When Foster Care Overrides Common Sense

Last month I wrote a column called “Why the ‘Foster-Care-at-All-Costs’ Crowd Will Never Surrender Their Horror Stories.” I offered those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare a deal: a mutual moratorium on the use of horror stories to make our points.

But I also said those favoring foster care at all costs would never take the deal. Because with all the studies and data showing that family preservation is the safer option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time, they can’t afford to give up broad-crush condemnation of family preservation based on horror stories. The horror stories are all they’ve got.

So thank you, Marie Cohen, for proving my point. Cohen’s latest attack on family preservation is based entirely on a horror story. In this case, though, I don’t need one of my own in order to respond. Instead, I’ll use the same story Cohen uses.

Because this time Cohen tries to argue that a case in which a child was removed from her parents, placed in foster care, adopted by the foster parent and then allegedly severely abused by the foster/adoptive mother somehow is an example of “family preservation at all costs.”  She bases this on the fact that after the child, Maliyia Knapp, 17, escaped from her abusive adoptive home, a judge left her siblings with the adoptive parents.

If the allegations are true, it is indeed a horror story. But it’s a horror story that’s more about the blinders people in child welfare put on concerning foster care and adoption than about family preservation.

A “Spate” of Horror Stories – All Involving Adoptions From Foster Care

Cohen neglected to mention that this actually is the third Iowa horror story to come to light in recent months, all of them involving children adopted from foster care. When birth parents are accused, this is almost always referred to as a “spate” or “series” that “raises questions” about family preservation. So, again, in the absence of a mutual moratorium, the same rules should apply.

Here are some other things Cohen neglected to mention:

  • Iowa takes away children at one of the highest rates in America, far above the national average and vastly above states that are national models for keeping children safe by emphasizing family preservation. (By now we all know which ones, right? but for the record, here’s that New York Times story about one of them again.)
  • Maliyia Knapp says she and her siblings were taken from their parents because of “drug problems.” That covers a lot of possibilities. But surely, if Iowa really is fanatical about “family preservation at all costs,” the state child welfare agency wouldn’t have cared about the drug abuse. In fact, child welfare agencies should care. But the better approach in most such cases is neither doing nothing nor rushing to consign the children to foster care – it’s drug treatment.
  • The same story from which Cohen quotes selectively reported that as soon as the children were taken away, paternal grandparents say they came forward and spent thousands of dollars trying to gain custody. They were turned down. That doesn’t sound like family preservation at all costs. It sounds like a state where the hostility to families extends to extended families. That is contrary to the mass of research, including this study and this one and the studies summarized here and here, finding that kinship care is typically safer than what should properly be called stranger care.
  • As far as we know, abuse in adoptive homes is rare – as is abuse in birth parent homes. But abuse in foster care is not rare. And the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions – Cohen’s favorite options – is worst of all.

But here’s what all forms of substitute care have in common: The more you overload the system with false allegations, trivial cases, cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect and other cases where children never needed to be taken from their parents, the greater the temptation to lower standards and ignore signs of abuse in substitute care.

The same overloading of the system leads to pressure to rush through adoptions. And in those cases there’s also a financial incentive: a bounty of $4,000 to $12,000 for every finalized adoption over a baseline number. If an adoption goes horribly wrong, the state does not have to give back the money.

In fact, they can place the same children again and collect another bounty for each. That may contribute to a bigger problem than abuse in adoptive homes; adoptions that fail.

For all of these reasons, it is Iowa’s take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare that truly makes children less safe.  Failing to recognize that is the worst horror of all.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

1 Comment

  1. They used the the family preservation theory in the Barahona case here in Florida as well; even though they were adopted by their foster family while an aunt and uncle in Texas were trying to get placement.

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