other time the political employee in charge of
the state family policing agency unilaterally decides this would be “in the
best interests of the child.”
Oh, and if, by some
chance, the family police still dare to prefer a relative, the foster parents would
be given power to go to court and demand they get the child instead. If the court dared to say no, they’d have the
right to appeal – thereby prolonging impermanence for the child while also
making it easier to cite their own stalling as a reason not to take a child
from “the only family he’s ever known.”
In the real
Here’s how this
would play out in real life: Middle-class caseworkers take away poor people’s
children and throw them into the homes of middle-class strangers – people the
caseworkers can identify with. They make
little or no effort to find relatives.
If relatives do turn up, they find all sorts of excuses not to license
them as foster parents (licensing requirements often involve middle-class
creature comforts; relatives tend to be poor). The relatives spend months
trying to meet those requirements. Or
the agency finds all sorts of other excuses to find the relatives
unsuitable. Or it’s months before relatives
even find out the child is in foster care.
agency, perhaps with the aid of the middle-class stranger-care parents, stalls
and stalls and stalls. So by the time
the relatives meet the requirements and jump through any other hoops thrown in
their way, so much time has passed that, well, you know how it is, right? The
middle-class stranger-care parents are “the only family the children have ever
known.” So, under the proposed law, they
would get to step right up and keep a poor person’s child for their very own.
In fact, the law
goes even further. It would eliminate even
the extremely mild preference for relatives in existing law at any point in the
adoption process - even if the relatives are available and meet all agency criteria from the start. If this bill becomes
law, the slight preference that serves to make the playing field a little less
unequal for impoverished kin when facing off against affluent strangers is
wiped out from day one. (This raises a
question: Would this put Kansas in violation of the federal law cited above?)
All of this would
be bad enough in any state. But this law
is being proposed in Kansas, which, year
after year, tears apart families at one of the highest rates in America – well over double the national
average. (It may be far worse; Kansas either
violates federal regulations
or exploits a loophole in federal regulations, depending on how you interpret
the regs, to avoid counting a large number of placements.)
In a state where the entire child welfare establishment
has shown such profound hatred for overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately
nonwhite families who lose their children to foster care, “best interests” is
little more than a euphemism for middle-class white privilege.
And yet, here’s how KCUR Public Radio
framed the story:
The current law
giving relatives a priority can mean taking a young child away from the foster
parents who raised them, even when those foster parents want to adopt.
could change that. They worry that the current system may sometimes run counter
to the child’s best interests and possibly traumatize children.
In fact, the law
would repeal any preference for relatives when they, too, want to adopt – and
that framing assumes that adoption should be preferred over, for example,
guardianship, which often is a better way to achieve permanence for children with
relatives. The law would privilege paper
permanence over relational permanence.
Oh, and if Kansas
lawmakers really cared about not traumatizing children, they’d stop letting the
family police take them away at such an obscene rate in the first place.
As for that pesky
research, the research that shows kinship placements almost always are the less
traumatic option, KCUR gives it a quick mention, toward the very end of the
story, in what journalists call the “To be sure…” grafs – as in, “To be sure,
there is another side of the story that we don’t agree with so we’ll shove a
couple of token sentences about it in here.”
And, indeed, the
to-be-sure grafs are quickly followed by
supporters of the proposed law acknowledge these facts, but they say each case
is different and common sense needs to be applied.
A preference for
Common sense? How is acknowledging research and ignoring
its findings common sense? In fact, it’s
more like substituting for truth what Stephen Colbert famously called
“truthiness” -- the belief that something is true based on the intuition or
perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence,
logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
In this case, backers of this bill are saying, in effect: I like white middle-class strangers better than
impoverished relatives so my gut says it’s “common sense” to give them
truth is in the research, but truthiness says giving strangers preference is in
children’s “best interest” – research be damned.
And, of course,
existing law already leaves judges ample flexibility to invoke the all-purpose
mantra “best interests of the child” to ignore any preference for relatives.
If the backers of
this bill really believed that judges should simply be free to use their “common
sense” then they would have proposed a law with no preference of any kind.
Instead, they privilege the privileged, equate
common sense with their own middle-class sensibilities and tilt the balance
away from what research says is truly in children’s best interests.
how desperate proponents are to flee from reality is the fact that the
high-profile case that started this frenzy doesn’t even involve relatives
seeking to care for a child. It involves
two competing sets of stranger-care parents.
One set of stranger-care parents is willing to keep four siblings
together – which is what research suggests usually is best. The other wants to keep a three-year-old, even if it means she won't be united with siblings because these stranger-care parents are “the only family she’s ever known.”
Not only did Kansas
politicians rush to take the side of the foster parents who would
keep the siblings separate, somehow the politicians extrapolated from this case
to support a bill that attacks any kinship preference for adult relatives who
want to adopt!
In Kansas, they’ve
taken truthiness to a whole new level.
To see just how
much harm the white, middle-class version of “best interests of the child” “common sense” and trying to play the bonding
card can do to children of color – and why, for Native American families, it
took a federal law to curb that harm, check out this outstanding story from Julia Lurie
in Mother Jones.