This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system addresses a policy that is supposed to help protect foster children, but really stymies foster parents, professionals and prospective adoptive parents.
The strict policies of confidentiality fail both kids and caregivers in the foster care system.
Now the idea of confidentiality is a good one. Foster children do deserve a certain amount of privacy, and we certainly don't want a loud-mouthed foster mom to come strolling into Junior's classroom and announce loudly to the teacher in front of the entire class that he is in foster care because his mother is a drug-using, thieving, puta, and that he wets the bed three nights out of five. Clearly, that is not cool.
However, the policy of confidentiality fails almost everyone in the system. Because of confidentiality, foster families aren't necessarily told of a child's mental health diagnoses, behavior problems or struggles. They often aren't told that birth family members may have committed serious crimes, or cautioned about the safety of certain birth family members. When foster parents aren't informed, bad things happen. Kids who have history of sexually abusing others perpetrate on other kids in the home. Children with attachment disorders play the social games that only a RADish can create. Foster families unwittingly expose themselves to danger by becoming too friendly with a known criminal.
And when these mistakes happen, the kids suffer. Children are placed into homes that are unprepared or untrained to meet their needs and they cannot stay. Because their needs are not met, they are further traumatized and may even injure other kids in the process. They are shuffled to yet another home in what may be a long chain, further disrupting the child's ability to attach.
Shouldn't a foster family have the right to know something about the kids and families with which they work? If you are responsible for the care, custody and control of a minor, shouldn't you be told the important details about why he is in foster care, the abuse he may have suffered and his behavioral challenges before he is placed in your home? Even more importantly, shouldn't these crucial details be shared with prospective adoptive parents as well? How can it be fair for a social worker to withhold important details like prenatal drug or alcohol exposure until after the adoption papers are signed?
Although it's clear we don't want foster families putting up a six-foot sign on the roof stating, "my foster son is a feces-smearer," we need to find a way for the dialog to be more open between social workers, foster parents, and the professionals who work with these kids. Caregivers, teachers and therapists need to share information because it benefits the child. How can a foster mom be sensitive to a child's needs if she doesn't know that her child was repeatedly sexually abused in the bathroom? How can she help her foster son learn to read if she doesn't know that he has a learning disability and was slapped every time he made a mistake sounding out a word?
The irony, of course, is that amongst all the rules about confidentiality, social workers will often break their code of silence to share something "off the record." Although these off-the-record tid-bits are helpful, they often do not paint a complete picture. Besides being incomplete, they also demonstrate a certain lack of professionalism. Those friendly little leaks say, "well, I'm going to break the rules because I like you and I want to help you out." The implication is that not all foster parents deserve and can be trusted to have such valuable information.
Foster and adoptive parents deserve to know what they are getting, because it benefits the child. Wouldn't it be better for a child to have a foster or pre-adoptive home honestly say, "we aren't prepared to take a child with physical disability x or behavioral problem y," than to have the placement fail?
One would think so, anyway.
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