A number of news outlets have published articles in the past two weeks about the children and parents separated by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) as they cross our borders. Some of these articles have referred to the children handed over to contracted agencies and placed into homes as being “in foster care.” This is not the case, and the record must be set straight.
The foster care system is governed by a massive set of federal and state laws and regulations. Though most of the country’s child welfare systems are operated by states, about a dozen – including California’s – are run through the counties. In California, the County Welfare Directors Association’s 58 county human services agencies operate the largest (Los Angeles) and some of the smallest (Alpine) child welfare systems in the nation.
Here is what the foster care system is:
- It is a legal structure, with rights and responsibilities for all parties involved. There are required court hearings, with court-appointed lawyers, that begin no later than two court days after a child is removed from their parents. A petition must be filed at that time or the child is returned to the parents. Abuse and neglect on the part of the parents must be substantiated in court for the child to be in our system.
- Placements for children who cannot remain safely with their parents are governed by licensing requirements that include background checks and home visits. Social workers must visit monthly and see the child face-to-face. Compliance and outcome measures are collected monthly for child welfare agencies and published publicly – in California, these are available both statewide and at a county level.
- The foremost goal is reunification with the child’s biological parents, if it is safe to do so.
However, the primary directive in the system is what is best for the child – their safety, their well-being, their “best interest.” That guiding principle is followed at every step of the process from social workers to partner agencies to the court-appointed attorneys representing children and parents.
Every foster child is eligible for Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) and all are required to have regular doctor visits. All are entitled to physical health and behavioral health treatment.
Here is what the foster care system is not:
- A process outside the legal framework described above, where the children are pulled away from their parents and placed into warehouses with thin blankets, chain link fences and only each other for comfort.
- The parents are given no right at all to a hearing related to the removal of their children. There is no requirement that a parent have substantiated abuse or neglect charges for the child to be held. There is no due process for these families.
- Parents are deported to their home countries without their children, who are legal citizens of those countries, returned to them as they leave. The children are kept in legal limbo, in unknown circumstances.
- Even children placed with licensed homes in states like California are not afforded the protections of a social worker, an attorney, a visit, or minimum standards for their well-being. These children are not made eligible for medical care or behavioral health care as they would be if they were truly in foster care.
- The “best interest of the child” is not the guiding principle. Frankly, it’s not clear what is.
A few years ago, when a huge number of children entered the United States as unaccompanied minors fleeing from violence in their home countries, they were placed with families throughout the country by a federal government that genuinely cared about their well-being and did not want to send them back if it could help it. Today’s government is not that government. The pictures of children lying on concrete, with space blankets for warmth, with chain-link fences to separate them – is this our America?
One thing we know for sure: It sure as hell isn’t foster care.
Cathy Senderling-McDonald is the deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association (CWDA), a statewide non-profit representing the human service agencies of all 58 counties.