Cracks in the Child Welfare System

by Grainne Rhaud

Beneficial Trade

Fostering is an ancient practice. Originally instituted to solidify family and national treaties, ancient fostering practices called for children; usually sons; to be sent to another family which raised them in a manner that they may learn about that family, clan or culture. This trade-off would occur at such a time that the child could be separated from the mother, usually at about age eight. This practice also extended to trades. A child may be fostered by a trade smith in order to learn a useful trade they could go into as an adult. This would usually occur in second and subsequent sons as they would not inherit family land or business. In addition tradesmen taking a youth into their homes and businesses would have the benefit of free labor while that youth was learning the trade. It was a win-win situation. Entrepreneurs who would not have otherwise been able to afford to hire help had it at hand for the cost of room and board, a willing worker, and youth who would not have otherwise been able to afford training, or the cost of buying into a guild, learned a trade in exchange for their work. The families that participated in fostering as a part of a treaty also benefited a great deal. Their sons, who would someday rule, would develop affection for their foster-family. In addition they would see how other clans, countries and people governed. This would serve them well in matters of diplomacy later.
Modern ideals of fostering are a ways off from this. No longer do we trade our children in order to cement relationships. Nor do we send our children for fostering to learn a trade, although the argument could be made that this would be a good idea. However one thing seems to be making resurgence in the foster family arena, the monetary benefits.
Recent trends in foster care have shown a seedier side. There are three problems that I see with it. 1. Foster Care for monetary gain. 2. Foster Care in which children are put in harm’s way. 3. Foster Care in which the Fostering parents sabotage re-unification efforts of the nuclear family.

The Cash Crop
Jacque was a single mother who; after working hard to support her two children; had to go out on disability due to a back injury. She had worked for years in food service at the local college. She was what we call an unskilled worker. That is, she had no formal training or education beyond high school. Her children’s father had never paid child support and indeed, could not be found. She was tired and aged beyond her 40-odd years.

One day, in the back of the local free-newspaper she saw an advertisement listing for people to “open their homes and hearts to needy children.” In short, the agency in question was looking for foster parents. Jacque had never thought of becoming a foster parent. Her two teen girls were more than a handful. However the solicitation advertised good compensation and support to foster parents. With only six weeks left in her disability package and no prospects of a job to support her family, she decided to check it out.
Four weeks later, she had moved her two daughters in to one room and had the third bedroom of her rental house prepared to take on two children in need of foster placement. She had purchased a bunk-bed from a second hand store and had put child locks on the cupboards. A social worker from the Foster Care agency had been out to check her house and found it passably clean and safe. Although as a single mother she did not live in a good area, she couldn’t afford it, the social worker explained that children to be placed were used to this. In fact, simply having electricity and curtains was a step up for most of them. The social worker never met the daughters. Jacque explained that they were at school when the social worker visited. In fact, the girls were probably not at school as they were dangerously close to being sent to continuation school themselves. They were used to little to no supervision and hardly ever made it through a day of school.
If this sounds like a far-fetched scenario to you, think again. With Budget cuts to welfare across the country and increasing hard times, it should come as no surprise that people either without skills or desire to work would look to the treasure trove of income that foster care can potentially bring. Many people make foster care their sole income and it is paying handsomely. On average, states pay between $500 and $1500 per child placed in a foster home, depending on the state you live in. Special needs children who have either medical issues or mental health issues bring an even larger sum with them. An average foster family takes in three kids at a time. That’s better than a minimum wage paying job, and you are not taxed. In addition there are allotments for school supplies, clothing and medical care. The sad truth is a lot of the time the children don’t see the full amount of these allotments spent on them, and they are instead rolled over into the family budget.
It doesn’t take a lot to become a foster parent. In most states you do not have to have a two parent household. All that is required is a state licensed training and home-safety check. A lot of states use third party, foster family agencies that are paid to find and monitor the homes, which leaves a lot of room for variation. For example, one agency may require foster parents to attend monthly trainings in child welfare and coping, while another won’t. One agency may provide respite care for foster parents to have some time off, while another will not, taxing foster parents and their families with their stress and coping levels. Another problem with third party agencies is the recruiting process. Many will okay foster parents based solely on whether or not the agency directors know them, or they attend the same church. Not necessarily on qualifications.

Feeding the Dependent Personality
All this adds to the pot-luck effect of standards. Children’s welfare services may or may not be getting a quality placement for their children, which leads to the next problem, Abuse in foster care placement.

Debra was a woman on the edge. If anybody had bothered to ask her children what they thought of her, they would have been told that they would never ever let their mother watch their own children. Unfortunately nobody asked them. The assumption was made by the licensing agency that since Debra had raised four children of her own to adulthood, she must be an admirable parent. Scattered around her home were pictures of her kids. Her son in Coast Guard gear, looking proud. Her daughter serving in the Peace Corps. Another picture showed her twin boys receiving their Eagle Scout award. Nobody thought to ask if her grown children lived close by or visited. If they had, they probably would not have received the truth about Debra and her parenting. Things like her son in the Coast Guard lying about his age so he could leave home early. Her daughter joined the Peace Corps to get as far away as she could. Her twins had spent so much time in Scouts so they wouldn’t have to go home. All this because home was such a dangerous place. Their mother was explosive and unpredictably abusive. Their father was disconnected and did not pay any attention to his wife, having learned long ago that engaging her was uncomfortable at best. The problem was, with all the kids out of the home, Debra had nobody to heap her unhealthy attention on. After a couple of years of bored rage, she too responded to an add asking for families for Foster Care.
Debra, of course, passed the licensing review with flying colors. She had a lot of practice at appearing exactly as she should to outside people. She charmed the Child Protective workers as well, becoming one of their favorite homes to place children in. After all, her home had all the amenities that make people think of warmth; family room, swimming pool, even enough comfortably appointed bedrooms that four children could have their own bedrooms.
It wasn’t until several years later that Debra was found out, after a teenage boy made allegations against her in a counseling session. At the time she had 6 foster children living in her home. The charges of which she was convicted included tying children to their beds at night so they would not get up and bother her. Sexual abuse of young boys by other foster children, with her knowledge. Failing to spend clothing allocations on foster children, instead putting money in her own savings account. When this woman went to court, adults who had been in her care as children came forward to testify, as did her adult children. Debra was ultimately convicted and sent to jail.
It is no great secret that oftentimes children are removed from their original families and placed in situations more dangerous and abusive than they were already in. A major reason so many foster parents are able to perpetrate this abuse is because the children they are receiving into their homes are already used to keeping secrets. They are already conditioned into the “don’t tell” culture. Since their placements may certainly be more comfortable in terms of cleanliness and small luxuries, they see this as a step-up sometimes and don’t want to lose their perceived gains. So they keep quiet. After all, the abuse is probably not new and something they are willing to deal with for playstations and beds off the floor.

Made To Order Children
It is also an unfortunate truth that Social Services are pressed for homes to place children in. Particularly teens and children with difficult issues, such as physical and mental health.

Michelle and Dan had despaired of ever being able to have children. They had tried for five of the nine years they had been married to have children of their own. Finally they found that Michelle’s eggs released at such a slow rate that it was highly unlikely that they would conceive naturally. They were by no means well off and their insurance did not cover artificial insemination. Likewise, they could not afford the expensive prospect of adopting, which included the cost of supporting and paying medical bills for a birth mother.
Someone they knew suggested that they try foster care. This person gave them the impression that oftentimes neglectful or abusive parents lose custody. Their hope became that a child or; God willing; children placed in their home would fall in love with them and they would be able to adopt. Of course their hope was for an infant, but a slightly older child would be okay too.
They were so excited about having their first child placed with them. They began to make plans for family outings and Christmas card pictures. Unfortunately they forgot that the child in question already belonged to a family. They underestimated the amount of involvement the child’s parents would have in their day to day life. It became a point of contention for them, they argued about it with the Social Worker. Why couldn’t the social worker see that the birth parents were dirt bags? They were clearly undeserving of such a gift as displayed by the fact that they had lost custody of their child.
This problem of sabotage is one that is most insidious and hard to pin down. Very often, foster parents will take a stance that children are better off with them and should never be returned to their parents. However well meant this reasoning is, it is counterproductive to the purpose of fostering. Many times foster parents sign up for the job because they want to make a difference in a child’s life. They want to do good. They cannot conceive of people having hard times or being less than good parents. Also they listen to the children in their care about the child’s view of alleged abuses and neglect and as is natural they collude with the child. The problem with this is they forget that they are a temporary family. The real goal of the Child Welfare system is to educate, support and re-unite families together in a healthy way. Very often foster parents, however well meaning, make this hard because they take such a negative view of the parents in question. They are after all not trained psychologists or behavior lists. To their view, the children have been damaged and should never return to their parents. What very often happens in these cases is a passive-aggressive sabotage. Foster parents might spring for lessons or sports for the children during visitation and “forget” to take the kids or tell the social worker. They may also “forget” or erase messages from parents, or decide it is too dangerous for parents to call the house at all. They may go on a vacation taking foster children with them so again visitation is missed, but also so alliances are made between them and the children who have never known such attention.

Re-Defining Foster Policies
Some of the blame for these scenarios lay with third party agencies. Not enough emphasis is given to educating foster parents as to what their roles are. Foster families should be a safe, temporary place for children while birth parents are working towards re-unification.

While obviously there is and will continue to be the need for children to be placed outside of their nuclear families, it seems to me that something should change so that families are better able to stay together in the first place. I have three ideas.
First, instead of paying someone else to take in children, why not pay one of the birth parents to stay home with the child instead? This may seem crazy and socialist, but either way someone is being paid to care for a child. Why not have it be the person who is responsible for that child’s presence on this earth? Why not make a parent feel valuable and supported in his or her job? Along with an allotment, let’s provide support and training so the parent learns how to be better, rather than feeling like an undervalued individual.
Secondly, when a child must be placed out of the home and in another, let’s do a thorough background check. It’s not as if the information isn’t out there. Let’s put all that Homeland security data and FBI files to good use. If we can do a thorough check on government employees with high security clearances, why can’t we do as good a check on foster parents? Also let’s make sure that there are across the board guidelines for training and support of foster parents. All these third party agencies are inefficient and make it difficult to ensure quality care.
Finally, why not bring back apprenticeships? Let’s get back to the fostering of old. If a child is of teen years, let’s have them learning how to support themselves with useful skills.Ultimately what we all want is for children to grow up healthy, and become functioning members of society. It does us no good to take them from one bad scenario and put them into another. We need to fix this broken system, and guard against those who would take advantage of it.