A lot of readers have emailed to ask what’s going on with Baby Z. If you will remember, in the beginning of July, we were placed with a newborn baby boy, straight from the hospital who, because of confidentiality issues, is known here as Baby Z. I haven’t talked tons about Z’s story because it is private, but it has been a while and people are reasonably wondering what’s going on. The most common question I get is “Is he yours yet?” I promise, if he ever becomes so, you’ll hear! In fact, the foster care process takes quite a while, and while we are cautiously hopeful that we may get to raise Baby Z., anything can happen in foster care and usually does. I can’t answer specific questions about Z, but I can tell you a bit more about how the child welfare system works, and thus, where we’re at.
Kids come into care when there is a report that they are unsafe. This can happen due to physical abuse, basic neglect (a parent who is not merely poor, but has the resources or access to them to provide for food, shelter, clothing, etc.. but doesn’t), medical neglect (a child who doesn’t treat a child’s medical condition), voluntarily (some parents do place their children with social services because they know they cannot care for them or need temporary respite) or because parents are unavailable due to incarceration, deportation, illness or death. Often the triggering event that causes an investigation is due to a report from a neighbor, family member, doctor, etc.. of abuse or neglect.
A baby in utero can’t be previously abused, but the reason a newborn baby might come into care is that the parents have previously shown themselves unable to care for other children, the mother shows signs of being unable to care for the child (severe mental illness, for example) or the baby is born with enough drugs in its system to show that the mother has not been caring for the baby prenatally, or because of medical neglect during pregnancy (for example, HIV positive mothers not taking their drugs and thus creating a much greater risk of prenatal transmission of HIV), or as a voluntary placement by a mother who feels she can’t cope after the birth.
In response to a report of abuse or neglect or a hospital alerting social services to the case of an infant in danger, there will be an investigation. The majority of reports are not substantiated, or listed as “not indicated” – for example, a report of a developmentally normal 12 year old left alone in an apartment in the evening, or of a 4 year old nursing or a mother yelling at her kids. For those that are found to be indicated, the next step is to see if social services can rapidly remediate the basic problem.
Is a child being left unattended because their mother has no childcare and can’t miss work? Could it be fixed with a childcare subsidy or help from a neighbor? Is the mother homeless and taking her children onto the street? Can they get them an apartment? Are the children going hungry because the family doesn’t have enough food? Can they be gotten groceries? Are the parents off their medication? Can treatment help? Involvement in the child welfare system is problematic and scary for a lot of people, but there is (at least some of the time) a real attempt to sort out what problems derive from poverty and other factors. Is it innocent of using its power against poor people? Absolutely not – read _Shattered Bonds; The Color of Child Welfare_ for some useful examples of the system’s many abuses – but at least in the community I work in and in the era I’m in, there is a real attempt to keep kids out of care – visible in the more than 30% drop over the last decade in the number of kids in foster care in my state and and a nearly-as-large drop nationally.
If the neglect or abuse goes beyond immediate remediation, the next step may be an order of supervision – that means social workers will be looking in regularly on the family. That is often the case when there has been a single documented incident of abuse or neglect, but not a consistent pattern. If services and assistance make things better, the kids won’t be removed, which is better for everyone. If things seem unsafe and recurrent, they will be. Sometimes another family member will be asked to move in to provide support.
If children are removed because of ongoing or serious potential risk of harm, they still don’t necessarily come to me. The first step is to seek out kinship placement – first immediate family (if there are any not involved in the situation), then extended family. Kids do best when they are not taken wholly out of their families and communities. Non-custodial parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles step up at an astounding rate, taking in kids because they are family. I am continually awed by the kinship providers in my community and those who take my kids after they’ve been in my home – they often make amazing sacrifices to bring their children home. I’ve sat in a courtroom when a judge ordered the placement of children and asked if there was anyone who could care for these children only to see a dozen hands go up – all family who are willing to totally re-arrange their lives to take in children when they need to. Great-grandparents with walkers, aunts and uncles barely out of their teens, family struggling with poverty and health problems, they all put their problems aside to take their kids into their lives.
If there are no biological kin to take the children. the next step is to seek out fictive kin – that is, people who the children have a prior relationship to in their community. Children do best if not thrust into the arms of strangers. When I was in my early teens, my parents were “fictive kinship” foster parents to a group of four children - the younger two had been in my mother’s in-home daycare, and thus, her home and she were kin. I know people who have become kinship providers whose relationship came because they were friends of the parents, because they were neighbors, who were teachers who had had the children in their class, ministers, school bus drivers, other parents whose children were friends with the children in question. Again, it is astonishing and humbling to realize that the majority of children in care never come into foster homes like mine, because so many people step forward to take in the children who are related to them through biology and community.
If no kinship placement can be found, the children can come to me. Often this happens not because kin aren’t caring, but because they are overwhelmed – they are already caring for other children in the family who need assistance, and perhaps for mentally ill or disabled adult family members as well. They may be struggling with issues of health, poverty and disability themselves. Or maybe they haven’t been found or reached yet and the kids need to come into care right away – it isn’t uncommon for kids to stay with me a few days or weeks or even months, and then go to family. Which only seems unfair if you don’t see it from their perspective – lord knows, if my nieces or other family members ever needed a home, I’d want them to keep trying to find me, and give me priority in caring for them. Sometimes kids come to me also because while there is family around, the extended family lives too far away to be able to support the children having visits with their parents.
The first goal of kids in care, for the first year or more is always reunification with parents. Again, caseworkers will try and get the parents what they need to help them care for the kids – a parenting class, anger management, treatment for mental or physical health problems, better housing, a job, food stamps, a mentor or social supports, drug treatment. In the meantime, the parents get visits with their children, usually 1-2 times a week. Most of the parents I”ve met have been working hard to get their kids back, and have attended the visits regularly – a few don’t.
That’s where we foster parents meet the biological parents, and it is often the beginning of a complex but important relationship. I think there’s a tendency to assume that that relationship will always be adversarial, but it often isn’t. Birth parents may not always make good choices, but often they love their kids and want to do well by them, and are relieved to see them safe with someone else.
Foster parents need to know things from birth parents – what is the children’s bedtime routine, what allergies do they have, what do they like to eat, do they have a favorite toy, how do you handle this behavior…? Since the majority of children will be returned to their parents, foster parents also have a good reason to want to work well with birth parents – we love the kids and want to stay in their lives. Birth parents have the same incentive – if the children don’t come home, they want to continue having contact, and they love their children and want what’s best for them. There are some very difficult birth parents out there, but the majority of the time, foster parents and birth parents develop a strange and strangely positive mutual relationship with the children between us. A friend of mine once said of his foster son’s mother “I’m torn between rooting for her and hoping for me.” I think that’s about as good an explanation as there is – it is necessarily complex, ambiguous and sometimes hard, but it is real and has value.
Why is the goal reunification? Well, because it should be. None of us want to live in a society where one bad mistake costs you your children. The reality is that in order for foster child to be adopted by me, a judge must terminate a parent’s parental rights forever – they will no longer have any legal relationship to the children they fathered or gave birth to. Whole extended families can lose contact as well. The only other punishment we engage in as a society that is so irrevocable is the death penalty – and just like with the death penalty no one wants TPR (termination of parental rights) in a case that is a mistake, with a parent who could be a better parent with treatment or care or more money or more support. Not me, not any foster parent I know. The truth is that the system starts from the presumption that people can change – and that’s something that we should believe.
That’s not easy to live. I will be blunt. When he was about four months we thought Z. might leave us, and both Eric and I literally came to realize why the term “gut punched” is used to describe trauma – we couldn’t catch our breath, we didn’t know what to do – we just sat there in shock. We hadn’t intended him to become our own, but he has, and losing him felt like the loss of a limb. And yet, we have always known it could happen, and that in some cases, it might even be the right thing. Doing foster care opens you up to a great deal of trauma and sorrow, and places you in a place of great ambiguity – torn between supporting another as they remake their lives and wishing that you can have this life the way it is. All I can say is that like many very difficult things, it is beautiful and sorrowful and challenging and joyous in precisely equal measure, and I wouldn’t wish my life easier.
It is helped for most children (not the youngest babies) by the fact that children love their parents. Even when the parents have failed, they love them, because they can’t not. Our older foster children have had strong identities as part of their families, we try and value that.
There are several hearings and reviews over the course of the first year. In each the birth parents will be evaluated for their progress in various ways. Are they coming to visits? Are they behaving appropriately at them and showing good parenting? Are they trying to fix their problems – in drug treatment, taking their medication, holding down a job, getting help? They have obligations they need to fulfill. We foster parents do too – often we’re focused on getting kids medical care, catching up at school, giving them normal childhod experiences they may not have had, teaching them to swim and ride bikes, getting them healthy and strong.
After a set amount of time – sometimes as little as six months with a parent who has already lost other children, or for an infant, and more often a year or more, the goal changes. In our state, it changes to concurrent planning – that means that the state is SIMULTANEOUSLY still supporting the parents’ attempts to get their child back and fix their lives, but also recognizing that the child may not go home and preparing for adoption.
In New York state, after one year, foster parents have priority to adopt over any relatives save the biological parents. So the first parents who get asked if they want to adopt are the foster parents. If we say yes, that’s it. If not, they start looking for another family that would want to adopt the children. That’s not needed for Z – we love him and would want to keep him if we can.
If the parents fix their lives, the children may go home. If kin come forward during the first year, they may go to them. If none of those things happen, there are two options. The first is that the county may ask the parents to sign a surrender – to voluntarily give up their parental rights. They offer some incentives including dropping charges and sometimes ongoing contact and pictures (if the adopting family is willing). If the parents agree (and they both have to, if the father is known, if not they must try to locate the father), then after the surrender, assuming the foster family has had the child for at least six months, they can adopt.
If they don’t agree, after the child has been in care for 15 out of 22 months (that is, even if the child went home for a bit, if they didn’t stay there the clock doesn’t start over again), the judge can order a trial on the termination of parental rights. They do not have to – if a parent is making progress but isn’t ready to take their kids back at 15 months, often there will be an extension for six months or more to give them another chance. Again, this sucks for the foster parents and is tough on a small one who has spent most of their life in foster care, but the general principle is right.
If the case goes to trial it can take a long time, and then there can be appeals – 1 year or more is normal after the trial, so often adoption comes the 2-3 year mark. That’s a long, long time away from where we are. We have a nice relationship with his mother, who is a loving person who cares a lot about her son’s future, and is trying to do the best she can in difficult circumstances.
Right now Z. is a bright-eyed, funny, sweet 6 1/2 month old who we adore. He loves playing with his brothers, bouncing in his saucer, practicing for mobility, chewing on fingers (bites like a gator now that he has the beginnings of a tooth), and being snuggled and sung to. For various reasons it seems like the odds are good that Z. may stay with us, but we’re a long way from the end. In the meantime, we’re all living our lives together as a family – hopefully it will stay that way forever, and hopefully our hearts won’t get broken. If they do, we’ll pick up the pieces and go forward like we did with M. and K. and C. It won’t be easy or pleasant, but I wouldn’t have given up my time with any of them as my sons for anything in the world, and no amount of suffering could change that. So that’s where we are.