Friday, February 01, 2008

Committee Part 2: The Vision and My Dwindling Place

This reseach is part of a project intended to reduce the number of kids in care by 50%. There are some slogans that are developing. One of them is "reduction and reinvestment." They don't just want to reduce the number of kids in care, they want to take the savings from that reduction and convince legislators not to spend it on roads and bridges but to spend it on family welfare services.

And they are serious about that. They say know understand that it is ambitious, but some cities have done it and they think it can be done across the nation. It will include more attention being paid to first families and what they need. It looks like they are finding that parent support groups are one of the best ways to help first parents get their kids back. Parents are so overwhelmed by social workers, lawyers, CASA volunteers, and foster parents. Though some of these people may be on their side, wanting them to succeed, the parents don't FEEL like they are. There is at least one city where meeting with a representative from the local "Parent to Parent" group is the first thing that parents who lose their kids to care have to do. Another parent who has been there explains how everything works and helps them through the processes. They support each other.

No one thinks that reunification is always going to work, but the plan is to figure out what helps, and then to promote that.

From the agency's perspective, Plan B is kinship care. Placement with extended family has a much higher success rate than non-kinship foster care. When the parents are unable to provide a safe home, kinship care allows kids to live in places where they are more confident that they are loved. The children are more likely to develop safe relationships with their parents. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it works better than foster care.

Plan C is adoption or at the very least legal guardianship. Ideally a child's first placement would be his or her only placement. Kids may live with foster parents while reunification is being worked on, but if that fails they want for those foster parents to step up to the plate and adopt or accept legal guardianship.

Though the agency in the past has been dedicated to providing permanent foster care to kids, that is no longer the focus. They don't think that is the best option for kids. Foster care is not permanent. By permanency they mean "Parents first, families second, followed by adoption or legal guardianship."

And what I am so dedicated to just slipped right off the table.

I was glad when one of the alumni pointed out that even if they reduced the number of kids in care by 50%, there would still be the other 50%. This agency was one of the leaders in providing the best possible care for kids who NEEDED to stay in care, surely they were not going to abandon their dedication to those kids. The staff said no, they were not. They were also doing research on how to best help those kids in adulthood. They were very excited about how some cities had "wrap around services." One city even had a center, a one-stop location where young adults could go. This location had a common area just to hang out, and all sorts of paid personel and volunteers to help the emancipated youth. There were lawyers, social workers, a satelite office for the job services, and older alumni willing to mentor the younger ones. They also understood that the kids who would be left in care would likely be the ones with the most significant mental health and educational issues. They were researching how to respond to that too. There was this really interesting program in this one school system...

As exciting as that was, the alumni, two of whom were alumni from this agency, wanted to know if they were getting out of the foster care business. They had a sense that the agency itself had been their substitute parent. Though individual social workers and foster families didn't last, they agency with all its dedication and services, and money, had been there to help them. If one had to be in foster care, being in care with this agency was the best. That wasn't going to go away, was it?

And the answer was: not entirely, but already they were doing less of it.

The foster care alumni and I all deflated just a little. It wasn't that anything they were trying to do was bad, it is just that we all were in love with what the agency had been. The tried to reassure us. The head of research told us that the pendulum tended to swing back and forth. Right now everything they were doing was being directed by the mission of "reduction and reinvestment" but though they were not focusing on what they had in the past, they would not foget.

And I was left wondering where my place was.

I spoke individually with the researchers and told them that while I supported what they were trying to do, I didn't think it would work for all kids. I told them that I thought that adoption was too much for some kids, that it was wrong to have as a policy that the kids needed to be adopted in order to have a permanent place to live.

None of these researchers had been foster youth, care-givers, or even case workers. They are social scientists. They were surprised that I did not think "reunification, kinship, or adoption" wasn't the answer for everyone. I explained, "With Evan it would have been just inappropriate. His mother was in jail. She was, and is, his mom. I'm the person who has promised that he will have a place to stay while he is in college. He knows I will always be around, but I'm not his mom. Even when she got out of jail she couldn't provide him a home, but there wasn't any competition between us about who was the real mother. She's his mother. It would have been hard for Carl. His mother had died. He needed permanence, and he got it with us. He is still part of our family. Being adopted though would have been an emotional stress he did not need. He would have felt like he was being disloyal to his mother. He didn't need to be put through that. If there had been a push to adopt him he would have managed, but it would have been one more stress that he didn't need. David I would have lost. If we had started adoption proceedings with him, he would have disrupted."

They were stunned. Why in the world, if I had this wonderful relationship with David did I think he would have bolted if I tried to adopt him? "Because intimate relationships are frightening to David. As long as I was playing it low key, not allowing our relationship to become emotionally risky, I could promise to be there for him. Adoption though would have been like getting married. It would have been too much for him. Trying to adopt him would have pushed him to a place that did not feel safe and he would have left.

"Most of the kids in the pemanency program in The City are kids who have experienced a disruption. The reason they are in permanent foster care is that they don't want to go through that emotional risk again. Insisting that they must would be, for those kids, emotional abuse."

I did concede that legal guardianship might not be different. (Later Roland and I agreed that David might have welcomed legal guardianship if it had been presented as a way to get the social workers off his back.) One of the alumni spoke up and asked them to remember that different kids needed different options. They agreed, but it is clear to me that the notion that permanent foster care could be the right answer for any kid had become forgein to these people -- people who worked for an agency which for forty years had been in the business of serving kids for whom permanent foster care was the best solution.

Anyway, I came away from all this thinking a couple of things.

First, I think I can do reunification care, if Brian can. I think he is getting old enough that he can deal with the experience of getting attached to someone who leaves for a home even if that home is not everything he thinks it should be. I think.

Second, I think that I can get comfortable with thinking of what I do as involving legal guardianship. I don't think they would have asked me to do that with Evan since he was so close to 18 when he moved in, but even if he had been younger, I think we could have made it clear to him and his mother that my being legal guardian did not mean that she wasn't still his mother.

Third, the slogan, "reduction and reinvestment" has begun to sound ominous to me. When it is about preventing the need for care, then it seems right to me. It means that instead of spending however much they need to spend to keep a child in foster care, they want to spend that money on programs that will allow kids to stay with their families. That I fully support. If they can help more parents in crisis to get out of crisis and form stable homes, then I am all for it.

But I also wonder if adoption and legal guardianship are also viewed in part as ways of saving money. If they are, I confess to being worried and perhaps unwilling to go with them.

I keep thinking about Evan. I was asked to take him on as a renter. I said no. I am SO GLAD that I did. Because the only way I would take him was as a kid in my agency, my agency accepted him. Then he needed to go to rehab. The agency sent him to the perfect, private rehab center far away in another state. They paid for him to see a counselor that specialized in GBLT issues and chemical dependency. When he started triggering all my adult child of an alcoholic stuff, they paid for me to see a private counselor too.

It was wonderful. All those services have left both of us healthier and closer than we would have been. We could have got by with less, but I don't know how we would have survived with none. I shudder to think what would have happened if he was a renter and we learned he had a chemical dependency problem. I wouldn't be anything like a parental figure. I would have had no authority. I would not have known what to do and it would have been no one's job to help me.

Roland agrees. We can do reunification care, if Brian can. We can even do legal guardianship if it means that we will still have our agency's support. I could even adopt if, again, it doesn't mean going it alone.

I know that a lot of you adopt older kids, and I do admire you for it. I sometimes feel like I am the cheerleader for teenagers in the system. I think they are amazing and wonderful to work with. I want to keep working with them. But I realize I want to do it in partnership with my agency. I read Cindy's and Claudia's blog and I know I just don't want to face what they face. Someone DOES have my back, and I can't imagine giving that up.

Of course, I don't know in what ways the agency plans on supporting parents who adopt or accept legal guardianship. It might be everything I need it to be, even if it isn't everything I want. I do know that I have a lot of questions to ask.


  1. Be careful of legal guardianship. In our state, it puts you on the hook if your kid breaks the law or damages property. It also means that you receive less (and in some cases no) monthly support check.

    Obviously, all states differ, but it's something to be aware of.

  2. Being the legal parent or guardian anywhere means that you have legal responsibility for what a kid does. When you let your kid get a driver's license before he or she is 18, you are taking legal responsibility for them. Kids can't be sued, so the parents are.

    At least here, it is the civil, not criminal, issues that can kick in.

    That is a risk I can face. And the monthly reimbursement checks are really helpful, but I can imagine going on without them. What I cannot do without is knowing that there will be someone who is committed to helping the kids get the services they need.

    I know most of you don't have that, but I do, and I am spoiled. I just can't imagine living without it.

  3. That is all well and good, but rememebr there will ALWAYS be kids that are in need of services and families that are unable to have them return home. In my child's case, ALL of the family had mental health issues and were unable and unwilling to do kinship care. There was no alternative but seeking an adoptive home. My child was actually labeled "unadoptable" and was put on the permanency track due to all his issues and the imminent need for residential care.

    In my state a child can decide at 14 years old if he/she WANTS to be adopted. If he.she does not, they will automatically be put in permanency care and start independant living classes.

  4. Sheri,
    My understanding was that in all or at least most states children 12 and over had to consent to adoption.

    I have noticed here that in actuality 14 is the age where the social workers stop pushing them to change their minds.

    I do like doing the sort of permanency work I do. I hope there will still be the same sort of support for doing it.

  5. Not in Indiana, children 14 and over do get to deny adoption. However, the state will still seek a permanent placement with adoption as an option. I had one not too long ago.

  6. I'd be careful to assume that legal guardianship gets social workers off your back. Maybe. Not in our case.

  7. I've been very happy with our social workers. One of my concerns about legal guardianship is losing their support.

    David however might have liked the idea that he didn't have to have the social workers give him permission to do everything he wanted to do; we could sign the form so that he could go somewhere, or take driver's Ed, or...

    and there is Foster Abba's point. Having it would have meant being responsible for those decisions.

    I would be interested in hearing more about what legal guardianship has and has not meant for you.


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