Who decides when a parent no longer deserves her children? Robin Larimore struggled for years to prove herself a worthy mother when the government thought otherwise. She had voluntarily placed her children in foster care while she extricated herself from an abusive relationship, then faced daunting social barriers while navigating the legal process for reunification in New York City’s child welfare system. “I started parenting and domestic violence classes. I also met my children’s foster mother, and we developed a good relationship,” she recalled in the parent-advocacy journal Rise. But in court, her efforts didn’t seem to matter. “The caseworker said all the bad things that I’d done in six years and none of the good,” she wrote. The system issued a harsh, final judgment: Her kids were eventually adopted.
Larimore went through the system more than a decade ago, but her narrative underscores an institutional legacy of protecting families by severing them. Hundreds of thousands of kids in crisis situations have been removed from families in “their own best interest,” courtesy of our nation’s child welfare system, a sprawling infrastructure of social service agencies and family courts. These children, disproportionately children of color, are deemed to be from dysfunctional, abusive or negligent households. They’re placed in temporary foster care with the aim of transferring them to safer, presumably richer and kinder households. Such intervention can sometimes be critical to protect a child from abuse. Often, though, children’s “best interest” comes at a steep price: What some call tough love is a bruising process — for child and family alike — that can lead to permanent separation.
But the politics of child welfare have gradually shifted, and a focus on prevention appears to have nudged priorities in the social service infrastructure in a promising direction. According to statistics released in September by the research center Child Trends, child welfare spending nationwide has recently dipped. The combined expenditures of child welfare agencies from federal, state and local sources fell 8 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2012 — the first such decline since the survey began in the mid-1990s. There may be many factors driving down spending — and in a period of widespread social service cuts, it may be an odd figure to celebrate. But if sustained, this downturn in spending may have an upside: a growing movement toward a healthier balance between the rights of families and the protection of the state.
The new statistics may reflect an unexpectedly positive change in priorities. Since the 1990s, child welfare agencies nationwide have begun to turn away from child removal (PDF), seeing it as a last resort rather than an efficient social-engineering fix. After decades of forcing parents like Larimore to relinquish their children, cities like New York began investing more in family-centric rehabilitation programs, such as counseling, or working out arrangements to temporarily house a child with a relative to maintain family bonds. In many cases, family-centered approaches cost less than regular foster care (PDF).
Thus the spending decline likely represents, in part, a decrease in the use of foster care. The number of children in the U.S. placed in foster homes has fallen nearly 30 percent, from 567,000 in 1999 to 402,000 in 2012. This is generally a welcome trend. Though many foster homes are caring environments, long-term studies show that after being separated from their original communities, children are prone to suffer other harms — the disruption of constantly switching homes and schools, a sense of abandonment, high risk of mental health problems (PDF) and a lack of access to social services.
Not every child can be 'saved' by the strong arm of the state, nor should every parent struggling with homelessness, domestic violence or drug addiction lose her kids.
Of course, the shift away from foster care placement alone is not driving the spending reduction. According to researchers at Child Trends, “reduced caseloads cannot be the only contributing factor.” In some states, budgets and spending fell while the number of kids in care went up from 2010 to 2012, suggesting that in certain cases, resources for child protection are thinning out. That might mark a negative trend if services are suffering as a consequence or if funding shortfalls leave fewer dollars for alternative forms of care.
But this data point is just a snapshot of a multidimensional social dilemma. Because reducing the need for foster care demands proactive, holistic solutions, social service providers must continue to tackle the long-term question of how to prevent crisis in the first place. That means addressing the systemic problems that drive families into poverty, expose them to violence and cut them off from social services until there’s no choice but to separate a household.
Keeping families and communities intact is an issue of racial justice as well. Advocates for Native American communities have been fighting excessive child removal for decades. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department identified a pattern in some states of “unnecessary and illegal removal of Indian children from their families and their tribal communities,” potentially violating special protections for Native families under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The damage these communities suffer is the fallout of a system that is driven ostensibly by good intentions but is funded and structured in a way that promotes prejudice against and punishment of disadvantaged families. A poor black single mom who just got out of rehab might appear to be a risky parent to a caseworker who doesn’t understand her circumstances. But could it be riskier to force her kid to shuffle through strangers’ homes for years? In poor communities of color, the cold scrutiny of child welfare agencies can make parents feel criminalized and ashamed, potentially creating barriers to the therapy and welfare supports that could prevent separation.
Not every child can be “saved” by the strong arm of the state, nor should every parent struggling with homelessness, domestic violence or drug addiction lose her kids. Child maltreatment typically reflects deeper social ills, such as a paucity of supportive services and institutions (PDF), from mental health care to affordable housing. Studies show, too, that family homelessness and foster care are linked: Many homeless families are forced to separate, and kids who grow up in care are prone to homelessness later. Foster care both reflects and breeds a lifetime of instability and, on balance, may end up doing more harm than good.
A different fix
The empowerment of families starts with a system that cares rather than coerces. Allowing a mom to maintain contact with her child while recovering from the trauma of domestic violence, for example — instead of immediately dismissing her as dysfunctional — can stabilize the household and give the parent a crucial emotional anchor as she heals.
Dismantling a “broken” home isn’t the only way to fix it. Instead, try giving families the compassion, trust and resources that every household deserves. A strong social welfare system should strive to protect children and families from having to pay the price of society’s failures.