Friday, April 29, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XXIV

A number of weeks ago, I was looking through my blog stats and I noticed that someone had found my post Improving the Foster Care System - Part VIII with the following search key words:

what if there wasn't foster care

Immediately, I thought this would be a terrific post.

What if there wasn't foster care? What would the world be like if we completely disposed of the foster care system?

It's an interesting question. To answer it, we need to go back and look at the history of the child welfare system*.

The United States Foster Care System arguably began with the case of Mary Ellen McCormack in 1874. Mary Ellen's foster parents - though I use the term lightly, since the relationship was more like indentured servitude - beat the 10-year-old girl regularly, whipping her with a rawhide whip and striking her on at least one occasion with a pair of scissors. At that time, there were no laws in the United States prohibiting child abuse, so the ASPCA used animal cruelty laws to intervene on her behalf, effectively arguing that children should enjoy at least the same rights afforded to dogs, cats and horses.

The first law licensing foster homes was passed in 1885 by the State of Pennsylvania, making it a misdemeanor to care for two or more unrelated children without a license. South Dakota enacted the first law funding a child protection agency in 1893, and the beginning seeds of what became today's social services system were planted in the early 1900s.

In those early days, the system was focused exclusively on child abuse, and the system became involved only in extreme cases where children died or suffered serious injury. The notion that the system needed to protect children from neglect as well as abuse, and the requirement that child abuse must be reported to authorities, didn't become widespread until the passage of the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, or CAPTA, in 1974.

Since then, the regulation of parents' conduct has grown at a steady rate, and the number of reported cases of neglect has rapidly eclipsed those cases of abuse. By 2009, some states were reporting that as many as 92% of the cases handled by their Social Services agencies stemmed from neglect rather than abuse. In that same year, few states reported that physical or sexual abuse accounted for more than 20% of the cases of child abuse and neglect.

Given these facts, several questions arise: Has the foster care system morphed beyond its originally intended purpose? Has it become a system more focused on removing children from poor minority families than preventing the severe physical and sexual abuse that it was intended to stop? What would happen if we didn't have a foster care system?

Looking at the demographics of today's foster care system, the vast majority of kids taken into care are removed from economically marginal minority families. Granted, not all of them are minorities, but few upper-middle class white married couples have their children removed by social services, and even fewer of them lose their children permanently to adoption. Research has shown that a large percentage of children taken into the foster care system don't stay there very long, but even those brief stays prove very damaging and traumatic to the children involved.

Conventional wisdom says that, even when children are ultimately reunified with their parents, they are better off for the system's actions to "protect" them. Conventional wisdom says that action, and intervention, ultimately benefits the children. Conventional wisdom says that we can't turn our backs and ignore children who might be at risk. Conventional wisdom says the social services system creates better outcomes for kids.

What if conventional wisdom is wrong?

I certainly think that it might be. When I look at my own child, I am not convinced that she's really better off for having had the foster care system in her life. It intervened when she was 18 months old, which likely could have contributed to her emotional challenges now, and ultimately returned her to her mother who continued to neglect and abuse her for another nine and a half years. It intervened again, when she was found in the company of an unrelated adult male who had been accused, but never convicted, of child molestation. She was taken away from this man, placed in our home, and ultimately adopted.

That's supposed to be a happy ending to a terrible story, right? It might have been if, during the years since her removal, she had received appropriate therapies and interventions. If she'd received the right treatments, then she might not have started physically assaulting us. If she hadn't done that, we'd have a much better relationship, and she would likely be a lot happier. Although we absolutely don't regret sending her to boot camp, because it stopped the violence, she came home quite a bit less happy as a person.

I'm not sure that I can entirely blame the boot camp for her lack of happiness now, though. Danielle has been through a lot of very bad stuff in her life, so I'm not sure that her current depression was caused by the camp, her weighty past, her teenage hormones or her genetic predisposition (inherited from her birth mother) for depression. Some or all of these things could be true, or it could be caused by something else entirely.

But I'm not convinced that Danielle is really better off in absolute terms. Yes, she's clearly got more of an education than she would have if she had stayed with her birth family. She may very well have more material resources at her disposal than she would have if she had hadn't been taken. But, what she has lost is her family relationships, and in her mind that's worse than anything else.

From an objective point of view, I'm not sure that losing those relationships was all so bad. The birth family members that we have met all have considerable problems with substance abuse, and some are clearly involved in dangerous criminal behavior. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter to Danielle. These are still her people and she loves them regardless. Even though we think that cutting off all contact would probably be the best thing for us and Danielle, we haven't done so, because we recognize just how much her family means to her.

And of course, for just about everyone in this world, one tends to want most the things one cannot have.

So I'm not sure that Danielle is truly better off. So many of the adopted kids I know of have permanent, lifelong problems. They have problems with their relationships, they have problems with employment, they have problems with their birth families and with their adoptive families. These kids grow into adulthood, feeling as though they don't belong to their birth families anymore or their adoptive families now, and they struggle.

If there wasn't a foster care system, what would happen? Well, more kids would be neglected, but at least they would be neglected by their own people. As so many former foster kids have told me, living with the devil you do know is often better than living with the devil that you don't. For some kids, being mistreated by their birth family where they belong, is psychologically preferable to being placed in foster homes where they are treated like second-class citizens at best, and are abused again at worst.

Even in cases like LT's where the foster care system protected her from being killed, I wonder if she would be better off had the system not intervened.

Now I want to be very clear here. I'm not saying this lightly, and I'm not saying this because I think LT lacks value as a person. She clearly has value. She clearly deserves a place in this world and should have found a caring, loving family. She should not have been abused.

But I look at her suffering now, as an adult, and it seems so extreme. It's clear LT suffers immensely, and I sometimes wonder if the system would have been kinder not to intervene, and to let her die as a child, than to put her through that horror, only to subject her to even more emotional neglect, physical abuse and trauma as she was bounced around the foster care system.

Is she better off for having been "saved" by the foster care system?

I can't answer that question for LT. She's the only person who can measure the value of her own life. What I can say, though, is that I see many kids who are failed by the foster care system, and a lot of unnecessary suffering.

So if there wasn't a foster care system, and the government didn't get involved in people's personal lives, what would happen?

Sure some kids would die. But they are already dying. They die even when social workers are supposed to be watching them. Sure some kids would be abused, but the truth is that children are already being abused and aren't discovered. If you have ever seen an episode of the television show Intervention, you'll notice that a great many of the addicts on the show suffered some form of child abuse, especially among the women. In many of those cases the abusers were never punished. Jaycee Dugard was abducted and abused for 18 years, and the child welfare system affirmatively failed to protect her.

If we got rid of the system as it exists now, sure, bad things would happen, but I don't think they would be any worse than what already happens with the system in place. Kids still die and children are still abused and neglected.

If we got rid of the grossly malfunctioning system, we would free up billions of dollars that could be spent on strengthening law enforcement, and helping families get out of poverty, thereby mitigating many of the circumstances that lead them to neglect their children. We could spend the money on providing legitimate help to the few children who are are being grossly abused, and stop spending the money on therapy for kids who wouldn't need it if they'd simply been left alone.

So what if there wasn't foster care? I don't think the world would go spinning out of orbit and go crashing into the sun.

I wonder if they had things right back in 1870's when child abuse was handled like animal abuse, and everything else was left up to people's own private business. Certainly more families would be left intact, and people would muddle along like they always have.

So for today's thoughts on Improving the Foster Care System, we need to do a lot more rigorous research into the long-term outcomes for foster care alumni. We cannot simply take it as an article of faith that these kids are better off for having been in the system. We need real data to measure whether foster care alumni are better off for their experiences, and whether they are better off enough to justify the expense, effort and trauma of the system's intervention in their lives. We need to know for sure whether the system is actually making things better.

Right now, we just don't know that.

* Thanks to FosterEema for doing the research for this post.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cognitive Bias and the Blogosphere

We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.
-- Jewish proverb

FosterEema here with another guest post. This one is triggered by a class I've been taking. The subject matter of the class is unimportant, but we've spent some time talking about the subject of cognitive biases. In a nutshell, cognitive biases are unconscious biases that creep into our thinking. They're not malicious by nature, nor is the suggestion of a cognitive bias an attack on the other person. We ALL do this stuff, unless we're very conscious not to.

There are a large number of cognitive biases, but I want to talk about a few which I think lead to a lot of the chaos and drama I see in the foster/adoptive blogging community:
  • Confirmation Bias. A confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information which supports our preconceptions or beliefs. Because the human mind is highly tuned for pattern recognition, we tend to notice information which supports our beliefs more, and trust it more, than information which doesn't align with our beliefs. At the risk of being self-referential a bit, some of our readers have apparently decided that we abuse/neglect/hate Danielle, and they view everything we say as further proof of our bad faith. That's confirmation bias.
  • Disconfirmation Bias. The cognitive opposite of confirmation bias, a disconfirmation bias means that we expect a higher standard of evidence for claims that go against our preconceptions than we do for claims that support them. We've all seen bloggers who've been attacked for slights, real or imaginary. In many of these cases, the attackers cling to their belief, seizing on crumbs to support them, even in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. ("Social Services declared the allegations unfounded," for example.) This is disconfirmation bias in action.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error. This kind of cognitive bias means that, when we're seeking to explain behaviors, we tend to favor personality-based explanations over situational explanations. That is, faced with a behavior we dislike ("my neighbor's not trimming the tree that hangs over my fence", we are more likely to view the behavior as caused by the other's personality defects ("she's an asshole") than to look for situational explanations ("she has arthritis and doesn't have anyone to help her cut the tree"). When we fall prey to fundamental attribution errors, our judgmental sides are given free reign to play and we lose the assumption of innocence.
There are other cognitive biases, of course, and I invite the interested reader to visit Wikipedia's article on the subject. However, I think these are the most common and relevant to the blogosphere. I believe that much of the drama we see in the blogging world arises from these cognitive biases, and that we should all strive to combat them as much as possible.

So, how do we do that? How do we overcome these cognitive biases? The key, I think, is to be aware of them. We need to be be aware of the natural traps our minds tend to fall into, and vigilant to stay out of the cognitive potholes. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But the effort is worth the pain and angst it spares everyone. To move past confirmation and disconfirmation biases means consciously giving all new information equal weight, whether it supports our viewpoints or not. To move past fundamental attribution errors, we need to train ourselves to look for situational explanations for behavior before - or instead of - looking for the character flaws in the other person.

Learning to move past these cognitive biases will, I think, cut down a lot of the needless sturm und drang that pervades the blogosphere. But it will also make us more aware, more perceptive, and more compassionate people. And that's all to the good.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XXIII

Michele Bachmann is a member of the United States House of Representatives. From 1992 to 1998, she was a foster parent to a total of 23 foster teens.

She was quoted in this article as saying:

It was wonderful, probably the most intellectually rewarding time of my life.

The article went on to quote her as saying:

We are so thankful that we did. We were at least able to be part of the solution.

The madness has got to stop.

The biggest disservice that the foster care system does to everyone involved is to continue the myth that becoming a licensed foster parent is always one of the best, most rewarding, and fulfilling experiences one can enjoy.

It's a myth.

It's garbage.

It's not fulfilling to watch a raging teen destroy her bedroom. It's not intellectually rewarding to take your child from appointment to appointment, only to see her emotional state deteriorate and her problem behaviors increase. There is no joy in being blamed for your child's problems, no matter how much you advocate for her or try your best to do the right thing. There is no reward in doing your best, watching your child implode (or explode) again and again and again, when you know there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

Corey's comment to my post Secondarily Traumatized has stuck with me for the past few days:

And what's more, there is NOTHING we can do about it, and we all KNOW it. We cannot stop the trauma. We cannot heal our children. We cannot get them into residential facilities. We cannot depend on mental health professionals, hospitals, school systems, police, social services, doctors, courts, churches/clergy, family, or friends.. NO ONE.. and we KNOW we can't, because we have all been totally, completely, utterly FAILED by these people. And in many cases, not only FAILED by them, but BLAMED for our children's behaviors and our inability to "fix" them, to protect our other children, and to cope with them ourselves. It is completely unfathomable what we live with, and no one understands except other parents of kids like ours.

So to improve the foster care system, we need to get real about what parents should expect. When we went through PRIDE training back in the Spring of 2006, our trainers didn't really discuss the heavy-duty problems we should expect as foster or potential adoptive parents. Sure, they mentioned the possibility that some of the foster kids in the system could have problems like FASD or Reactive Attachment Disorder, but they led parents to believe that these problems were relatively rare. One training video we saw, showed a cute-as-a-bug African American boy saying that he "hated" his foster parents. The parents responded in a loving way, and the next thing you knew the little boy was snuggling in for hugs. It was the perfect ending to what was a pretty mild behavioral incident.

They don't tell you the truth is that this cute-as-a-bug boy might smear feces on your wall, or this innocent little girl might steal your socks, use them as menstrual pads, and then throw them behind your dresser to find weeks later. They don't explain that your sweet new child might rage for hours, causing injury to himself, household pets, or others.

The ubiquitous "they" make it somewhat difficult to become licensed as foster parents, so that only the determined survive, but not so hard that the majority quit. People are led down a garden path, thinking that they are doing the right thing and will be "helping" children and their families.

I often feel as if I am unable to help my child very much at all.

Now in fairness, in some respects she is much better off than she was five years ago. She's no longer living in a place where she's routinely neglected or abused. She's being sent to school on a regular basis, and she's learned to read and write. She's living with people who, despite everything she's done to them, still care and want what's best for her.

So in those respects, she's better off. If she had stayed where she was, the abuse and neglect would have continued, she probably would never have learned to read, and she would likely have become pregnant long before her 18th birthday.

But I also recognize what she has lost. She has lost her birth family members, whom she loves beyond measure. No caregiver, no matter how much she might grow to love them, can ever compare to the the now-embellished memories of all the good times she had with them. She has forgotten, as we all do, many parts of her painful past, and she remembers only the beautiful parts of her birth family that she wants to remember.

And those memories cause her considerable pain.

I also recognize that in many ways we have failed to help her. We have failed, despite numerous parenting classes, visits to numerous therapists, and pleading with social workers, to find any meaningful, lasting help for her emotional problems. Yes, sending her to boot camp put an end, at least for the time being, to her violence against us, but it didn't solve any of the underlying psychological problems that fueled the violence. Four therapists, a behavioral aide, a psychiatrist, and at least two school psychologists have failed to make a lasting dent in her emotional and psychological problems.

Had we known what was ahead of us, we might have left this very daunting job to someone else. We very well might have said, "this isn't the life for us," and we would have spared ourselves, and possibly even our child, a certain amount of pain.

If our foster parent trainers had been really honest, we might have been scared off, which might have been better for everyone.

I know I have said this before, but I feel the need to say it again. We need to be a lot more honest in the way we train and prepare foster parents. Sure, it might reduce the available supply of gullible families willing to take in troubled children, but I think it would benefit those kids in the long run to have families who really know what they are getting into and are prepared to deal with it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XXII

A couple of weeks ago, one of my readers sent me a link to this article. I've been meaning to write about it ever since, but my absolutely overloaded work schedule prevented me from giving the story the attention it deserved.

Apparently, social workers are now starting to express worry that if they don't do their jobs properly, they might be arrested.

This worry comes, quite legitimately, after a social worker and her supervisor were arrested for negligent homicide in connection with the death of a child that they were supposed to be supervising.

Now I realize that I blogged about this story before in one of my previous Improving the Foster Care System posts, so I might just be beating a dead horse. Now that I've had a chance to think about it, however, I'm not sure that social workers being scared for their personal futures is necessarily a bad thing.

In my earlier post, I wrote:

Now as much as I dislike most social workers, and I despise these two in particular for not doing their jobs, I'm not sure that I agree they should be prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide. It's true they did not do their jobs, but I'm not sure that justice is served by holding them accountable for a death that was caused by the child's grandmother.

Although I still agree that the child's grandmother is primarily responsible, now that I've had a chance to think about it a little more, I'm not sure that prosecuting these workers is entirely a bad thing. Clearly, they didn't do their job, and a kid died as a result.

I've come to the conclusion, after mulling this over for a few weeks, that prosecuting workers in cases like this will probably improve the foster care system, though not for all the reasons you might think. Yes, it certainly will make workers think twice about neglecting their caseloads, and might make them scream a little louder when they need help, which are both important. However, if social workers can be prosecuted for this kind of conduct, it just might open the door for prosecution and perhaps even lawsuits for other kinds of misconduct.

And that, in my mind, can only be a good thing.

In most states, social workers operate under the umbrella of absolute immunity. This means, that with the exception of criminal conduct, social workers are immune from liability for their deeds, even if they were done with bad intentions. If the door is opened, even slightly, so that workers can be punished for their wrongdoings, it will make them all think twice before they make their decisions.

Sure, it will also prompt a lot of ass-covering moves as well, but perhaps, just perhaps, it might make workers wake up to the importance of what they do.

Interestingly enough, SocialWrkr24/7 blogged about this story as well, and she has some interesting things to say:

If I do not do my job – skip homevisits, don’t talk to children privately away from their caregivers, let referrals sit idle on my desk or am dishonest about my actions to my supervisor…

I am being negligent.

If a child dies because I neglected to do the things that could possibly have prevented abuse or neglect…

I will have allowed that death.

But what she says at the end of her post I think is absolutely killer:

I hope that every person who puts in an application...

goes on an interview...

and accepts a job in child welfare...

considers consequences of not doing the job well.

Our children are worth it.

I hope it will one day be so.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XXI

On Wednesday, Cindy over at Big Momma Hollers wrote:

Tony and Scotty had been trading hatefulness for a week now, it blew up while I was gone, a major fistfight ensued, fortunately Yolie had the five older boys there to pull them apart, but Mr P raged on for the remainder of the day. Ever felt your own blood boil?

We had a much worse incident later, one in which I plan to go to juvenile court and file assault charges.

I sat despondently on Lily’s floor, as I was helping her clean her room, so tired of violence and aggression, angrier still at a broken system in which parents like me are expected to live with this level of danger, that we must’ve asked for it by adopting older children. Sucks to be you, Big Mama.

This is a huge problem with the foster care system. Sometimes, it places violent or dangerous children in adoptive homes, and those homes aren't prepared or able to deal with the levels of violence or danger these children create.

Although some might argue that this isn't a problem with the foster care system, but rather a problem with post-adoption support, I argue that this is a problem with the foster care system, because some of these children ultimately find themselves back in care.

If you roam around the foster and adoptive parenting blogs, you'll find a number of families who have had to disrupt or dissolve their adoptions. Some parents, unable to keep their children safe, find themselves on the receiving end of child neglect or abandonment charges, because they can't control their uncontrollable kids. Exactly how do you prevent a child from sexually perpetrating on another child if they are bound and determined to do it? Likewise, how do you prevent a violent child from seriously injuring his sibling?

The truth is, you can't. Sure, you can set up door alarms and keep kids separate and supervised, but if a child is really determined to make trouble, he's going to wait until that one moment, when your back is turned for a second, to make his move.

So to improve the foster care system, we need to improve the supports provided to foster and adoptive parents. Respite care should be widely available and free or low-cost. Mental health services should be easily and quickly accessible. Funding should be available for children to go to residential treatment centers without forcing families to choose between financial ruin or dissolving their adoptions.

But for the most seriously-troubled children, adoption dissolution should be an option. It shouldn't be an easy choice, as we don't want children to be sent back to foster care for trivial reasons, but it should be available just the same. The idea of a forever family is a myth for many of these kids, anyway. If they are violent, mentally ill or dangerous, sometimes their parents find themselves in court facing termination of parental rights.

Parents shouldn't be punished for taking on kids that turn out to be much more troubled than originally thought. I think that most adoptive parents go into the system with the right motives, but sometimes things don't work out. In the cases where the children are violent, criminal and/or mentally ill, there ought to be a way for those children to get the services they need without destroying their new families in the process.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XX

Today's installment in my series Improving the Foster Care System, looks to improve basic safety for foster parents, social workers, and just about everyone involved in the foster care system.

My idea for improvement this week?

Arm social workers.

Every social worker who has contact with foster children, birth parents, the court system or foster parents should be required to carry a sidearm. Each worker should have to pass a monthly recertification test to make sure that his or her shooting skills are up to par.

Why should we do this?

To make sure that workers are safe from dangerous and violent people. If a worker is armed, she can protect herself in all of the most dire circumstances.

But even better, if a child, birth parent or foster parent gets too out of line, she can simply "take care of the problem" herself, using her highly-trained professional judgement. With a sidearm, she literally can serve the role of judge, jury and executioner, and as a society we won't have to worry about all the expense of court hearings and argumentative lawyers slowing down the process.

I predict that allowing social workers to behave like the law men of the old wild west will streamline the foster care system and get things in line very quickly.

* * *

Oh, did anyone happen to notice today's date?

April Fool's Day.