Your Crisis Can Wait Until Noon

Vivek Sankaran
Vivek Sankaran, University of Michigan Law School

The teenage boy stared at the judge, with a face struggling to hide its emotion but clearly displaying sadness. For weeks, he had been staying at a residential foster care facility and had been getting in trouble.

In court today, the judge asked a simple, yet powerful question: “Tell me what we can do to make your life better.”

Without hesitation, he answered, “I just want to see my little sister. I haven’t seen her in months, and I need to make sure she’s OK.”

So the judge turned to the professionals in the courtroom – there to serve the child’s interests – to hear why this hadn’t happened. Staff at the residential facility explained that they didn’t know the youth wanted to see his sister. The agency caseworker spoke of policies at the facility and logistical challenges that made such a visit difficult.

But the children’s lawyer revealed the dispositive fact of why professionals had allowed this child’s sadness to linger – his sister had been adopted from foster care, and thus no one had a legal obligation to facilitate contact, nor did the child have a legal right to see his sister. The signing of the adoption order eviscerated the legal relationship between kin. So why bother arranging a visit?

This story heightened an increasing concern I have about our work in child welfare – that we’re losing the human element of what we do and aren’t recognizing the real human needs of each child, parent, relative and foster parent who comes before us. While we know that the foundation of our success lies in forming authentic relationships with families – which requires engagement, trust, and listening, all time-consuming activities – our work has been dominated by the need for accountability, data and outcomes.

Judges, caseworkers and lawyers are constantly rushing from one task to another, driven by a need to tend to different federal and state reporting requirements. Complying with a federal consent decree. Passing a Child and Family Services Review, a federal assessment of foster care and adoption services. Ensuring adherence to Title IV-E requirements. We are in the era of compliance-driven busywork.

Tellingly, the voicemail of one child welfare caseworker I called proclaimed that she doesn’t answer phone calls on Thursdays before noon because she needs to complete paperwork. Your crisis can wait until noon.

Is this epidemic – the obsession over reporting requirements and accountability – undermining the core of our work? Take the court hearing at which no one told a mother, who had started drinking again immediately after the recent death of her husband, that they were sorry for her loss.

Or the time when a foster care worker informed the judge that a grandmother – who had flown from New York to Detroit – to attend the court hearing was just 20 minutes away in a taxi. The judge nodded, then simply proceeded with the hearing. By the time she arrived, the judge had already called the next case. He didn’t want to fall behind.

Or the time when no one bothered to tell my client, the mother of a severely disabled child, that her child had died in foster care. When I called her up the morning after his death to offered my condolences, I heard a long pause, followed by primal wailing, lasting what seemed like hours. No one had informed her. Her screams still ring in my ears today.

Will we ever succeed if we don’t stop to recognize and honor the humanity of each person involved in our work?

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can alter this trend by seeing each family as a unique entity, with its own strengths, needs and emotions that need to be tended to. Listen to their stories. Affirm their emotions. Let them cry, laugh or vent. Acknowledge their loss. And perhaps most importantly, try to see a little bit of yourselves in those that you work with. We’re all much more alike than we think. Consider whether you’d want to be treated in the way we treat families in the system.

And when you do, you’ll realize that no, we can’t let their crisis wait until noon.

Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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