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.
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?