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.
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.
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.