Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Birth Parent Bias?

I knew posting about Permanency Quotas was likely to cause some concern. I was a little surprised though that people were concerned that the quotas would cause caseworkers to have bias towards returning children home. At first I was surprised because I thought I had made it pretty clear that I was not even aware of these quotas as a caseworker - its purely an administrative issue. But as I thought about it longer, there was another reason that I was surprised -

Because caseworkers SHOULD have a bias towards returning children home.

That is the POINT of the system.

I'm going to say something that is not going to win me any fans. But it needs to be said. The goal of foster care is not to secure the absolute best living environment for child. The point of the child welfare system is not to help every child achieve their full potential. If this was the case, then every child should be in foster care. Babies could be discharged straight from the hospital into the system and social workers could get to work making sure they have the best life can offer - the most invested parents, educational liasons, a team of professionals that would have to agree on every major life decision and an agency to enforce the absolute best evidence-based parenting techniques. Why wouldn't we want every child on the planet to be part of a system where their best interests are served?

I'm not trying to be ridiculous, but there is a reason we don't send babies home with just any parent at the hospital. The reason is that biological ties are important, parents and children are not interchangeable. I'm afraid that these realities have become watered down and my people truly don't understand the point of child welfare because of the wealth of commercials that advertise adoption from foster care.

Commercials like this one:

I agree - "you don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent" - so why don't people give biological parents the same benefit of the doubt? Why wouldn't we give them every oppurtunity to parent their child? Why wouldn't we pull out all the stops to give a child the chance to be parented by their biological parent?

A few weeks ago I recieved an email that questioned this practice.

I don't understand the social service bias toward the bio parent. It seems to put the needs of the bio-parent ahead of the needs of the child. I understand that the state can't come in and snatch children away from their biological parents just because a middle-class couple would provide a "better" home. If parents can manage to care for their kids one way or the other, they get to raise their kids. When they fail to meet those very basic needs and the state DOES remove the child, at that point, shouldn't the game change? At that point, shouldn't the welfare of the child assume primacy?

Is it fair to the parents, who have never gotten a fair shake? No, no, no. But why should the occasion of their abuse be the occasion of their first shot at getting a fair shake? It seems a blatant sacrifice of the child's needs in favor of the parents'. Each case must be evaluated on its merits. I guess I don't understand why the real time developments in a child's emotional life were subordinated to meet a bio mom's needs for more time to meet a minimum standard.

[A child doesn't] stand still while her mom works on getting it together, but the child welfare system behaves as it a "pause" button was pressed. For a one-, two-, three-, four-, or five-year-old, that is such a disservice. Disservice doesn't begin to describe it.
The reason is because babies are born biologically attached to their parents. The bias towards children returning to their birth parents is based on the belief that it IS in child's best interests to be with their biological family.

Those who disagree generally operate under the belief that children will be "better off" with their foster families. This belief is usually strongest when they are referring to a child who was removed from their parent in infancy and is about to be returned in their toddler years. "But he/she is already bonded to their foster parent, its the only parent they've ever known!" is usually the argument.

I'm not going to argue that this isn't true.

Of course it is.

However, this isn't the only circumstance where reunification is considered. The variables in child welfare are immeasurable. And the system has attempted to come up with a criteria for how to decide when children should return home and when they should remain in foster care and work towards another permanency option.

Have the parents addressed the issues that brought their kids into care?

Can they provide basic food, clothing and shelter?
These are the questions that we focus on when deciding if a reunification is possible.

But many people have questioned how I do this in good conscience. How do I recommend that a child leave a perfectly stable and healthy foster placement and return home to their usually shaky-at-best biological family. How can I overlook the effects of "nuture" in favor of the "natural" family.

I have three responses:

1. Children who have formed secure attachments in infancy and early childhood are generally able to transfer that attachment with little to no long-term effects. The possibility of a child developing an Attachment Disorder, especially RAD, is often used as a reason not to return a child home. However, this minimizes the fact that the child's first disrupted attachment was when they were removed from their biological parent.  There are exceptions to every rule. I have advocated for a child to remain with their foster family, even when a parent has completed all their services, based on a child's special needs - including attachement issues. But for the most part, if the case has been handled well and visitation has been consistent between parents and children, the child should transition home without long lasting trauma. The likelihood of a child being removed from their parent in infancy/toddlerhood, spending 12-18months in a stable foster placement, and then returning to their family of origin is really a "best case scenario" for a child.  The alternative is actually my second point...

2. People often act as if there are only two possible outcomes for foster care - a) child returns home or b) child stays with loving foster family. But in reality there are not enough loving foster families to meet the demand of children in foster care. Heck, their are thousands of children (legally free for adoption) in foster care that we can not find homes for in Amercia! We work hard to return a child home in large part due to very real risk that they will otherwise end up growing up in foster care. In and out of multiple placements, at a much higher risk of being abused again, developing mental health issues, ending up homeless or incarcerated. Not that all risk is escaped by reunification, I'm not that idealistic. But if an older child has already had multiple placements (5+) than their biological parent is likely the only familiar face in a sea of past "parents". We see teenagers "return themselves home" on a regular basis - even when they've lived with their foster parents for years. This is a testement to the prevailing desire of children to be with their first families. It also leads me to my last point...

2. Children will not be children forever. It is hard for most people to look at the big picture when there is a vulnerable young child in the middle of it all. But children are not little forever. They will grow up to have adult feelings and adult perspectives. I truly believe that few adults look back at their childhoods and wish they had been raised by other parents. They may wish their parents had done things differently, that they'd been better understood, or that certain situations had not happened. But at the end of the day, I'd rather an adult look back at their childhood and  know that their parents fought for them and then maybe still didn't do things perfectly - rather than look back and wonder why their parents didn't fight at all or why someone didn't give them a second chance to be together.

Figuring out what is in the "best interests" of a child is a terribly complex issue, with high risks for all involved. That is partly why it is better to look at the less subjective issue of whether or not the parents have done what they have needed to achieve reunification.

This is much more black/white than what would commence if we let bio parents and foster parents duke it out over who can provide the child with the life he/she "deserves". I would rather leave the the dirty mudslinging and parental alienation to Domestic Relations court. If there is one thing I think we can all agree on - its that the general population of parents is not good at "sharing" children.

It may not be perfect, but I don't know anyone who had a perfect childhood. Children are entitled to having every chance to be raised in their family of origin. Parents have the right to be given the supports needed to raise their children. Everyone deserves a second chance.

And that is why I have a Birth Parent Bias.


  1. Awesome post!!!

    I agree completely with everything you say. The only downside to all of this is the incredibly slow speed at which "the system" moves.

    As a foster mom, I am currently caring for a severely mentally retarded little girl that has epilepsy. In MY opinion, she needs to be home now. She misses her mommy. Her mom misses her. From all that I can tell, Mom has done everything in her case plan. But, Pumpkin remains in care while we continue to wait and see if Mom is going to screw up again. The waiting processes is so long and I'm not convinced that it's making any kind of a difference.

    I believe it is possible to always take the child's needs first. Because, in many many cases, what they need MOST is their FIRST family.

  2. In the situations you've described, I can live with what you call a birth parent bias from the social workers.

    An older child who wants to return home or for whom home is really the best choice (consistency, no worse than foster care) a toddler who hasn't had a chance to be with his bio-parents (and I was the pre-adoptive foster parent in that situation who had to say good-bye) should get the opportunity to succeed in that setting.

    But I have another situation I object to- one I object to strongly enough that I chose not to participate in it. That is what I see as the serial bounce. It seems to me (and I'm telling our story from my perspective) that when the bio-family has tried three or more times to parent, and the child keeps being returned to foster-care and there is a foster-parent who has an on-going relationship with the child and who wants to adopt (and, in our case, has already adopted the older sister) I really don't understand why the bio-family keeps getting more chances.

    I want the social workers to say, look, you've tried, you've fought, and that's worthy, but this is a foster family who has proven their commitment to maintaining contact with you and your extended family, and you've proven your inability to parent over time (the longest successful stretch was ten months) so, NOW we're going to switch to best interest of the child and put him in a permanent home.

    The fourth time the child entered foster care, we refused to be a placement. I am eaten up with guilt about it, but I believe we were teaching him that we (foster parents) couldn't protect him (we had to keep sending him back to a dangerous situation) and that we were hurting our permanent children who wanted their brother to stay.

    We finally said, clear him for adoption, and we'll adopt, but we can't participate in the foster-care shuffle any more. We also said if he forms an attachment to his new foster home and they want to adopt if/when he's cleared for adoption, we won't interfere, although we hope they will allow sibling visits.

    In sum, it's complicated, and being a foster parent in a way that I'm considering my ethical position as a participant in a complicated and multi-faceted situation is hard. I spend a lot of time thinking about what these decisions will look like in hindsight.

  3. The quota should be 100% of the cases services are ordered in. Anything less is anti-birth parent bias.

  4. Agree with most of this - it's so complex though that it feels like a quota system without acknowledging those complexities would be dangerous. Some children just can't go home (cases of sadistic/severe abuse). They shouldn't even be included in the quota system. The rest - sure, as long as it's an honest system. In other words, caseworkers doing a really, really good job get parents services and resources they need so that it's safe to go home. That's the goal! Gotta get points for that. At the same time, gotta track re-removals if you're gonna reward an agency for returns. The re-removal should negate the bonus points for returns.

  5. Joanna- I currently agree, at some point the back and forth has got to stop. Children need permanency. I do not advocate for children to bounce in and out of the system anymore than I advocate for them to bounce around IN the system.

  6. To the anonymous who commented about quotas-

    An "all or nothing" approach would be unrealistic. As with most things in life, some will make it and some will not. All cases start out with a reunification goal. By federal law, parents have a MINIMUM of nine months to make progress. Agencies are required by law to provide and pay for services for at least nine months. Every parent has a chance.

  7. I think you tackled a tough topic really well, and while I was nodding through most of it, it is still hard to swallow. As much as I am "supporting" a return home because, as I have been told multiple times, there is no "safety risk", it is very hard knowing they will be going home to someone who has never acknowledged she has done anything wrong. While I don't necessarily think they will enter the system again, I am unsure she is capable of much more than "minimal parenting" which is "the" standard for reunification. So, while your words speak truth, they are still REALLY hard to read from this side. I suppose, when I catch myself thinking that she doesn't "deserve" them, I remind myself of everything in my life that I have, but don't "deserve"...and pray that these months together will be enough...

  8. I'm commenting from a similar, yet different, situation. My daughter, whom I raised as a single mother for ten years, was kidnapped by her birth father last year, and within three months the judge awarded him full custody because by kidnapping her he was "showing responsibility".

    I want so much for my daughter to be returned to the only home she's ever known. There were no charges of gross abuse or neglect, or of any such thing, and while her father refused to acknowledge her for the first six years of her life and until last year only saw her two days out of the year, it was determined that she should live with him, 3,000 miles away from home.

    But the fact remains that he poses no real danger to her. He has a large amount of family where she is who love her dearly (and who keep a close eye on she and him), she attends an excellent school, and has a great deal of friends.

    People think I'm out of my mind when I make those points and when I voice that it's best that she not be tossed back and forth. Her absence torments me every minute of every day, but my concern is for what will be best for her, not for ending my personal heartache.

    So, I wanted to thank you for writing this. While, again, the situation is different, it served as a good reminder to me that my daughter needs what is truly best for her, and not just what will make *me* happy.

  9. There absolutely should be a bias toward the child's parents. You're absolutely right.

  10. Well said. Well said. WELL SAID!
    I have often argued the very same points. AND I WAS A FOSTER PARENT! I wish more foster parents "got it." I love what you said here:

    "...caseworkers SHOULD have a bias towards returning children home.

    That is the POINT of the system."

    I have made that very same statement my self.

  11. Amen! I absolutely agree with you. And while sometimes, as foster parents, these are hard things to remember, it doesn't change the truth!

  12. Well said, well said, the unfortunate part is how many of these parents are given EVERY opportunity and still aren't able to make the positive permanent changes that need to be made. Then they move and get a new case worker and that case worker wants to "start over" causing the child to linger even longer. It's very simple IMO, either the parents do or do not do what they need to do and that determines the outcome for their child. My frustration comes from workers who turn a blind eye because it's easier to send a child home than to terminate their rights. That's when the bouncing starts. I have to applaud how well you tackle some really tough CPS topics. I've missed reading your blog :) Babs <3


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