Monday, April 10, 2023

Attn: Older foster youth: Meet the professor who thinks you need money more than love

(And she doesn’t seem very interested in your lived experience, either.) 

What Prof. Sarah Font is telling foster youth boils down to this:
You can have a free college education – as long as you forego any chance
that there will be a family cheering you on at graduation. 

First of two parts

After following issues involving foster care for decades, I’ve gotten used to the extent to which people in the system hate birth parents.  As Prof. Martin Guggenheim aptly put it decades ago “There’s a lot of hate masquerading as love in this system.” 

But it still shocks me when I am reminded of the low regard in which some in the system seem to hold the young people themselves – particularly when they’re older teenagers and aren’t so cute anymore. 

The latest reminder comes from Prof. Sarah Font of Penn State University’s so-called “Child Maltreatment Solutions Network.”  The Child Maltreatment Solutions Network itself owes far more to politics and scholarship. It was created in the wake of the scandal surrounding former foster parent, group home operator (and Penn State football coach) Jerry Sandusky, so the University could show that no one, no one, was going to be tougher on child abuse than Penn State. 

A report by Prof. Font includes this
graphic labeling everyone accused
of child abuse or neglect a "perpetrator"
--even after they're found innocent.

Prof. Font’s work includes a report claiming that families in Pennsylvania get too much due process – complete with a graphic in which every accused is branded a “perpetrator” – even after they’re found innocent.  She’s condemned the Indian Child Welfare Act and called for requiring every parent reapplying for “public benefits” (in other words, poor people) whose children are not otherwise seen by a mandated reporter to produce the child for a child abuse inspection - even when there is no allegation of abuse or neglect.  Font also is part of a group that rushed to defend the right of a self-proclaimed “race realist” University of Pennsylvania Law School professor to exchange rants with Tucker Carlson – without one word condemning the content of those rants. Judging by a recent op-ed she co-authored, Font herself likes to use the word "woke" the way Ron DeSantis does.

Nothing surprising there.  But now we discover Font also seems to think foster youth somehow don’t need love as much as other young people.  And she doesn’t seem to see much value to listening to their lived experience either. 

That revelation turns up in a “report” she wrote for the American Enterprise Institute (the place where that other “race realist” Charles Murray still hangs out) comparing how quickly states rush to terminate children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights).  Naturally, in Font’s version, the faster the better. 

But the shocker is this statement, explaining why Font looked at termination data only for children up to age 14.  She writes: 

Although permanency is important for older youth as well, the implications are less clear given that reunification or guardianship or living with relatives (adoption is exceedingly rare for older youth) may deprive older youth of additional resources that are conditional on aging out. 

Did you catch that? According to Font, what has long been viewed as the worst option of all – “aging out,” in which a young person exits at age 18 or age 21 with no family whatsoever, and for which it’s well-documented the results are dismal, may be better not just than reunification with those birth parents for whom Font has such contempt; it also may be better than guardianship with extended family, better than loving grandparents or aunts or uncles.  Why?  Because aging out might provide the foster youth with financial benefits. 

Notice also the one exception: In Font’s view, the only thing clearly better for older foster youth than aging out with no family at all is adoption.  What’s the difference between adoption and those other options?  Simple. Adoptive homes tend to be richer – and whiter. 

In fact, Font is so sure that adoption is best and no-home-at-all is second-best that she even condemns states for making sure they’re not creating legal orphans.  States should not wait until they actually have an adoptive home for a child before taking away, forever, the one he was born with.  In fact, states don’t seem to be waiting.  In part because, thanks to ASFA, states collect a bounty of up to $10,000 per child if they increase adoptions over a baseline number, they are indeed racing to terminate children’s rights to their children.  And that has led to a big increase in legal orphans

Yet for Font this is worth it.  Because if you don’t, she argues, it will inconvenience prospective adoptive parents or make them hesitate.  In what passes for “child welfare” in America, nothing is more important than coddling white middle-class adults. But do we really want people so easily discouraged claiming to make a lifetime commitment to love a child?  Oh, wait, I forgot.  Font doesn’t seem to think love is such a big deal for foster youth. 

That also may explain her insistence on adoption as by far the best form of “permanency” even though there are disturbing data on how often such adoptions fail, especially for Black children – and even though a study found that only 41% of adopted foster children over age six “expressed having a very warm and close relationship with their adoptive parent.” 

In contrast, if a foster youth reading this wants to tell Prof. Font how important the love of extended family is in her or his life, it’s not clear whether she’ll be all that interested. 

In seeking to defend foster care in general and, in particular, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, Font declares that the narrative about the widespread failure or both “relies on the misappropriation of ‘lived experience’ as a replacement for scientific research …”  On the contrary, now that we are finally listening to the lived experience of foster youth, we are finding that much of that lived experience complements a huge body of research on the inherent trauma of foster care and the high rate of abuse in foster care.  

Font also claims that foster care isn’t harmful if the time in care is relatively short – by which she seems to mean less than 18 months.  But the anguished cries of young children torn from their parents at the Mexican border suggest the trauma is immediate.  And if that’s too anecdotal for Prof. Font, there’s plenty of evidence of harm caused by the act of removal itself, even when the time in foster care is very short

There also are data on where children who age out actually go: One study found that nearly one-quarter at tome point went back to the very parents from whom they were supposedly taken forever; nearly one-third lived with other relatives. Perhaps they value love more than Font seems to think. 

As far as those financial benefits go, it’s not exactly a cornucopia.  Many of the benefits involve housing – which, of course, a young adult needs if s/he doesn’t live in, uh, a home.  Other benefits involve learning independent living skills – again, something that, believe it or not, grandma and grandpa just might be able to teach. 

But, depending on the state, there also may be significant aid for higher education.  California, for example, will cover all tuition costs for aging-out foster youth in the University of California and California State University systems.  Proposed legislation would cover related incidental costs as well. 

But those who see at least foster youth, if not their families, as fully human would never want a foster youth to face a dilemma like this.  They would demand that states offer the same help to, at a minimum, foster youth reunified or placed in guardianships as well. 

And that’s the heart of the matter.  To suggest that foster youth are better off with a little money instead of a lot of love strikes me as suggesting that foster youth, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite, are a little less human than other young people. 

Perhaps that’s why Font seems to have no problem saying to foster youth, in effect: You can have a free college education – as long as you forego any chance that there will be a family cheering you on at graduation. 

Read Part Two: What “permanency” has in common with“creme”: A discussion of some of the other false premises in Font’sreport