Foster Care Fridays: Thoughts on "The System"

Friday, May 17, 2019

Joe has been taking as many photos as possible to document our experience so we can one day show these to our foster kid(s) and help them understand how hard we fought for them, and how much we wanted them.

My thoughts on reunification are ever-evolving, but they haven't changed since I wrote this post last week.  Here's the thing: reunification is always the goal, until it's not the goal anymore (i.e. until the parents rights are terminated).  But this begs a question I've continued to obsess over this past week: at what point does the parents' behavior warrant termination of parental rights?

Earlier this week, we learned of a recent trial which speaks to this very issue.  To be clear, this trial has nothing to do with us, specifically, but as soon-to-be foster parents, it piqued our interest nonetheless.  Because this court opinion is public record, I am going to discuss some of the facts of the case in this post.

(1) Birth mom struggles with substance abuse and addiction (2) Birth mom has a teenage son who has sexually abused the birth mom's young daughter repeatedly (3) Because of birth mom's substance addiction and dependency, she has lacked the ability to properly care for her daughter and prevent sexual abuse from occurring inside the home (4) Young daughter was removed from the birth mom's custody and placed in foster care as a result of this repeated abuse.

In a jury trial last month, the members of the jury returned a verdict in favor of the birth mom's right to retain custody of her daughter.  That is to say, because the birth mom passed her most recent drug test and, through testimony, affirmed her ability to prevent sexual abuse from occurring between her teenage son (who still resides in her home) and her young daughter (to be removed from foster care and re-placed in the mother's home), the jury effectively said, "Okay, sure - that's fine.  Reunify away!  A pattern of sexual abuse is totally something that we can correct with a slap on the wrist and some casual parental oversight."  I say "casual parental oversight" because the mom works full-time and the father's identity is unknown, which is to say this young girl will spend a significant amount of time alone with her abusive teenage brother.  In other words, this young girl will almost certainly be sexually abused again and again and again by said teenage brother.  And to make matters worse, at a hearing following the jury trial, it became known that the birth mom had failed her most recent drug test, but the judge elected to extend grace to the birth mother and offer a second chance before the daughter is removed again.

Upon learning of this case, my natural, knee-jerk reaction was to imagine the pain in which these foster parents must find themselves; knowing that their foster daughter -- over whom they've diligently watched and for whom they have selflessly cared and loved for an extensive period of time -- is likely surviving abuse on a daily basis, and they are absolutely powerless in this knowledge.  Surely this is the essence of suffering.  But then I catch myself and realize: what about this young child?  What about her pain and suffering?  And suddenly it's too much.  I have such resentment for "the system."

And then I have to ask myself: who do we include in "the system"?  The birth parents?

Yesterday at TBRI training, we sat before a panel of foster families -- beautiful couples who all count among their children a hybrid of both biological offspring and adopted foster kids.  Many of them brought me to tears with their stories, to the point where we felt so appreciative just to be in their company.  We left feeling so dang inspired, empowered, and hopeful -- believing even more so that we really can do this.  But one of them offered a piece of advice that I keep replaying in my head: "You have to know that the threshold for reunification is so unbelievably low.  It is ten times lower than the standard you would have for your own biological kids." She went on to share a story about one of her former foster children who was reunified with his mom, even after the mom testified that there was no way she could possibly take the child to the many therapy appointments that he desperately needs to attend each week.  The son was reunified with his mom, and his therapy is effectively over.

I was particularly troubled by this because my own son is in therapy 5 days a week (speech, physical, and occupational).  The thought of his therapy abruptly coming to a halt despite his dire need for it makes me break a literal sweat.  But then I thought to myself, "What if I didn't have the transportation to get my son to his therapy?  What if I didn't have insurance to cover his therapy?  What if I had insurance, but couldn't afford to make the co-pay?  What if I didn't have supportive family to meet my needs when I can't meet them myself?  What if I didn't have a husband with whom I could partner through all of parenting's ups and downs?  What if my kids' survival depended upon my having a job that required me to work 12 hour shifts, essentially from the time my child wakes up to the time my child goes to bed?  What if --"

You get the idea.  It didn't take me long to put myself in that particular birth mother's shoes.  Would I deserve to have my son removed from my care because of any of those things?  No.  Of course not.    So no, we cannot, for the most part, include the birth parents in our blanket condemnation of "the system."

But what about DHS workers?  Can we include them in "the system"?  I recently read a post in defense of DHS workers, which I will quote below (for context, it was written by a fellow foster care advocate and mom, after a foster son in her community was reunified with his birth mom and then brutally murdered by said birth mom days later):

"[DHS workers] are driving hours upon hours and they are standing in courtrooms and dining rooms and therapy rooms and most of them are FIGHTING.  But let me tell you what they're not doing.  They're not doing this for the money.  They're not working 9-5.  And they sure as hell aren't intentionally leaving children with murderers."

As you might have suspected, I'm not willing to place blame on the shoulders of DHS workers, either.

Ultimately, "the system" is: the system.  Birth moms and DHS workers do not represent the system as much as they exist as cogs in the system's machinery.  As such, birth moms are generally just doing their best with the tools they are given (and many are not given any tools, having aged out of "the system" themselves with zero support or foundation).  And even on the very onset of foster care, I know enough to know that, for the most part, DHS workers are doing their best to make the right choices, too, in spite of the very real fact that they often do not, or simply cannot.

I don't believe it's a foregone conclusion that "the system" will always exist as the infamous broken mechanism that it is.  It will take relentless advocacy, it will call for policy change, it will require voters showing up, it will demand grassroots movements -- I've even momentarily (ever so momentarily) considered running for office on the very platform of DHS reform.  But before I run for office, or knock on doors for other candidates, or speak publicly at forums, or advocate for any of these things on a real and meaningful level (and maybe I'll run out of energy well before I get to that point -- who even knows?), I'm starting from the place from which one must start, and that is within the four walls of my home, welcoming whoever it is we need to welcome and doing whatever work it is that we need to do for that one child or children.

And if you're still thinking, as you read my rambling thoughts, that it's futile, or naive, to attempt to fix a system that will, in a sense, always be broken, as there will always be evil in the world and as a result, children can never be totally safe and cared for all of the time?  To that I say, surely the system can be better than it is now -- much, much better.

So I will start within the four walls of my home and we'll see how far I go from there.  Maybe I'll exhaust my efforts so early that I have to pass the torch to someone else before it's even lit.  And if that's the case, then I hope that by merely sharing my experiences here can educate and inspire someone to carry the torch further than I can.  Maybe someone reading this very post.  Maybe you.

mtom said...

There are actually surely a lot of details like that to take into mind. That is a great point to bring up. I provide the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly you will find questions like the one you bring up exactly where the most necessary thing will certainly be working in honest very good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things just like that, but I am certain that your job is clearly identified as a fair game.

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