Friday, March 11, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XVII

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part XVI, where I advocated that we eliminate neglect as a reason to remove children from their parents, marythemom wrote:
Maybe as a reason for removal, but definitely neglect needs to continue to be addressed. I still remember taking care of my 2 year old nephew. His dad didn't know he still needed to be supervised in the tub. My nephew was used to getting his own food (mostly cereal) rather than having others prepare food for him. He didn't seem to care about the change in caregivers (he's not RAD - just very easygoing). That Summer we discovered he was allergic to bandaids, peanut butter and corn. No one knew - even though he had fairly severe reactions (poor thing was trying to potty train and spent most of his time trapped on the potty with diarrhea).

And Carmel wrote:
Here is the grey area though...are the parent's poor and not able to afford food and housing because 'Dad' refuses to put any effort into finding a job and the Mom has a job which covers barely the basic and everytime they come into a large amount they buy TV's, Xboxs, and fun things for themselves. These parent's are generally good people but they cannot or will not make the sacrafices needed to really provide for their kids.

Both Mary and Carmel have a valid point. However, the problem is that the damage the foster care system does can often be worse than being neglected. Certainly, if a child can go to a better-functioning relative, that might be a better option, but if the choice is between being neglected and being sent to the foster care system, I'm not sure that foster care is always the wise choice.

In my post Improving the Foster Care System - Part XII, I mentioned a paper written by a Georgetown University law professor that examined why confidentiality within the foster care system creates problems.

What I didn't fully examine in that post was that Professor Fraidin's paper also mentioned that many mistreated children would be better off left at home.
The master narrative of child welfare depicts foster care as a haven for child-victims savagely brutalized by “deviant,” “monstrous” parents. Notwithstanding this shared public understanding, however, most children in foster care have experienced, or are alleged to have experienced, neglect—deprivation of food, clothing, shelter, education, or another necessity of life—not physical abuse. There is also a growing understanding that some children in foster care ought not to be there at all. In addition, research and experience indicate that many maltreated children would be better off if simply left at home—with those responsible for the maltreatment—rather than placed in foster care. [emphasis mine]

So given this information, how do we improve the foster care system?

First off, just like I advocated last week, we stop removing kids for neglect. Yes, I absolutely agree that neglected children suffer their own private version of hell, but it's not the same hell that children who are actively being abused suffer.

So what do we do about neglect instead?

Provide family supports that address the neglect.

If a family lives in sub-standard housing, help them with that. If they are unemployed or under-employed, help them find a job or give them job training. If they have poor parenting skills, offer them parenting classes. If they or their children have unattended medical needs, provide them. If the parents have mental health or substance-abuse problems, address those too.

Help them for sure, but don't take someone's kids away because they aren't winning a parent of the year award. Don't punish parents by listing them in the child abuse databases simply because they need help. There's a big difference between someone who actively abuses their kids and someone who simply isn't capable.

Finally, we have to realize that there are going to be some families who simply can't be helped. We have to realize that there will always be a certain percentage of the population who can't or won't do better. The question then becomes whether the damage a child will suffer from neglect would be worse than the damage of having family bonds severed and being sent to foster care.

It's a hard question to answer, but I really believe that unless a child is in real danger, the status quo is probably less damaging.


  1. I mostly agree with you. I think social services is often too quick to remove kids from homes that miss ideal by a wide mark but that are not dangerous. My wife grew up in such a situation, and I'm not sure foster care would have been better for her. From stories I've heard, I know it could have been worse.

    My concern is drawing that line between neglect and abuse. Our daughter's (adopted from foster care after abandonment) brother is now in care because of neglect. His mom left him home alone (he just turned 2) for more than twenty-four hours. On at least three occasions- that we know of. He had no access to food. He had no way to manage his diaper. No-one hit him. But I think this goes beyond benign neglect.

  2. I agree that simply removing kids because parent's can't afford the highest level of care or because they lack teachable skills is not a good idea. However, in most cases that removal occurs due to neglect it is because services, resources, and treatment have been offered time and time again, and the parent is not willing or able to make the changes. The emotional relationship is also important to look at. There are poor families or even families where the parents are substance abusers where the kids are loved, cared for, and attached. Being poor is not the reason kids are neglected or the reason kids are removed. Of course the classist and racist nature of out government plays into it but it's not the simple line of reasoning " you don't have food, we'll take your kid", mostly because it costs more to remove/foster a kid then food stamps or other resources do. Of course providing resources is important, but if they are not used to help the child or better parenting practices are not implemented the kids do need to be removed. Foster care is not a lovey dovey place, and absolutely needs to be improved but allowing neglected kids to go through "their own personal hell" just because the foster care system is messed up is not the best either. Their are many kids in foster care that wish they could have stayed in their birth families, but there are kids that are glad they got out of the situation they were in, even though they still have grief and loss issues. It's like abused partners may not be happy about leaving their relationship of 10 years, with a secure income, and home, and even love sometimes- but they can still be glad the abuse is over. There are also kids that don't get removed who feel like no one ever cared enough about them to get them out, and then of course their are kids that get abused in foster care. Kids are rarely removed for neglect on the first report without services and time passing to make changes in the home situation. At the bottom line, whether in birth families or foster/adoptive families- all kids deserve care, love, health care, food, shelter, adequate supervision, and most of all to be free from all violence and abuse, and also maybe a decent shot at surviving in this life. When they aren't getting those things- other adults need to get involved and figure out how to make it happen. Part of the issue with the foster care system and in families overall is the lack of value placed on children and their needs/issues, that to me is the crux of these issues.


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