Child Welfare Ideas From the Experts, #7: Parental Contact after Termination

Photo_Jane_FYI2014
Jane Krienke, 24, Foster Youth Intern for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 11 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships. The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today, we highlight the recommendation of Jane Krienke, 24, a recent Truman State University graduate from Kirksville, Mo.

The Proposal

Amend the Adoption and Safe Families Act to give foster youths the power to make decisions about contact with biological families in the instance of an involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR).

This would be accomplished by:

  • Requiring an opportunity for youths to express their wishes in regard to biological family contact during an involuntary TPR hearing.
  • Incorporating those wishes into the permanency plan.
  • A final court order should clearly state a prohibition on contact when requested, and expressly state that the prohibition includes contact via social media.

The Argument

Social media venues such as Facebook and Twitter are still new and uncharted terrain when it comes to child welfare policy. For youths who are adopted or are in foster care, it offers a new point of contact for biological parents seeking to reconnect. Krienke cites a 2012 study out of the United Kingdom that notes a sharp increase in unsolicited contact from biological parents through Facebook.

In some instances, this may be a good thing. A 2011 study of adoptions into non-relative homes found that 39 percent of youths maintained contact with their biological families.

There is also a downside, as reflected in the Donaldson Adoption Institute’s recent Untangling the Web report. One profile included in the report documents an 11-year-old who returned to intensive therapy after her father sought her out on social media.

Federal law, as presently configured, does not require the court to hear and act on the wishes of children in terms of contact with parents whose rights have been terminated. It should be left to the judgment of the youth to make the decision about such contact, Krienke argues.

In Her Own Words

“I was 23 years old when my biological parents contacted me through Facebook. I did not know who they were.

Although I was a senior in college, I was not mentally or emotionally prepared for contact with my biological mother, even if it was only through Facebook. She had taken my public profile picture, printed and then posted a photograph of herself posing with the picture. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

The Chronicle’s Take

An involuntary termination of parental rights should certainly always be a signal of serious concern over the parental influence of a biological parent or parents on a child.

Less certain is the extent to which contact of any sort with those parents would be detrimental. It is entirely possible that a parent shows no signs of capacity to care for the child, but can still be a source of emotional support for him or her.

Krienke’s argument – that this decision should be left to the youth – is completely plausible and really was applicable in the world before social media. All the more important now, as information availability continues to shrink the world.

Two specific thoughts on Krienke’s proposals. First, there would probably have to be an age minimum. Nearly half of all the youths in foster care in 2012 were seven years old or younger, according to federally collected data.

Second, there is an element to this that the federal government cannot control, and that is the enforcement of court orders. A court order prohibiting contact isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if courts and law enforcement are unwilling to back them up.

In many cases, especially ones involving social media, this might involve a police department in one state paying a visit to biological parent at the instruction of a court in another state.

Click here to read Krienke’s entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.

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1 Comment

  1. Foster and adopted youth have to know their real life story at an age appropriate vocabulary. This includes the real reasons the child had to be separated and the problems their parents faced.

    Social media is making foster and adopted children harder to hide and for courts to control or restrict contact till adulthood.

    Sealing birth records, changing children’s names, faking sibling death stories, and false life stories about birth parents do not have the same level of preventing contact or forcing mediated letterbox contact that they once did. Social media bypasses this system entirely.

    When social media contact is made, it is not mediated and identifying information can be shared. Once this has been exchanged online or gets into the child’s long term memory the court or agency managing the foster or adopted child cannot control or take back what has been shared.

    Foster and adopted children and their parents need to know what recourses they have if contact becomes unwanted or abusive and it is made through the Internet. Such options include blocking them, not responding back, closing or changing, your social media profile, changing your email address, phone number, or screen name, getting a restraining order, contacting the support agency to arrange for supervision or counseling (cannot be forced though at this point due to Internet contact being unmediated), moving, and other options. Please note that none of these options will restore full anonymity and secrecy and you will have to evaluate factors such as the level of privacy the child and parents want or need depending on the situation.

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