I appreciate the opportunity to debate child welfare finance with Sean Hughes in the Chronicle. But I am disappointed that in his introduction to the latest installment, Daniel Heimpel chose to repeat what I view as The Big Lie of American child welfare – the idea that child protection and family preservation are at odds.
In his discussion of our columns on the foster care “entitlement” under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, Heimpel tells us:
If you believe that the mandate of child welfare agencies should go beyond child protection, and focus on keeping families together, then these dwindling dollars tied predominantly to caring for children only after they have been separated from their families is a real problem.
If you believe that the child welfare system is really about child protection, and that keeping families together is the provenance of other agencies, then the entitlement is acting how it should.
This is the philosophical debate within the field …
No, Daniel, it’s not.
I believe the child welfare system is about child protection. So does every family preservation advocate I know. But we don’t equate child protection with child removal. Focusing on keeping families together is not “go[ing] beyond child protection,” it’s how you achieve child protection in the overwhelming majority of cases.
The real philosophical debate is: Which works better to keep children safe: Foster care or family preservation?
Obviously, I believe the answer, backed up by a mountain of research, is that for the overwhelming majority of children, in the overwhelming majority of the instances, family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care and less expensive than foster care, it’s also safer than foster care. I’ve cited the evidence for this, such as this study, and these studies, and the ones mentioned here repeatedly, and I’m sure these links will turn up in many future columns.
It is equally obvious that Heimpel disagrees. We can and should debate that.
But neither I, nor anyone else I know in the family preservation movement, take second place to anyone in our concern about keeping children safe. It’s why we became advocates for family preservation in the first place.
In my case, it didn’t happen all at once. It’s been almost exactly 40 years since I did my first major story about foster care, a radio documentary while I was a journalism student. I interviewed a woman who was, at the time, 21.
By the time she was nine years old, she had been in nine different foster homes. She told me she survived by keeping the rage inside, “unlike my five brothers who have been in every jail in New York State.”
This is some of what she said:
My bitterness is not that I went through what I did. My bitterness is that I don’t think it should have had to happen. There was no reason why my family’s life should have been destroyed.
The people that I’ve seen, the kids that have emerged [from foster care] are dead. Their hearts are functioning. The ‘ol heart’s pumping the blood around. But they’re basically dead inside. It’s been killed. Either they had to kill it to survive physically, or somebody else killed it in them – whatever it is that makes people human.
After speaking to this woman for two-and-a-half hours, I reached three conclusions:
First, I was very glad I’d chosen journalism as a career.
Second, I knew I would keep coming back to the story.
And third, we could fix this if we just got all those rotten birth parents out of the way and got all these children adopted.
Hey, two out of three isn’t bad!
But as I did keep coming back to the story, I kept finding that the facts on the ground were not matching what the most widely-quoted, so-called “experts” were saying. I kept hearing “child abuse crosses class lines,” but all I kept seeing in the system were families who were poor, and the “neglect” for which they lost their children often looked just like poverty itself.
When the dichotomy became too much to bear, I wrote a book about it called Wounded Innocents. Working on the book led me to lots of experts who usually were ignored. And that led me to the research showing family preservation to be the safer option, a body of research that just keeps growing.
So after 40 years of following this issue, 26 of them as an advocate, I’ve about had it with seeing people who invent outstanding alternatives such as the Homebuilders Intensive Family Preservation Services program, and people who put their careers on the line every day fighting to transform child welfare systems being stigmatized and stereotyped as being less concerned about child protection than all those people who built the terrible system we have now. The kind of people who gave us this hellscape, and this one, and this one; people who almost always mean well but nevertheless keep right on destroying in children “whatever it is that makes people human.”