Friday, August 21, 2009

Fair Use of Resources

Both FosterIma and zunzun left comments in response to Gary saying that he was going to "suck the agency dry."

There is a serious and not so serious side to this.

The not-serious side is what Gary meant by "suck dry." Gary asks for less than any of the other kids. Even when he knows the agency will pay for something he doesn't always accept. The most recent example is the guitar. He's decided that he doesn't have time to make playing the guitar a hobby (read: classical guitar is more difficult and less fun than he expected and he doesn't want to practice). Some of the kids would perhaps not be so honest with themselves about practicing and they would take the guitar. Gary has no intention of seeing how much he can get. He was thinking about minimizing the expenses to us. He's much more relaxed than he used to be. He no longer orders the least expensive thing on the menu if we eat out or deny that he needs school supplies that he needs. Even so, he would be more comfortable if the agency was paying for his school uniforms and maybe even driver's education. (An update before I even publish: Gary just came home and said there is no way he is going to pass classical guitar unless he can practice at home. I just emailed asking if there were funds available. So please pretend I found a different example.)

The serious side has to do with the use of resources generally. This is a topic that can quickly get very murky. I'm about to turn into a philosophy professor here, okay.

Thinking carefully about maximizing the benefit of our resources is an important part of distributive justice, and it is a difficult topic to keep nailed down. The problem is that it necessarily involves talking about non-existent alternatives and the possibility of making those alternatives real. Now sometimes that is easy. Brian went along when I took Gary to the physician last week. I had forgot to eat before we left and when we left I was getting tremble-y. I looked in my wallet and saw I had just over $6. I took the boys to the golden arches drive through, said I was getting a small milkshake and they could each have something that cost under $2. Now I could have driven to Sonic and bought myself an expensive milk shake and let them suffer. That would have been wrong.

Now consider if we were running a health care plan. We might decide that we wanted to cover the maximum number of people. So we might say that we would make sure that everyone in our geographical area got basic care, but that we wouldn't pay for cosmetic surgery or some such thing.

What both of those examples have in common is that the person making the decision is able to re-direct the unused resources somewhere else. Often that is not the case.

I just emailed the social worker about the guitar that I had thought we weren't going to need. Since the agency worker is gone, I copied her supervisor. I wrote a note directly to her at the end saying, "Gary is taking classic guitar at school and is not able to bring the school instrument home to practice. I believe that a student-quality instrument is a legitimate expense if funds are available." I didn't tell her that if they don't approve it, I will take him to the pawn shop and buy him a used guitar. I don't know anything about them and won't know if I am buying junk, but I will make sure he has something.

Now I trust the agency workers to be good stewards of their resources. They know how much money they have to spend. They will know if buying Gary a guitar means that some other kid won't get orthodontic work. I think they are more likely than not to buy one since he is taking guitar in school, and going to an arts charter school where some such class is required. If he just wanted to take guitar lessons, they would probably tell him that he needed to come up with a certain amount of money and then they would pay the rest.

The next question: would adopting Gary allow the agency to use their resources on other kids.
Answer: yes. They have room for a certain number of kids and there is always a waiting list. Their case workers have lighter case loads than the state and they have money for things like guitars. If we took Gary out by adopting him, some other kid would get in.

The NEXT question: should we therefore adopt Gary as soon as we can?
Answer: not necessarily.

First, Gary is almost 17. For us to adopt him before his 18th birthday tax dollars would have to be spent on terminating his mother's parental rights. Lawyers would have to be paid. Court time would be used, and there is no reason to be confident that it would all get accomplished before his 18th birthday anyway. I can't even tell you how quickly we will do it after his birthday. It will depend upon what is best for him, us and the rest of the family. I won't be taking the agency's budget into consideration and I don't think they would expect me to.

Second, so far the agency has resisted that sort of thinking. They make decisions for the kids in their care the same way I make decisions for kids in mine: the kids we have come before the kids we don't. Peter Singer would no doubt argue against that, but that is the principle the agency and I both use, more or less. Over the years the agency has made decisions that allow it to serve more kids, and some of those decisions have meant that kids in the program don't get as much as they did in the past. Mostly though it has been about accepting state money in exchange for allowing the state to have a greater say in what kids they serve. Those decisions however are made at the level of the whole organization, not at the level of the particular child.

They are exploring ways in which they might be more supportive of legal guardianship and adoption because they think that might be better for the kids. They don't have anything organized however. I was hoping that they would. After my experience with Evan I want them to have policies about helping in extreme situations. If my kid is going to need very expensive care that my insurance won't cover, will they help? There is no indication that they want to provide that sort of insurance for an unlimited number of kids. Still, where their policy once was, "we take kids for whom adoption and ruinification reunification have already been ruled out, so it isn't up for discussion except in the most extraordinary circumstances" it now on its way to becoming something else. Whatever it becomes, I am sure that the decisions will be made based upon what is best for each child, not based upon getting some kids out so that they could get other kids in.

Now, here's an interesting question to which I do not know the answer: if the agency were to successfully encourage foster parents to take legal guardianship or adopt, would more kids have better outcomes? It would help the agency have an effect on more kids, but would it over-all be better? How many kids who end up not getting something they needed because they were adopted by the family that didn't have the resources. And again, I think of Evan and rehab here. Because he was 18 and gay, the agency sent him to a small, private, gay-friendly facility in LA. If they hadn't been around he would have had to go to a large adult unit which at the time was being investigated for a couple of patient suicides. (Had he been 18 and not gay, they would have found a different private facility which may or may not have cost less.)

Take into consideration that most people who adopt or take legal guardianship stop being foster parents. Wherever that line is for a particular family, it is out somewhere. If I am a foster parent getting full services, including someone to HELP when I don't know what to do, I am going to keep working with them longer than if I take full responsibility for the kids. I seem to remember reading a decade or so that when the federal government started giving more financial incentives to encourage adoption, one of the unintended consequences was a need to spend more money on recruiting and training foster parents. People left when they adopted.

Anyway, trying to make decisions to maximize positive results gets really complicated and difficult. there are just so many factors, not all predictable, that make a difference.

However, Foster Ima's question might have been intended to be much easier than the what I have been wandering around with. She might have been asking if I would allow Gary to try to get the maximum amount of stuff out of the agency, just so that he could. The answer to that is no, I wouldn't, and I wouldn't because it would not be fair to the other kids in the program.

(As I re-read this some of it seems to have a harsh tone that I did not intend. I'm too tired to try to re-write anything though. It is probably full of typos too.)


  1. All very interesting, Yondalla - thanks for sharing this. I'm too tired to make any deep observations, just to point out a possibly Freudian typo - you typed "ruinification" for "reunification" :-)

  2. Was I asking an easier question? I don't think so. I was hoping for the philosophy professor response (thanks!) but also the "how do you--either you, Yondalla, specifically or any parent or foster parent in general--address morally or ethically murky questions with your teenagers?"
    Your response to the easier question does touch on this a bit, but maybe less than I was hoping for.

    (BTW, please don't think of this as an assignment for another post :-) )

  3. Nice post. Your ideas sound a lot like what I was trying to explain to our SW about why I didn't think that it was necessarily in their best interests to push teens towards adoption if they didn't want it. I was trying to explain that I could be a permanent family without adopting. Raising a teen into adulthood can be very expensive and if I consider adopting a 16 year old without warning (and without 16 years of saving for post-secondary education), I figure I'm likely to be able to take on at most one or two. But, if I were to be their foster parent and define family as something broader than legal rights, I could see becoming that permanent family for ten kids over time. On the one hand, I'd be drawing money from the state for all ten of them for a longer time, on the other hand, wouldn't the option of family for ten be worth that cost?

    I look forward to your continuing adoption posts. (My question, although it's not really in the realm that you are considering, is how do you know if you are the right adoptive family for the child in question? In my jurisdiction, they separate foster parents and adoptive parents and strongly prefer that foster parents not adopt, but, rather help them transition the child(ren) to an adoptive home. I get that this system can work in many cases because it keeps people fostering and there are many people willing to adopt who aren't willing to foster. Also, foster placements can happen quickly and not be the best match. But, I question whether it is always in the best interest of the child to move. So, when we are faced with our first foster child who's eligible for adoption, it's going to be a challenge for us to figure out what is really best for this kid. How do you decide?)

  4. Foster Ima, how I address murky ethical questions with teens in general is an easy one: I listen a lot and ask some questions. I sometimes point out some issues. Yeah, I know. There isn't a good answer unless there is a real situation. I've been thinking about how to talk to Evan about his asking if I will adopt him (as opposed to just Roland). Can't decide whether to just tell him no, try to talk him out of it, or let it be his decisions. It's pretty murky.

    Fostering Dreams,
    It is a good question and sadly it seems to me that most of us don't know issues we handle well or poorly until we have actually started doing care. When people ask about matching for adoption I always send them to Claudia. For foster care most families take kids they are initially offered (refusing ones they know are outside their skill set), and then figuring out what works for them. Not very helpful, I know.

  5. Thanks for the response.

    The idea of trying it out seems non-ideal, but, understandable for fostering. (Even if we get a bad fit, there are lots of things that can be done for a limited period of time even if you know you'll ask not to do it again and most of our placements are expected to be less than a year.) But, adoption seems so much more complicated somehow. You don't get a chance to try it out--and it wouldn't be fair to change this--but, what happens when the fit doesn't work? Isn't that really damaging? (Oh well, for now we're just waiting for a placement...they had one come up where placement considered us, but, our SW pointed out a problem that was on our "cannot accept" list and decided not to present us with any more details--I think this might mean the system works as well as it can. The odd thing about being open to teens seems to be that the SWs love you because they have trouble getting families willing to take teens, but, the teens also have to choose a family over a group home and the group home can seem much more appealing.)


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