Prolonged temporary care, whether unintended or not, amounts to child abuse. Child protection agencies have the power to radically reduce time in foster care, but too often back off, waiting to see how the birth parents do. Meanwhile, as the child remains in foster care, brain synapses that incorporate the lack of stability in his or her everyday experiences are being fashioned.
From a 2002 study by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley:
“The ultimate shape of the [child’s] brain … is the outcome of an ongoing active process that occurs where lived experience meets both the inner and outer environment … connections that are used become stronger, even permanent elements of the neural circuitry.”
Kids are not wanderers who can safely participate in a game of wait-and-see. Life events are multiplying and they can make as indelible a mark as genes. As the displaced child grows and develops, patterns are embedded that will be difficult to reverse. Development cannot be paused like a video, or put on hold. Time is unforgiving. A permanent base is critical for children to grow up whole and well put together.
Let’s not waste time on eloquent arguments advocating more changes in policy. We know how to improve things. Once a child is removed from the birth home, the resolution is as simple as 1-2-3.
Step One: Develop a working plan for reunification within 24 hours of removal based upon remedying the reasons for the removal. Don’t wait around for mother to get her act together. Time is the child’s enemy. Begin parent rehab at once with weekly visits and check-ups on progress in meeting plan goals.
Step Two: Initiate an immediate, thorough search for all available kin. Conduct home studies for any extended family members who might provide a safe and acceptable placement. Kin placements should be a first choice, not a relative who later emerges after the child has bonded elsewhere.
Step Three: The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) has set a deadline of one year or 15 of the past 22 months to find permanence for the child. This deadline should be honored. If reunification proves not to be possible within ASFA’s “child time,” primary consideration should be given to parents with whom the child has spent sufficient time to bond.
Bonding has been defined as “a significant reciprocal attachment which both parties want and expect to continue and which is interrupted or terminated at considerable peril to the parties involved.” Bonding, when it can be demonstrated, should take precedence over blood kinship. The child deserves parents who have been there with him and come to matter most.
The best strategy for achieving permanence within one year (ASFA’s definition of “child time”) is to get busy immediately upon removal. Present birth parent(s) with a working plan for reunification within 24 hours. With the same urgency, review the extended family for a possible appropriate temporary placement.
Assess the likelihood of a successful reunification after six months and be open to terminating parental rights if progress is minimal or appears unlikely. Set one year as the deadline to see a child placed permanently in an appropriate and safe home. After that long, the system itself becomes an unwitting abuser.
Let’s not wait for good things to happen. Better to make them happen.