Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Voluntary Relinquishment In Foster Care

I have got some really interesting comments on the posts about adoption. A couple of them are written by people who do not have blogs, and I am thinking about republishing them as posts, since I know most people don't go back to old posts to read comments. (If you do have a blog, I will let you decide whether to post any comments as posts on your own. If you are one of the people who don't and would rather I not push your comment up to a post, let me know.)

Many of the comments have focused on the issue from the perspective of foster care. That makes sense. I usually write from that perspective. I should write from that perspective since that is the only practice that I know something about. I have to be careful though, because I really only know about one part of it: the care of teenagers for whom foster care is the long-term or permanent plan. Frankie was the first kid for whom there was any question.

I don't have any experience with children in foster care -- just teenagers. I have no first hand experience of caring for a child or teen whose plan is reunification. If I know anything about that, it is from reading blogs, articles and books.

So...all that said, I think I do want to write about voluntary relinquishment within the general context of foster care. And by "the general context" I mean families whose kids are in or may soon be in foster care. I know that is vague, but there it is.

Now what I was writing before was different. I was thinking about relinquishment of babies for reasons other than the ones that get kids taken into foster care. I was thinking about women who are privileged relative to those women whose kids are taken. Now, I want to be careful here. I agree with Zoe that the women who are in the position of considering relinquishment are not a privileged bunch. What I mean is just that before I was thinking the advertising and coercion that happens in the US to women who are making that choice. Here I want to talk about women who are facing having that choice taken away from them.

So the question is: should voluntary relinquishment of older children be possible?

And I think the answer is, under some circumstances, absolutely yes.

The most obvious situation in which it makes sense is when termination is inevitable, the parents understand that, and agree that it is better for the child for it to be "over with." I would not dream of trying to give more specific criteria than that. It may be that it is often better for a child to know that his or her parents fought. In some cases it may be better for the child to know that his or her parents agreed that relinquishment was best.

There are other more complicated situations too. I think that it should be possible to self-report. Z left a comment (scroll to the end) about her biological grandmother calling social services and telling them to take her kids. Z later in her comment says things that indicate that her biological grandmother had a history of abusive. I don't know all the details in her case. I think though that a parent could come to understand that they are unable to control themselves so as to be minimally good parents. I think it should be possible for them to call social services and say that the kids are not safe with them and asked for them to be placed.

I think that voluntary relinquishment (signing away parental rights) and voluntary placement (putting your kids in foster care while keeping your parental rights), should be available. I believe that voluntary relinquishment once termination proceedings have begun is legal everywhere. I don't know about voluntary placement. I am guessing that in most places you can call social services and ask them to take your children temporarily if you are about to go to the hospital to have surgery and there isn't anyone else who can watch them. I suppose there are other cases, and that what is allowed in theory and practice differs. I would also guess that any time you invite protective services into your life you risk them making judgments about you, and taking action on those judgments.

Anyway, it seems obvious to me that voluntary relinquishment and placement are acts that can be ethical and should be allowed under some circumstances.

Now, here is part of why I think that in the US our practice within foster care, at least how it works in theory, can be better defended than our practice in private infant adoption.

In private infant adoption, the professionals who deal with the parents are not obligated to first help the parents parent successfully. Their obligations are not even necessarily to the best interests of the child. In fact their professional obligations may be to the potential adopting parents. Now many people in the industry may very well be dedicated to the best interests of the child. There are probably some ethical agencies that only help mothers place babies if they are confident that the mother understands all her options. How often it happens that way I cannot tell you.

Relinquishment and placement within the context of foster care is different. In that system the social worker is professionally obligated to help the parent parent. I know that there are cases in which the system gets it wrong, and it can happen in either direction. At least some parents who were decent parents lose their children and some really abusive parents have their children returned. I know that our actual practice in the US is underfunded, understaffed, and often fails to be what it should. What I want to say though, is that we have our ideals in the right place. The laws and policies we write are attempting to do the right thing: help parents parent their own children and find new parents for the children only when that really is the only good alternative.

If I could make one reform in the adoption industry in the US, it would be that the people in the industry be committed to that ideal. The goal should be to help parents parent their own children. Finding new parents for children should be pursued when that ideal cannot be met. Note that I am not saying that the parents should be ideal.

Now that needs to be tweaked, because I do think that a woman should not be morally obligated to parent because she got pregnant. If a woman gets pregnant, chooses not to terminate, I think she should have the option of placing. And I think that if she decides to place genuine efforts to identify the father should be made. He also should have the option of parenting. I just think that the person who is working with the parents should not come to the table with that objective. The person on the other end of the conversation should be saying things like, "Have you considered all your options? I can help you apply for welfare benefits, if you like. Someone here can help you tell your family. If you want to parent your child, we will help you" and not things like, "Thank you for considering the beautiful choice of adoption. We have profiles of many wonderful parents who will love and care for your infant."*

I suspect that making that one reform would mean shutting down the private adoption industry altogether. Though it is certainly possible to be a private agency committed to ethical practices, the pressure to be otherwise is enormous. It is, after all, the adopters who are paying the bills. No private agency stays in business if it is too successful in helping first parents be the only parents.

The thought that we might shut down an industry may cause many US citizens to gasp, but it really isn't all that unusual. There is no private adoption in Australia, and I am pretty sure there is none in Canada. Anyone know about the rest of the world? I wonder how many places have a public system capable of handling all adoptions existing along side a private one.**

Okay, I said I was going to talk about foster care and not about private adoptions, but I guess I lied. Perhaps I should tell you that I decided to cover adoption issues in my last ethics class. I had to do some digging for information and articles, because it is not in any of the anthologies. I haven't been so complacent since.

*That is part of a radio ad I heard a month or so ago. I don't know that that agency's representatives who talk to the young women say that, but their commercials do.

**At least in Australia mothers who place infants in the public system do help pick the adoptive parents for their children. The public system can include the features we value.


  1. I am not a religous person but to this:

    If I could make one reform in the adoption industry in the US, it would be that the people in the industry be committed to that ideal.

    I will say AMEN!

  2. here in Holland we have about 30 domestic infant adoptions a year (our country has 16 milion people) (other then foster parents or stepparents or non biological mother etc). For those children international adopting parents are asked to consider adopting a child. I absolutely believe that this has to mostly with our social security, our sexeducation . on the other hand adoption is almost a taboo here. A christian party suggested making adoption an easier option for woman who found themselves pregnant against their wish> My catholic and former infertile MIL was fuming. She remembers the pushy adoptionpractices from the 50's and 60's and knows women who were heard and damaged... Adoption here is realy not done. Abortion is way more accepted. We do have a less abortions percentage compared to the USa by the way. So it is not that the children that are adopted in the USA die here. Birth control, social security and sex education are the best weapons against abortion too (but I am sure you knew that )..

    Sorry for my english I soem how struggle this evening! (difficult subject)

  3. yet another topic on which you could publish and stay in your field!

  4. There's one problem with voluntary placement of children in foster care: The family is required to pay for their care. And from what I've heard, it's far more than what foster parents are actually paid. And if the child requires residential care, they would have to pay for that as well.

    One family had adopted children from foster care. One child was far too dangerous, they discovered, to stay at home. They could not afford to pay for residential care, and the only alternative offered to them was to terminate their parental rights completely. In doing so, they would be considered to have abandoned this child. And if you do that, you are then investigated and risk losing the other children in your home.

    Can you imagine????

    You can read the entire story in the book Tiny Titan ( The first part of the book is about their struggle to keep one of their bio children alive; the second half is about the adoptions and afterwards.

  5. Technically I've got a blog (LiveJournal counts!), but considering I average four posts a year... if for some reason you feel like quoting me, go ahead!

    Oh dear gods, I didn't know calling CPS and saying "I can't do this anymore, take my kid," counts as ABANDONMENT. While I can see how it would feel like it for the kid, any parent worth the title would not do that lightly. Any parent not worth the title who would do it probably shouldn't have kids anyway. (I'm not adopted, I've never been in foster care and my parents are awesome, but this doesn't stop me from really hating people who never should have had kids, did anyway, and screwed them over.)


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