The Overprivileged Foster Parents of Idaho

I have often said that there are too many people in child welfare who seem to view the system as the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person’s child for your very own.

To those who doubt this, I’d like to introduce you to some foster parents in Idaho. Foster parents like Jamie Law.  Here’s what she told the Idaho Statesman about what happened when she first met a two-day-old infant she would take into her home:

“I picked him up from the hospital, and thought, ‘This is totally my kid.’”

I’m sure Ms. Law meant well. I’m sure she truly wanted to help the child. But he wasn’t her kid. He was someone else’s kid.

That someone else might have been a sadistic brute or a hopeless addict. Or that someone else might simply have been poor. Jamie Law had no real way of knowing. Yet she decided on the spot: “This is totally my kid.”

Nineteen months later, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) found an aunt in another state who was willing to adopt the child.

How dare they! After all, if a total stranger says, “this is totally my kid,” then no mere relative should be allowed to interfere, right?

Law has banded together with other similarly situated foster parents. They got a sympathetic legislator–who also is a former foster parent–to introduce a bill to sharply restrict the preference for relatives in placement decisions.

If the bill becomes law, as seems likely, DHW will have only 30 days after removing a child from her or his home to find and notify any relatives who might be interested in taking custody of that child. The relatives would have only 45 days to make the profoundly life changing decision to seek custody–or the child could lose forever the chance to live with them.

In addition, once a child is in foster care for more than six months, preference for placement actually would shift to the foster parents if they’ve “bonded” with the child.

There are several problems with this:

  • Most foster children are poor, so most relatives are as well. They may know nothing about the child welfare system and what supports–if any–are available to them. Demanding they make the decision in 45 days is absurd.
  • Child welfare agencies often are less than diligent in seeking out relatives. They may harbor the same prejudices as some foster parents. In addition, if the relatives live out-of-state, the hassle of complying with the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children is enormous.

Of course, these foster parents cloak their middle-class privilege in the rhetoric of “best interests of the child.” Presumably Ms. Law thought she could determine instantly, on sight, that it was in the “best interests” of a two-day-old infant to live with her for the rest of his life. I’m sure she sincerely believes it.

But study after study has found that placing children with relatives is far better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called stranger care. Kinship care placements also tend to be more stable. When those adorable infants become rebellious teenagers, relatives are less likely to give up on them–the “bond” is more likely to hold. For similar reasons, relatives are far less likely to resort to potent, sometimes dangerous, psychiatric medications to keep children docile when they “act out.”

But the overprivileged stranger care parents of Idaho are right about one thing. Over and over they complain about child welfare agency decisions that are arbitrary, capricious and cruel. I believe them. There are few real checks and balances on agency decision-making, and we all know what absolute power does. So in principle, another part of the proposed legislation–increasing court oversight of these decisions–makes sense, though not necessarily in the form proposed in Idaho.

When foster parents share these complaints, I always respond the same way: “The system really needs you. If they’re treating you that way, imagine how they’re treating birth parents. If they’re wrong to remove the child from you, were they wrong to take the child from the birth parents? Are those horror stories you were told by the caseworker for real? Foster parents who’ve looked into that sometimes find surprises. Reach out to birth parents, and you may find more in common than you think.”

As for the notion that strangers should have preference to take a child forever after they’ve been together for a set period of time–no matter how that came to pass–I have one question: If I kidnap your child at birth, flee with him to Mexico, take really good care of him, and then return two years later, can I keep him?

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org

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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).

4 Comments

  1. “Nineteen months later,”
    That right there is the problem. Go learn about early childhood development. Focus on attachment concerns and issues.

    After you do that come back and we can try to have an adult conversation about solutions based on science.

  2. Funny it’s only for the babies. Nobody cares about teens. When any older child over five comes into care foster parents don’t care. They let us sit there and age out.

  3. As a foster parent of 8 years this article misses the mark and is incredibly condescending to foster parents in so many ways. It would require a complete essay to fairly address each point made but I have 7 children, the stomach flu is ripping through our house and I was up all night holding a bucket for a much loved foster daughter. I would explain why she has been in foster care since the day she was born, but I respect her privacy more than I care about your misunderstanding of the issues we face. After foster parenting (actually just plain parenting…because that is what we do) all night, I’m literally wreaking with my foster parent “privilege” this morning. It’s easy to sit up on a social justice warrior high horse and spout idealistic nonsense when you aren’t bringing into your home and family, and loving as your own, drug addicted infants, or children so neglected or abused it will shatter your heart to pieces over and over again. Foster parents work hard to change the “us” vs.”them” misconception and remove that wedge articles like this perpetuate. We are not the enemies of biological family. In fact, in many cases we are partners, supporters, and encouragers. My hearts ache for their birth families on a daily basis. Having compassion for a birth parent doesn’t mean that they are able to care for a child. That’s not privilege or discrimination it’s just cold, hard reality. You see, foster parents don’t get the privilege of idealism..we’re too busy learning to parent children with FASD and attachment disorders, soothing drug withdrawing infants, and explaining to little girls that rape is not a normal part of growing up. Your article shows a complete disregard and ignorance about child trauma, attachment, development, and the very real parent/ child bond between foster parents and children. Family is more than blood. Children aren’t possessions to be put on ice to wait for years for adults to change their ways or their minds. At some point their needs must be prioritized.

  4. This is such a painful and messy topic to tackle. We are adopting an older child from foster care because we strongly believe children should not age out of care without permanent supportive and loving connections. On the other hand, we strongly believe that birth parents and extended family should be rigorously supported as the primary plan of care for a child at risk. It is all so complicated. I wonder if when training foster parents, there needs to be much more emphasis on their role of loving and supporting a child while the mess of their life gets sorted out by adults and not claiming ownership of them. Perhaps, instead of picking up a 2 day old infant and stating “you are mine” stating “I will love you as if you are mine”. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to watch a child sit in foster care for years while they wait for a family member to recover from an addiction or other harmful behaviour.

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