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.