Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guardianship, ripples and reverberations

I had a really good lunch with Evan the other day. We talked about the whole guardianship issue. He asked good questions and came down more or less on the side it would be a good thing for Gary. At least likely enough that we should sit down with the social workers and agree on services so that we can let Gary make the decision. Probably.

He asked some questions I could answer. And we talked about what it meant for him. He was gracious and generous. He also asked me a question that I think was different questions at different levels.

"What happens if you both like die in a car crash?"

On the practical level this is an interesting question for which I don't have a good answer. Brian would go live with his uncle in another state. Andrew would mostly be on his own, although he would have extended family who would help him.

What about Gary?

Um... can I name a guardian for him in the event of my death? Could he go to the uncle's house too? Or would social services get involved again and decide what to do? I don't know. I don't think it is likely to happen, but it is an interesting and puzzling question.

But at another level Evan was asking a completely different question: whose a member of your family and who isn't? And he was asking about himself too.

I believe in permanent-placement foster care. By that I mean that I think for some kids it is the right solution and that it should be done deliberately. Kids shouldn't just end up in foster care until they age out. Instead there should be programs like the one I work in -- programs dedicated to understanding and meeting the needs of kids for whom adoption and reunification are not appropriate.

It is a strange beast though for the families involved.

When you do temporary foster care the message is, "As long as you live here, you are part of this family. Your needs are just as important as anyone's." Implicit in that message is of course that the foster kid isn't a real part of the family, not a permanent part. Someday you will leave and after you leave, it won't be the same. There are no particular expectations about what the relationship will be like, or even if it will exist, in 20 years. It is for-now. That can be deeply painful for all involved, but that is what it is. The relationships might last a life-time, but no one will have failed in their moral duties if we drift apart.

But I do permanent-placement foster care. There are expectations, but those expectations are not clearly defined. Legal guardianship is similar. Both suggest expectations of a relationship that will last past childhood, but there is no received understanding of what that means. I have tended to think of permanent-placement foster care as an attempt to create a relationship very much like you might have with one of your aunts. It is open-ended, but without obligation.

Legal guardianship is a different. It would mean that we and Gary give away our keys to the escape hatch. No one can just make a phone call and say, "Come up with a new plan." There is a commitment to each other that is recognized by the courts. And I think that when Evan asked me, "What happens if you die?" he wasn't really or just asking about who would take care of Gary if we die in the next two years. He was asking about what will happen if I did in 10 years or 50 years. He wants to know about inheritance, not because he wants or expects a pile of money, but he wants to know what the definition of the relationship is.

He wants to know if Gary is being admitted into a club to which he is not invited. He isn't jealous that I never became his guardian, but he is anxious about what this means going forward. Who are are real children? I think the conversation has brought out deeper anxieties about what exactly his relationship to us is.

Carl will be more anxious. He will need those questions addressed. Evan has the advantage of having family he is connected to. He is rebuilding his relationship with his mom and sisters. I am a part of his family. Though Carl has siblings in the world, he has no connection to them. We are all the family he has. He would be deeply hurt if he thought we were semi-and-permanently adopting someone else.

David ... I have no idea. I don't know how connected he feels he is to us now.

And this has the potential to reverberate into other relationships. Does it become the model, the expectation? Will other kids in the future judge our relationship by that standard? I doubt it will make sense to future kids that we don't do it for them because the agency and we feel that they need a higher level of service, that they, and we, need a social worker involved. This by the way really bothers me, and of course I cannot know anything about what the future holds. So part of me thinks this is just too complicated. There are too many and unpredictable negatives. We shouldn't do it.

So talking with Evan was helpful. He brought up many of the things I had already thought about and some that I hadn't. We with Evan talked about Gary's father and briefly about Carl and David. I wanted to know what he thought about it from Gary's perspective. The agency is pretty cool, most of the kids feel good about getting in with them. They know a lot more kids get recommended than get accepted. Still it is foster care. But I wanted to know, how big of a deal is it to get out of foster care? Is this something that he would guess that would be good for Gary?

He seemed to think it might be, and he sounded genuinely enthusiastic. He certainly thinks we should be asking Gary. He was a little confused about why we hadn't already. I told him that I wanted to be absolutely positive that if we offered it we weren't going to take it back. I have to think it all the way through.

And what I think I am coming down to is this. It is really complicated and there are a whole lot of reasons not to do it. There aren't a whole lot of specific reasons to do it. In fact there might be only one reason on the positive side: it might be the best thing for Gary.

And Gary might be the best person to decide whether it is.


  1. When we started looking at permanency for "Danielle," we examined guardianship, but decided against it because it seemed like a lose-lose situation. In our county, guardianship means that you lose the financial support of the agency, and possibly the state-sponsored medical insurance. It also meant that you assumed all the financial and legal responsibility if the child acted out. Worse, guardianship leaves the door open for the biological family to come back at any time to try to reclaim their child, which could result in an expensive legal fight.

    Were it not for the fact that the county has already tried to take "Danielle" away, leaving her in foster care would actually leave her open to more services.

    We've decided on the course of adoption because she'll be eligible for post-adoption services and will still receive her state-sponsored medical insurance. Of course we'll still be responsible if she acts out against other people or their property, but at least we won't have to worry about the county, or her biological family, coming to take her away.

  2. For us, the possibility that Gary's father could parent him again is a plus. If his dad really is ready to parent him, that would be a good thing for him. A sad thing for me, but a good thing for Gary.

    The problems are loss of services and issues amoung all the children.

  3. I know I've said this before, but in our county we got all of the same services for Ella that are available for a child in foster care, including reimbursement and health insurance. I wonder how much a future placement might worry about guardianship. In foster care cases go very differently depending on the situation and kids are pretty aware of that. Might they just think (appropriately so) that Gary's case was just different from theirs?


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