Why the “Foster-Care-at-All-Costs” Crowd Will Never Surrender Their Horror Stories

Imagine the following scenario:

A child is taken from her parents. When child protective services decides to reunify the family the foster parents object. They wage a fierce fight, but they lose.

Sometime later, the child is dead. She was raped and murdered, allegedly by her mother’s boyfriend while her mother watched. Her body was packed in cat litter and stashed in an attic for four months. Then the body was dismembered and the remains dumped in the woods. Years earlier, a previous boyfriend of the same mother also had raped the child.

Such a story would be front page news for days, perhaps weeks where it occurred. It might well become a national story. And the theme, of course, would be that the Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy had struck again. A supposed fanatical desire to keep families together “at all costs” had led to tragedy.

Many journalists and politicians would gladly accept these claims as fact. Everyone from frontline workers to the agency chief would be fired. And entries into foster care would skyrocket.

The Real Story

As it happens, there really is a case like this in the news right now, involving a child in Pennsylvania named Grace Packer. With two slight differences.

Difference number one: It was the birth parents who fought for the child. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

Rose and Rodney Hunsicker battled Berks County child-welfare officials for two to three years to keep their children, according to their attorney at the time. They did not want to lose custody of Grace and her two siblings.

 But Children and Youth officials in Reading fought “aggressively” to remove the children, alleging abuse by other adults in the home, Norristown attorney David Tornetta told the Inquirer…

 “I can’t imagine what that young child went through,” Tornetta said. “I guarantee you if that child had been in Rose and Rodney’s care, it wouldn’t have been anything like this … The lawyer said he came to know the Hunsickers as a loving couple who were unemployed but could have become better parents with some help.

 I’m sure you can guess the second big difference: The alleged killers are a foster parent and her boyfriend.

Sara Packer, a supervisor for a county child welfare agency who fostered and then adopted Grace, stands accused of her murder along with her boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan.

Back in 2010, when Packer was married to a different man, that man was convicted of raping Grace and another foster child. He was imprisoned, but they did not divorce for another six years.

Packer lost her county job. But she was allowed to keep Grace.

The story is generating headlines in Pennsylvania. But when it comes to “lessons learned,” the usual double standard is apparent. No one is saying the case proves that Pennsylvania relies too heavily on foster care. No one is saying that a push for “foster care at all costs” is endangering children’s lives. No one is asking if middle-class rescue fantasies are taking precedence over child safety.

Why not? Perhaps people feel it’s wrong to generalize based on horror stories.

I agree.

Let’s Make a Deal

That’s why I have a standing offer to the advocacy community and journalists who cover child welfare. While I will not unilaterally disarm, I am prepared to accept a mutual moratorium on the use of all horror stories to “prove” anything.

The family preservation community can afford to take such a deal for the following reasons:

  • We don’t need horror stories to show that Pennsylvania takes away too many children and journalists should be asking why. We’ve got the data showing the state’s rate of removal is above the national average and far above the rate in states where independent monitors have found that family preservation improved child safety.
  • We don’t need horror stories to show that foster care is often unsafe and journalists should question its overuse. We’ve got study after study showing appalling rates of abuse in foster care – with even higher rates of abuse in group homes and institutions.
  • We don’t need horror stories to show the inherent harm of taking away so many children needlessly. We’ve got those massive studies of typical cases which show that children left in their own homes typically fare better than children placed in foster care.

But those whose approach to child welfare really boils down to take-the-child-and-run/foster-care-at-all-costs wouldn’t dare take such a deal. Because take away their horror stories and you know what they’ve got?

Nothing.

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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).

7 Comments

  1. There are a LOT of factual inaccuracies in this article. For starters, the woman who adopted Grace and later killed her wasn’t her foster mother at the time of the murder, she was her legal, adoptive mother. The previous “boyfriend” who raped children was actually the mother’s husband.

  2. This is how the system works, and it’s pretty much a parallel with our judicial/criminal system: The guilty too often go free, and the innocent are punished. The cause is the same; i.e., overenthusiastic knee-jerkers who make decisions based on hearsay and emotion rather than real facts and evidence. Via the parlor game inherent in these systems, the hearsay and emotion are given weight, and the truth is omitted or suppressed on some technicality. I have seen children removed from good birth parents at the drop of a hat. I have seen bad birth parents be given chance after chance. And as a 13-plus year veteran of the foster care system, I learned that everybody is messed up, every family is dysfunctional, and that when you are a foster child, you will end up belonging nowhere. I entered the system at the age of 4-1/2 with a murdered mother and an incarcerated father. I was briefly fostered within my mother’s family, but their own problems sent me out into care by strangers shortly after I turned 6. With a deceased mother and a father serving four life sentences (and no family able to take me in), the State still refused to force my father into letting me be adopted, consigning me to a life of abuse and instability. The foster care system in which I grew up was akin to child trafficking, and it is a huge and continuing problem. While I’m sure that there are good families out there, the situations are too insular to effectively monitor, especially with the shortage of social workers — in fact, there were several years where I didn’t even have an assigned social worker; so when I was being sexually abused as a teen, I had to call the general DHSS number and wait for someone to get back to me. A lot of children live in bad biological homes; but the system is failing enormously by taking children and putting them in dangerous homes. The foster care system DOES NOT WORK. Had I been more informed when I aged out of foster care, I would have sued my state for neglect and abuse. Years later, I called to see if I could obtain a copy of my file, only to find out that after five years, they are destroyed. Given how early I entered foster care and how long I was in the system, this was the most important record of my life; and it was disposed of like a title to a junked vehicle.

  3. join us….grandparents and parents of matanuska valley…..we are working hard to reunite our loved ones…

  4. Yes, and the stories keep piling up…our children are gone…they used criminal history to take them…all the way back to twenty years ago…:( we miss our babies….:(

  5. Pretty nicely put Richard.

    I am totally in agreement that child deaths should not be used to deploy ideological positions on family preservation or child protection.

    I am glad that you brought this story to light. It is unfortunate that in arguing against using child deaths to make a point about ideological disposition, you did just that.

    I am looking forward to your moratorium.

    • I said *mutual* moratorium – As I said in the column, I’m not going to unilaterally disarm. A mutual moratorium would require that, for example, opponents of differential response not cite the death of a child who was not even in a “differential response” track in an oped attacking differential response: http://bit.ly/2jyjo8d But who would ever do something like that?

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