How do children end up in foster care?
One commonly held view is that it they end up there because of abusive, neglectful, or otherwise unworthy biological parents. This is an ideological framework that many people find comforting because it fits with their sense of justice. The failure is seen as a personal, individual failure on the part of flawed parents, who, rightfully, lose their rights. Children in care are perceived as moving from unworthy biological parents to replacement caregivers who are both more capable and more deserving. Children are understood to be benefactors of a benign or even humanitarian system.
My own impression--formed through reading and experience, including multiple conversations (online and off) with social workers, biological parents, foster and foster-adoptive parents, and foster alumni--is that the reality is a more complex.
I want to emphasize that I am not giving a pass to abusive parents, biological or otherwise. I am not denying that there are, at times, very real and urgent reasons for children to be removed from unsafe environments. I am not saying that we should throw up our hands and walk away. If even one child has ended up in the system as a result of biological parent abuse, that is one child too many. Child-abuse is always a serious issue, and I am not in any way, shape, or form implying otherwise.
But I also think it's a mistake to assume that abuse of children by biological family members is the the only reason that children end up in foster care, when in reality the reasons are many and complex. Yes, some children do end up in care as a result of abusive or incompetent biological parents. Others end up there because of the actions of a step-parent or live-in partner of the biological parent (even when the non-abusive parent is herself a victim). Other factors include discriminatory practices in society or within the child welfare system and separation of families as a result of immigration laws. And then there are those parents who are unable to provide sufficient food or adequate housing--in other words, parents in poverty:
The single most common factor in families whose children are placed in foster care is not cruelty or rage or sexual perversion; it is poverty. In 2012, about 16 million children in the U.S. lived below the poverty line. Child abuse and neglect occur across all racial, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural lines, yet most children who enter foster care are from impoverished homes. -- Deb Stone, U.S. FOSTER CARE: A FLAWED SOLUTION THAT LEADS TO MORE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS?, May 12 2014Why does all of this matter?
As I see it, it matters because the framework we start from dictates the kind of response we create. The framework that currently dominates has lead to a system that is both punitive to parents and ineffective at helping children. What would happen if we started seeing family breakdowns as societal failures rather than individual ones?
I have various ideas, and I'll be talking more about my social-change wish list in future posts, but I'd also love to hear from you. What's your vision for creating a more humane child-welfare system?
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