“Amanda” lost four of her five children to foster care when she was in her late twenties. They experienced kinship, adoption, and institutional placements. Her parental rights were terminated after 20 months. At the time she shared her story, she was a student; but at the time her children were taken she was recently unemployed from a call center. At the time, she characterized their situation as below poverty/poor, but now it is working class.
Looking back, she says there is nothing she could have done differently to keep her children.
She does not think her children’s best interests were served. “Our middle son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes while in care of the county. Our youngest son was diagnosed with failure to thrive while in care of the county. In relative placement (kinship care), there have been bruises reported, broken bones, staph infections. Our diabetic son was found unconscious on the playground because he had been given too much insulin. Our son with diabetes is now institutionalized and has been placed on psychotropic drugs. Yet still he wants to go home to Mom and Dad.”
She also does not feel the professionals (in the courts or the caseworkers) were on their side or on their children’s. “Our children were just another case to them, as contact was sporadic. They made it obvious that our children were just another number to them. Our children only had CASA present at one hearing. [We had] no experience with the CASA. Our children were very poorly represented and seemed to have little to no rights. Court-appointed family lawyers are paid very little and on the same payroll as the people they are supposed to be fighting against. For everyone that cares, there are two or three more that are jaded or downright dishonest. One social worker out of four seemed concerned with keeping our family together. Our last case worker came into our come, advised us that our case was not a foster care case and then recommended placement in foster care at our next court hearing. My lawyer told me at the beginning of our TPR (termination of parental rights) trial that I had done everything that was asked of me and wouldn’t lose my rights, my husband completed two case plans. We had workers that saw dishes in the sink and remarked that at least that meant that I had fed the kids. We had a home health nurse assigned to us that could have put our diabetic son’s life in danger had I followed his advise. No, there was not much of anyone that we felt was truly on our side. From the experiences I’ve had, social workers are overworked. They have so many cases to handle from unnecessary removals that they don’t have time to treat the families as actual people. The ones who do are rare to be found. There are good foster parents and caring workers, but money is what makes the whole system go round.”
When asked what else could have been done to prevent their children from being taken, Amanda said, “We received more assistance from outside sources than DFS/CPS ever provided us. They offered little actual help and what help they did offer took a lot of time to receive. At one hearing the judge had told DFS to pay for us to move into an apartment and our lawyer had to threaten them to hold them in contempt of court for the payment to be made.”
“The children were placed together with family, but now our son has been in an institution for who knows how long and can no longer be cared for by his aunt. He is very much wanted by both of his parents, and wants to go home. He begged and pleaded with us when he was first placed in care shortly before being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, that he promised he would be good if we would just take him home. My children’s aunt has changed their names; she is “Mom” to them. She claims that she would not withhold when the children are old enough to make their own decisions, but their minds have been brainwashed by lies. I am thankful that they are with family, or four-fifths of our children anyway, but heartsick over not knowing where my son is and knowing that he placed on drugs.”
“I believe that many whose children have been in the system have similar experiences. The wrong children are being removed. The whole system is overloaded and the children that need the real protection are still quite often not getting it, or getting abused for the first time, or much worse, while in the system. Very little [works well in the foster care system]. Families need more frontline services and less cookie-cutter services. Taking a child away and especially terminating a parent’s parental rights should be a last resort. You’re severing a tie to a child’s history and for loving parents. It feels like the death penalty. Even children born to mothers with drug problems have been shown to fare better in the care of a mother who receives help than in foster care. Removing a child from the people they know and love and placing them in the care of strangers is a traumatic event from which some children never recover.”
The purpose of the foster care system is “to protect children. But all in all, it is failing miserably.”
Although there are several prevalent themes in Amanda’s narrative, I’m going to focus on two things she addresses.
First, it sounds like medical neglect was an issue in their case with their one son, particularly. I’m going to make some assumptions about their case, filling in some blanks. When you are living in poverty, consistent and quality medical care are difficult to get. Even with programs like Medicaid, it is problematic. For example, you may not have reliable transportation to DHS appointments to maintain or apply for programs, or to get to doctor’s appointments. Missed appointment fees can be weighty. And since doctor’s rarely have after-work hours, time off from work, or job hunting is also required. In any case, it is safe assume that one child was diabetic and another was diagnosed with failure to thrive. Amanda does not sound like the kind of person who willfully neglected her children’s health. In fact, her responses are intelligent, organized, and thoughtful. I think we can safely conclude that there were extenuating circumstances that led to the poverty-related neglect of her children. So, in a case where money problems are the heart of neglect allegations (or actual neglect), should the state help connect the family with resources that keep the family intact or remove the children to prevent additional neglect? Considering that they successfully jumped through the hoops that the court demanded of them, termination of parental rights probably came down to one of two reasons: One is that Amanda failed to mention a physical or sexual abuse that took place, or an ongoing drug addiction that the court suspected would not be overcome any time soon. A case of gross physical or sexual abuse is unlikely because it took a full 20 months to terminate rights. In an egregious case, it takes less time to terminate. But a possible ongoing addiction, perhaps her husband’s, is possible. The court system often works with parents over marijuana, and sometimes even cocaine, charges and abuse, but has less patience with heroine or methamphetamines—which are so difficult to overcome that the court tends to be skeptical of recovery. A second probable reason for termination of parental rights was that the judge believed that no matter how many programs they completed, or how much they improved their living circumstances, Amanda and her husband simply did not, and would not any-time-soon, have the resources to improve their living conditions to the point that five children, some with health problems, could be adequately cared for.
Now, in both of these scenarios, I want to ask the question: should a parent be able to later sue for parental rights back if they can prove they have gotten their lives together in a way that they can establish a reasonable ability to care for their children?
The answer may be a conditional yes. If the reason for termination was poverty-related or drug related, and all obstacles are overcome, why shouldn’t a parent be able to raise their children again? Particularly if the children are still in foster care! Currently, termination of parental rights is that: termination. It is permanent. Parents have less than two years to make miracles happen against uneven bureaucratic odds, and even when they manage to comply, sometimes it is insufficient. Certainly the children, over a certain age, should have a say too—to either stay in care or return home to a parent “suing” to have rights returned. It is clear why in a clear case of sexual abuse, for example, termination of rights should be quick and irreversible.
Only in family court are the defendants guilty until proven innocent. Only in family court is it on the onus of the defendants (the parents) to prove they are competent parents, rather than unqualified or criminal ones. It is like this to protect the children. But is it fair? Many would argue it not fair to parents, but necessary in order to put child safety first. (I’m not taking sides on this argument; just presenting them.)
And this offers a nice segue to the second thing I really wanted to discuss in Amanda’s narrative—her suggestion that a child can be better off with a stabilized parent who once had (drug) problems, than they are in foster care. I don’t know what report or study or anecdotal evidence Amanda was referring to when she wrote, “Even children born to mothers with drug problems have been shown to fare better in the care of a mother who receives help than in foster care.” Nonetheless, she could be correct.
Children who stay in foster care for a long time tend to have really poor “outcomes” as they transition into adulthood. What does that mean? Think of “outcomes” as pathways to success. Youth who stay in care a long time and age-out tend to have low educational outcomes. They often perform much below their peers educationally. This is in part because they move so much they fall behind more and more in school with every move. This is a well-documented problem. Adding to this issue may be learning disabilities or other problems that need consistent treatment, but is not received. Fostered youths get G.E.D.s or fail to graduate at all at higher rates than other children in the same socioeconomic brackets as their families. Because of this, they struggle finding jobs and going on to college. Rates of homelessness and significantly high for fostered youth. Additionally, teen pregnancy is more common. Although exact number vary from study to study, large portions (some suggest more than half) of adult homeless populations were once in foster care. These are generalizations. Now, if we compare the more typical outcome for children who stay in foster care long-term and we compare it to outcome measures for children who were in foster care, but then were reunited with their families, what would we find? What about compared to parents who overcame significant obstacles, like addiction, but whose children were never in foster care? (Recall that Amanda does not suggest they are best off in a home with a parent who continues to struggle with addiction.) The answer: we don’t know. There are very studies looking at outcomes for children after reunification. Of those that do exist, they suggest worse outcomes after reunification if measured by criminal activity, school grades, and rates of graduation. (In other words, fostered youths may get a G.E.D. more often, but they drop out less than peers.) But the scarcity of reunification studies makes it difficult to know.
Here’s what we do know: leaving children in unsafe conditions is not an answer. Long-term foster care is not answer. Adoption is more complicated than we thought in the past. The policy shift toward adoption took fiscal resources away from family supports, potentially reducing reunifications. Is it viable to measure the success or failure of foster care or reunification through yardsticks like pregnancy and homelessness; are measures like overall health or well-being more telling? This study cannot offer answers to these specific questions—it wasn’t designed to. More research is needed.