Languishing in foster care?

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Mar 13, 2006 12:05 AM

The suitability of gays as adoptive or foster parents has been in the news across the country. Several states are considering bans on gays as foster parents within their state social service agencies.

Catholic Charities in Boston just shut down its adoptions program rather than capitulate on the issue. But the question is poorly posed. Instead of asking whether gays should be foster parents, we should ask, what would be most helpful for foster children?

This "child-centered" question can be answered without going into the "adult-centered" question of what agencies should do or not do about gays.

My husband and I have an adopted son and a birth daughter. We have been foster parents for San Diego County since 2003. So I have practical experience, in addition to my social science training.

Here is a story that illuminates why kids languish in foster care.  At a recent meeting of foster parents, the president of the foster parents’ association introduced the evening’s speaker. "This is Joe. He is one of our favorite social workers. He talked 19 birth mothers into relinquishing their parental rights." The audience burst into applause.

Then the president of the foster parent association added with a sigh, "but he’s not allowed to do that any more. The lawyers got to him."

Heavy sighs all around.

These foster parents have seen many birth mothers who were underage, unmarried and drug addicted. That experience convinced them that the social worker was doing a service to the babies, to society, and to the mothers themselves by gently and sensitively convincing them give up their babies for adoption.

This problem in foster care is the absurd deference shown to birth parents. In a sane universe, no adult would encourage these young women to "fight for their parental rights." But we have taxpayer-supported attorneys whose full-time job is to do just that.

It even goes beyond the initial intake into the system. Usually, family reunification is the goal. The parents have a limited time to show they can provide a safe environment for their children. Not a good environment, mind you, just a safe one. If the case does go to adoption, blood relatives get priority over foster parents, who may have been caring for the child for months.

Let’s see a show of hands: Does the prospect of distant relatives popping up at the eleventh hour of an adoption make foster care more or less appealing?

Sometimes a birth mother continues having more children, even while she has kids in foster care. The agency approaches the current foster parents to see if they’d be willing to take the new baby. But continued contact with this mother is part of the deal.
Picture yourself in this situation: you’ve got a child, maybe two, whose adoption will be finalized in the next few months. You’ve been doing family visits with these kids’ relatives for the past year to eighteen months. Let’s put it charitably and just say that you aren’t fond of the family. If you agree to take the mother’s new baby, you will be doing another year of those visits, even though the adoption of your other kids is finalized.

Let’s see a show of hands: Does continued contact with the birth mother make you more likely to take that new baby, or less likely?

There were 518,000 children in foster care in 2004, according to the Children’s Bureau, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These children are not "languishing," for want of adoptive parents: most of these children are not available for adoption. Of these half million children, only 65,000, or one in eight, have had their parental rights terminated, the necessary legal step making them eligible for adoption.

According to a survey done by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, nearly one quarter of ever married women had ever considered adoption, and 1.6 million had actually taken concrete steps toward adoption. This sure looks like enough people are interested in helping the 65,000 kids in foster care who are actually ready to be adopted.

American families literally go to the ends of the earth to do international adoptions, some 19,000 in 2001. These families spend thousands of dollars, and sometimes bring home older children or difficult children with special needs. The one problem they don’t have to worry about is some grandmother in Guatemala or birth mother in Belarus popping up ten years later, claiming their parental rights had been slighted.

So the unreasonable deference to birth mothers is more than just harmful to their own kids. It is a huge factor in discouraging otherwise willing married couples from becoming foster parents.

And what attitude lies behind this deference? Birth mothers are entitled to unlimited sexual activity, with only the outcomes they want. If they want to hang on to their parental rights as long as possible, they can. As long as they meet the (very) minimal requirements of child care and protection, they can keep their kids and keep making more of them.

It’s all about adults and their rights, not about children and their needs.

In other words, the child welfare law has institutionalized the least defensible features of the sexual revolution. Sex is an entitlement. The consequences of sex are all negotiable. Kids are an afterthought.

This is why the question of what gays do or don’t do is beside the point. The most enthusiastic advocate of gay parenting has to admit that it is an untried social experiment whose full ramifications are unknown.

The foster care system has not yet recovered from the sexual revolution. Let’s clean up that mess before we start another round of human experimentation on the most vulnerable children in society.