“Marissa” was in her mid-twenties when one of her three children was placed in foster care. (She did not explain why only one of the three went into foster care.) At the time her child was taken, she characterized their living conditions as “below poverty/poor” but since then her income has increased. Her story is very disturbing and although she believed that other families’ experiences are like hers, it is important to note that the number of foster families who abuse or neglect children is extremely low (I will discuss the statistics in the Insights section below).
Looking back, she would have refused the CPS workers without a warrant, and that her child going into foster care was not in their best interest. “My child was forcibly removed with no grounds and without a warrant in the middle of the night. I was never convicted of anything and there was never sufficient evidence. I still do not have my child back despite completing all court orders, graduating from parenting class, and passing a mental health exams and drug test. Basically they have no grounds for keeping my child but continue to do so because it is a system governed by very few rules and regulations.”
She does not believe that the social workers, legal personnel, and experts she interacted with were there to help her. “I have been bounced around between numerous case workers – one was eventually removed for hostility and alleged assault on me, and another was removed for placing my son with a foster ‘mother’ that was arrested for being drunk in public and resisting arrest, and was found to be on numerous medications for mental disorders, and my son routinely showed up with large bruises and injuries. I had caseworkers that falsified evidence and blatantly lied in court.” She also does not believe the professionals they interacted with had her child’s best interest in mind. “The caseworkers repeatedly put my child in harm’s way and didn’t ever put his best interest first. And because I couldn’t afford a lawyer, I and my child consistently fell through the cracks and could never receive help.” Her court-appointed lawyer quit her case “halfway through because of allegations that she was feeding information to the social workers and misrepresenting me in court.” While in foster care, “My child received multiple injuries while in foster care and was placed with a woman who was arrested WHILE she had my child and was found to be mentally unstable and on antidepressants.” Her overall feelings toward foster families are (understandably) negative as a result.
Marissa went on to describe her beliefs resulting from her court experience. “I believe they are in the pocket of the system and that they are poorly regulated and that the biological family has no chance to have a voice. I was never even allowed to speak in court and my attorney was a court-appointed one who refused to fight for my rights and the best interest of my son and would only follow the directions of the social workers.” Marissa thinks that other foster families probably have “very similar experiences.” So discouraged, when asked what she thought the purpose of the foster care system is, she responded, “I honestly don’t know anymore.”
She summarized her experience like this, “I have been fighting for my son for almost 3 years. With no evidence, no warrant, and no grounds, they were able to forcefully remove my son and keep him—placing him in a home with a criminal and allowing abuse to go unreported. I was never able to afford a lawyer and court-appointed one was corrupt and quit midway through the process. I have never been allowed to speak in court and was forced to move in order to protect my other children.”
Marissa’s story is very disturbing and offers a clear example of what parents mean when they accuse the system of corruption.
What are the numbers for foster families who abuse or neglect children in their care? According to the 2011 Child Maltreatment report (Children’s Bureau/ACYF), based on NCANDS (National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System), 80.8% of national child abuse and neglect perpetrators (where a determination of abuse or neglect was confirmed) were parents, 4.4 % were partners of parents. The remaining 14.8% of non-parental perpetrators are designated as other relative (5.9%), “other” (4.5%), “unknown” (2.9%), daycare providers (0.4%), friend or neighbor (0.3%), legal guardian (0.3%), foster parent (0.3%), other professional (0.1%), and residential facility staff (0.1%). Adding together residential treatment staff and foster parents accounts for only 0.4 percent of all confirmed cases. Even if this number were vastly underreporting, it would easily be less than 1-2% of all cases. But, so as not to deflate the number of real children represented by these statistics, 0.4 percent of all those 873,397 children is at least 3,825 children that were neglected or abused in their foster home, group home, or residential treatment facility. That number should scare us.
Additionally, it is important to remember that, especially with toddlers, bumps and bruises are normal. Parents, who often report feeling helpless against the system, often use whatever proof they can find to show that they are better caretakers than the foster families who have custody. And while I am not suggesting Marissa did this, some kin resort to using the bumps and bruises normal to playful and exploring children, and things like diaper rashes or runny noses, as “evidence” of foster parents’ wrongdoing. While I cannot condone lying to try and get custody of the child back, it does say something about the desperation and lack of power that kin feel as subjects of the system. The foster parents of the same child will tell the social worker that the diaper rash occurred while the child was spending time with the kin or report that clothes and child come back soiled from visits. This leaves social workers in a he-said-she-said situation, where the truth is impossible to determine. Nonetheless, they are more likely to “side” with the foster family – who they have trained and have a relationship with, rather than the parent who they are skeptical of. The lack of objectivity is problematic. Most states require foster parents to report significant bumps, cuts, or bruises, and any injury requiring a doctor visit is cause of a full investigation that can take weeks.
Marissa also believes, as a result of her experiences, that there are a lack of rules and regulations governing social workers and foster parents. Social workers are required to have several years of education, often a master’s degree. (They are also not paid for their level of education in comparison to other careers.) They also have to maintain annual trainings and licensures in most states. Foster parents are required to have extensive background checks, often FBI conducted, fingerprinting, medical exams, mental health exams, and home inspections (and pop inspections), for all members of the family. Marissa’s experiences have led her to believe that the workers don’t know what they are doing and are poorly regulated. More probably the root of the problem is systemic mismanagement and lack of workers. For example, a probable reason the foster mother was able to continue fostering under highly suspect conditions is that caseworkers were probably not conducting the routine check-ups they are required to do. The reason these check-ups fall through cracks is their overburdened workload. The reason they are overworked is because the system is underfunded. I am not making excuses for egregious behavior by the workers in her case, including the foster family. Rather, many foster parents say that CPS doesn’t come as often as they are supposed to. Clearly, her lawyer should not have been colluding with the caseworkers. This is obvious misconduct. Her court-appointed lawyer’s job was to serve her interests.