Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Unconditional commitment

I followed a link on Cindy's blog to You Gotta Believe. It is a site dedicated to finding (advocating for) permanence for teens. Reading it has left me with a lot of jumbled thoughts about permanence. I've been wanting to address some of them, but everything comes out, well, jumbled.

In this post I am going to try to stick to what it means to make an unconditional commitment to a youth.

In an article on the site called Uncondtional Commitment"" the author, Pat O'Brian says:

Unconditional commitment means that we treat any child’s behavior with the exact same commitment we would treat a biological child’s behavior who might commit the very same act. If a bio-child commits a crime in the community, that bio-child might go to jail. But that child does not lose his parents because he makes a mistake. If a bio-child becomes mentally ill that bio-child might have to be hospitalized on a long-term basis. But that child does not lose his parents because he has an illness that needs to be treated. If a bio-child becomes heavily involved in drugs that bio-child might have to be placed in a residential treatment therapeutic community. But that child does not lose his parents because he has the disease of addiction. But most importantly, if a bio-child has a real nasty attitude a parent develops ways to deal with it. The child does not stop being that parent’s child because of the attitude.

I like this quote, but I don't think that O'Brien would like the reason that I like it. I think it is helpful to remember that there are circumstances that would make us unwilling or unable to share our household with birth kids. Remembering that really helped me feel less stressed when I first starting doing care.

I never worked for the state. Except when I do respite care, my placments are supposed to be permanent. I am not adopting them, but I am committing to trying to form a life-long relationship with the youth. I was afraid that I would fail because the youth would do things that I could not live with. It was a relief when I realized that making an commitment to a relationship did not mean commiting to allowing someone to live with me if they behaved in unacceptable ways.

O'Brien is clearly aware that the foster care system is not set up to support permanent commitments. I happen to work in a permanent placement program, but that is rare. (0'Brien is not committed to permanent foster care. He pushes for adoption or legal guardianship for all kids. I imagine he would agree that sometimes permanent foster care is appropriate.)

O'Brien does seem to have unreaistic expectations. Given what he says above it is clear that he understands that unconditional commitment does not mean allowing people to live with you no matter how they behave, but it would be easy to forget that when he talks about the problem of homelessness among former foster youth.

O'Brien also minimizes the problems of getting youth to ACCEPT unconditional love. There is such a thing as attachment disorder and there are kids who will reject families, no matter how much commitment, training, and support families have.

But that does not mean that he is wrong that we undervalue permanence and that the foster care system is not set up to create and support it.


  1. rossecorp3:53 PM

    I will probably have to write a whole post myself about Pat O'Brien's philosophy, but for now I just want to say that I find it incredibly over-simplified. As you point out, he doesn't take into account what the chiild brings to the placement in terms of the child's ability to attach. Also, he doesn't address the whole idea of "fit" between parent and child (although he may do this elsewhere). Comparing the unconditional love a parent has for a bio child to how one goes about parenting a foster/adoptive child just completely disregards all the complicated differences between those two types of relationships. Becoming a parent to an older child who is a stranger is very, very different than becoming a parent to a bio child, and to expect the one to be just like the other is to set the relationship up for failure.

  2. My two cents is also that a lot of teens are MORE comfortable with NOT "abandoning" their birth family but just "living with" someone else (and denying that they really feel safe, comfortable and loved there b/c we all know teens won't ever verbalize THAT). I had a kid once on my caseload that was with the SAME foster family from age 12 to 20, never wanting to be adopted, went back to his foster home every holiday and all breaks from college but said that he just feels like he has two familes and that had he been "taken" from his bio family and adopted he would have felt like his existance prior to age 12 didn't count/matter and he was supposed to "start fresh" without a "past" (his words).


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