“Alex” declined to share a lot of contextualizing information, but said some poignant things as a father who had both his children placed in a kinship/guardianship foster placement. At the time he shared, it had only been five months since his children had been placed in care. His parental rights have not been terminated. He is currently an unemployed skilled laborer. In response to the question, What could you have done differently to keep custody of your children? He replied, “Have money.” This important point underscores his experience. “Only if I was rich could I have been able to do something.” He believes this is a common experience for other parents whose children were taken by the state. The “majority have not been heard and are in similar financial situations as mine. We all feel like our kids were kidnapped.”
“I feel like my kids were kidnapped and I had a voice with no sound.” His children were silenced too. When asked if the professionals who have interacted with his children were acting on the best interest of his children, he answered similarly: They were not on his children’s side because if they had been “they would’ve taken what I had to say into consideration and that did not happen.” He doesn’t think having his children placed with his relatives was in the kids’ best interest. Alex was asked what things could have been done by the state and were not that might have changed the outcome of his experience. He said that the state did not evaluate him or the other parent involved. His experience with the state has led to the belief that the system is merely a “way to gain revenue” and that above it all it is corrupt and dishonest. “The state’s word will always ring louder and judges, lawyers and people like that will be swayed by their word.”
His children were placed in the system when he was charged with a crime. (He does not share the nature of the crime or how long he was jailed, or if the case was dismissed.) Originally, DHS placed his kids with his father. As soon as he was out of jail (it must have been a short term if his kids have only been in the system five months total so far—probably less than 90 days), he went to DHS and told them his father was abusive. They removed the children and placed them with one of his wife’s relatives. He added that he has had no social supports, “everyone that would support me is dead.” He has mixed feelings about the family caring for his children. He is “grateful but angry. They tried to step in my place and I will always be my children’s parent.”
Overall, he doesn’t believe the system works. He believes the purpose of foster care is to “remove and protect children from abuse and neglect, though it is not working.” He had no examples of what works well. But he thinks one of the things most broken is anonymous reporting. “The anonymous report abuse line is my main issue or thing I would to see changed. People that don’t like me have made false claims about abuse to damage my family. It is a wound that will not heal.” At this point, his story leaves off at this unsettling place, “They have no evidence of abuse or neglect. Now my two children are being pulled in 10 directions by people that think they know best for my kids. That’s my job, not theirs. I’m trying to get my children back. The state has kidnapped my kids due to false claims by people that don’t like me and the state is bullshit.”
Alex’s experience has at its core the common themes of a foster care story. It sounds like his wife is either no longer around or was not a competent choice to parent the children, so let’s work with that assumption, even though it may not be wholly accurate. Alex does not say whether he was guilty of the crime that he was jailed for. If he was not found guilty, and the only problem is financial, the state is obliged to work with him while he creates a more stable environment for his kids (e.g. help him find work, or get disability, or other social supports that will enable his own care of his children). If Alex’s home and care was not neglectful, but based solely in financial need, his children ought to have been returned already and he is correct to feel wronged. Probably the court is demanding he find work or make other arrangements to meet the financial needs of the kids before they return custody, whether the original cause of removal turned out to be just or not. Now let’s suppose Alex was guilty of the crime-with-the-short-sentence, shouldn’t his children be returned immediately if that was the only reason they were removed?
I would like to raise an issue that is rarely tackled head-on and could be at the core of Alex’s family case. Let’s say that the current caretaker of Alex’s kids, his sister-in-law, is middle class, has a bigger and nicer home than Alex’s, that she and her spouse have stable and better paying jobs with low prospect for unemployment. Alex, on the other hand, is a skilled laborer—working class—who is currently unemployed in a volatile job market for skilled labor work, and just did a short stay in jail. But let’s also assume that Alex did absolutely nothing wrong and his children should never have been removed in the first place—if no one had made these false accusations the state would never have been involved in their lives. Should the court be allowed to decide that the sister-in-law’s home is better for the kids based strictly on the financial burden? Or should the state have to return the kids to their dad, who never should have lost custody in the first place, whether the sister-in-law can provide nicer things for the kids or not? Is what is in the best interest of the kids either 1) their dad or 2) a nice home and material security? At the heart of this question is how you determine the meaning of the phrase “best interest of kids” means.
Remember – these aren’t actually the particulars of Alex’s case as we know them. I’m just using his story as a jumping off point to bring attention to how policies are interpreted and implemented. I have an opinion, naturally, but I am not sharing it. (At least not yet.) Rather I am asking you, reader, to weigh the importance of these questions. Consider the physical, emotional, and mental welfare of the children. Consider the rights of the children and of the parent(s). Consider the position of the sister-in-law. What would you do? What are the permanent impacts to the other parties involved for that decision? How do you justify those impacts?