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.


  1. I can't speak for LT, but I've been to the point of suffering as an adult for the atrocities that were put against me as a child, and I would rather be alive. Sure, there has been suffering but there has been beauty and I wouldn't want to give that up, even in the lowest moments. I hope that LT feels that way eventually and my kids as well.

  2. Mine says that some days she's just happy to wake up! And she LOVES having good days! When she isn't, she can tell me what went wrong and we can find a way out of it usually before the day ends. Everybody has the worst thing that ever happened to them. We're all depending on the resources within and around us to carry us through. It's our jobs as parents to help our kids have the strength they need to get through the roughest that life has or will throw at them.

  3. My suffering looked very much like L.T.'S when I was in my 20's. I still have scars from my childhood, foster care and the years I was lost, but I am happy, healthy and am a great many things to many people, as is L.T.. I for one am glad that she, your daughter and myself are still here, no matter the value you place on any of us.

  4. I disagree that only a person can measure the value of their own life.

    First off: "It's a Wonderful Life" Watch it again.

    The point being, most people have NO IDEA the impact they have on another....good or bad. What LT had to endure--indeed *is* enduring!--is tragic. But what she's doing to educate others, offer hope to those that come behind her...that's amazing. The world is pretty that we agree. But allowing a life to be blotted out because it would be more humane to do so than to sentence them to a lifetime of pain...that seems like giving up! The system needs work, obviously. Probably a complete overhaul. But as pessimistic as I am, I still think we need the system, even in its broken form.

    Finally, (and I know not everyone buys into this) but I think the value of a person was demonstrated at Calvary. That's MY only source of hope in a dark and dangerous world.

  5. FosterAbba, I don't normally comment on your blog, but I've been reading daily for over a year. I've worked in the child welfare system, and witnessed the awful things the system can do, as well as the wonderful things that people are trying to do to make it better. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we do not, but I haven't been called to comment until today.
    I just want you to know how incredibly messed up it is to make LT the subject of you post. To publicly wonder if a person who is in a fragile mental state would be better off dead is so unimaginably cruel, that I'm surprised you were capable of it. All life has value, FosterAbba. Even life that is full of suffering, because those of us who suffer and survive are the strongest people in the world. So think about that the next time you think about casually musing about whether or not someone might be better off having been murdered in their youth.

  6. I agree with the previous post, the Value of our lives was set at Calvary.

    That aside, I believe that not all foster homes are abusive or neglectful and there are foster parents who do love, care for and teach the children in their coping skills and another way to live aside from addiction or abuse. All systems are broken, CPS included, but the answer is NOT to let children die.

  7. I suppose that many persons who went to bad childhood abuse will suffer problems like disociative identity disorder, self-harm and others in adult lifes.

    Therefore, I do not think you can make foster care responsible for this problem.

    Foster care should improve by:

    1) training foster parents to deal with consequences of abuse

    2) not lying to foster parents about their foster children (I suppose that quite many foster systems keep foster parents uninformed about prior abuse so as to place those children more easily. This is a receipe for disaster).

    3) Keeping a close eye on foster children and eliminating the rotten foster parents from the system immediately

    4) Being more open to foster children about their future, not lying to them

    5) Investing the necessary funds to ensure the children's well-being.

    and many things more

  8. How do you measure the value of a life? In dollars? On a happiness scale? On how much they have done in this world? How?

    LT could have been better off with her bio family? Have you read her blog? She would be dead. Dead is the only time a life no longer has "value." LT is growing every day. In her suffering she is making a difference, making friends and there is no measuring how her spirit, her words or her actions are impacting this world and the people (and animals) in it.

    Sure the system needs improvement but as both a foster parent and psychologist who works with kids who have been through the system I can definitively say that continued exposure to abuse and neglect is worse than living a life where one has to get past its harmful impact. Continued sexual abuse is worse than it being discontinued.

    My foster daughter is better off with me and will be best off if we are fortunate enough to adopt her. If I didn't believe that, if I wasn't sure of it, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing.

  9. Allow me to add that I find it very disturbing that anyone could question whether a person would have been better off left to die a horrific death as a child than given a chance to live.

    People suffer. Not just people who have been in foster care and are then adopted (or not). Euthanize traumatized children via neglect rather than save them is an alternative? You are identifying way too much with you child's suffering and depression.

    Most people choose life despite their pain, disease, disfiguration, amputations, mental illness etc. People choose life. LT has chosen life. She could have chosen death. I am so glad that despite her horrific early life she is choosing each day to live and create her own fate.

  10. those pesky social workers and ethics committees really stuff up a good RCT don't they.


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