Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fifteen Months

If you know much of anything about foster care in the US you probably know about the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The act requires that states initiate termination of parental rights proceedings after the child has been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months, unless certain exceptions apply or the judge decides that it is in the child's best interests. Generally any law about children is like that "You must do this unless the judge decides it is in the child's best interest to do something else." Anyway. There are good summaries all over the web. Here is one from The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gary's has now been in foster care for 17 months.

He has not lived at home for more than five years.

We have now hit the official moment in time, passed it in fact, at which the state must decide whether to initiate termination of his father's parental rights or explain why they believe it is the Gary's best interest that they don't. Note that that said initiate termination, not terminate.

There are lots of reasons why a judge may decide that it is not in a child's best interest for the parental rights to be terminated. It could be that the parents are working their case plan and there is a reasonable expectation that they will be able to care for their child soon. Some states, I believe, typically do not terminate parental rights until they have an adoptive family lined up. That the child was going to soon be 18 would be another reason not to initiate termination.

I find it all rather distressing. The law was written based upon the idea that there were children who could be adopted but were languishing in foster care, growing up there with no permanent home. It makes sense in those cases, but in Gary's...

I just explained the law to him, trying to down play it. I explained that his state social worker was going to have to write a recommendation one way or the other and since he was sixteen the worker would definitely talk to him about it. His guardian ad litem should also be getting in touch. I tried to be reassuring and tell him that what was required was that the court look at the question, not that they terminate his father's rights.

His response was all teenage bravado. "I don't care if they do. My father has made it clear that I am the last thing on his priority list so I don't see that it makes much difference if he has parental rights or not."

I get that anger. I really do. Gary is not wrong about his assessment of his father's priorities, and I think his priorities are defensible -- to a point. He has a lot of kids. One is a fifteen year old girl getting into all manner of trouble. Two are step daughters who are about 12 and 14, I think. Then there are three little ones, now between four and eight. Finally there is his 16-year-old son who is living in foster care, reasonably happy with his family, and be provided for by an agency that has extensive resources. Oh, and he (the dad) gave up a well-paying job in another state in order to save his marriage right before the economy went bust. Life is pretty tough.

So I have a degree of sympathy for the man. I also have anger at him for not paying any attention to his son at all.

But I worry that the system has somehow taught Gary that parents are replaceable, like tires on a car.

I have been officially asked if Roland and I would be willing to adopt Gary. My response was that Roland and I are prepared to parent Gary in any way that he needs parenting. If he needs adoptive parents, then yes, we would be willing to adopt. However, I don't support termination of parental rights. I don't know if anyone really cares what I think though.

We have been talking about guardianship, but there is no doubt that adoption would be better for us. There are adoption subsidies and medical assistance for instance. In some ways it would be better than guardianship for Gary. It is clear that if you emancipate from foster care or are adopted from it as a teen that you qualify for certain types of funding for college. If you leave via guardianship...well, there are no clear guidelines.

But all this doesn't take into account the fact that Gary's dad is his father.

Gary's dad is not like a tire on a car that you can replace at will with few to no consequences. He is more like a limb that you can replace with a prosthesis if you have to. Or maybe kidneys are a better analogy. A kidney transplant can be wonderful when needed, but you don't go around taking out kidneys, even ones that aren't working quite so well, because you happen to have a transplant kidney on hand.

Okay, all you adoptive parents who are angry at being compared to a prosthesis or kidney, please, take a breath. Remember I am talking about a teenager, specifically Gary, his dad and us.

Anyway, it was an email that set me off. The agency worker got some sort of message from the state worker indicating that he wanted to talk to us all about this and wanted to know if we are interested in guardianship or adoption. By the time it got to me it just sounded so ... casual.

Then I tried to talk to Gary and he was also casual, which is typical teenager self-protection. I get that.

Still, I sort of feel like I've fallen down the rabbit hole.

Social worker in a top hat, "Say, if we took out his kidney you'd give him a new one, right?"

Me, "Well, yes, of course, but..."

Gary, "Fine with me. I don't like this old kidney anyway."


  1. I have been thinking about this and here is my take on it. And for whatever reason, my feelings are strong.

    This child does not have a father any more than any adopted child has a first family. His "kidney" has atrophied. When was the last time that he even spoke to his father? Visited? Felt support?

    Gary needs a family. He needs to know that he belongs. I agree with you that when a child has a family they don't need a new one just because it might be better somehow, but please tell me what family this kid has? Show me ANYTHING to say that this person is his father.

    Please put him on the transplant list.

    Another though: Perhaps you are right and any action with cause his father to fly off the handle. Maybe it will be a wake up call. I get that it will be an emotional roller coaster ride for Gary, but isn't that better than nothing?!?! That way he gets that you want him, and maybe even his father wants him too and will step up. Or we confirm that the father can't give him anything, and thank goodness you can.


  2. There's part of me that agrees with you Kerry, but I still have hope. They haven't spoken for about 3 months. For years before that though Gary's dad made visited him regularly. For the first few months he lived here they spoke on the phone several times a week.

    I think it is confusing for him (the father) because he isn't sure what he can give Gary that we are not giving. I would like to keep the doors open and see what happens. I know that adoption wouldn't mean the impossibility of a relationship between them, but his dad might.

    Oh I don't know. We will see what happens.

    Right now I am just going with the flow.

  3. I have mixed thoughts about older child adoption. Recently, PB and I have begun talking more about what our role will be once the girls are older and we go back to foster care... it seems our county is placing fewer and fewer kids and our CW suggested older child adoption. So we've been thinking about it for a while.

    In some cases, where parents are absent, clearly incapacitated and unable to care for children, etc (or to used your analogy when the kidney has clearly failed), I think it's easier. But if the parents are there and are functional but choose not to care for their kids, or can't for some other reason that doesn't incapacitate them as a person, it's tougher.

    I think I come back to letting the kids have agency - when they are older, know their parents and understand what termination, etc. are all about, I think it just has to be their decision (the kid's).

    Sure, Gary is angry and he may be making decisions out of that anger. But he may also sense what he needs. I don't know... it's a hard thing. Good luck to all of you whatever you decide.

    (And sorry my comment got so long)

  4. Amanda,

    I agree about giving the kids a voice. I asked the social worker to tell Gary's counselor this was coming up so they could chat about it. It is a lot to get clear.

    And your comment was not too long. I love comments, all comments, short and long comments.


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