Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
Horrific child-abuse cases make headlines, and we are thankful that those children were saved from the horrors in which they lived and will hopefully get set up for a brighter future. But not all cases of abuse or neglect are so clear cut. Of course, when authorities suspect a child is in danger, they must remove her from her home while the situation is assessed and sorted out. But what happens next? Should a child be returned to her parents? Or should she be kept in temporary foster homes until her parents can be trusted to resume custody safely? And when is it appropriate to take that ultimate step of severing permanently the ties between a child and his parents and having him adopted by new parents?
A recent article in the New Yorker highlighted some of the difficult issues facing social workers, judges, and others who must make these life-or-death decisions. Rachel Aviv, the article’s author, also raises serious questions about some of the assumptions under which this system operates. “What’s best for the child” is, of course, the goal and the argument both sides invoke in these disputes. But what is truly best for the child is not always clear.
Aviv traces the historical shifts in how child-welfare experts have approached this issue: Originally, the goal was to keep families together in nearly all situations, but over the past 40 years, authorities have put increasing emphasis on moving these children permanently to new homes via adoption. This policy was encouraged through various governmental policies, including the 1997 Adoption and Safe Children’s Act, which sped up the timeline for adoption and gave states financial incentives to boost the rates at which children were adopted from foster care.
However, more recently, researchers have been examining the trauma that many children endure when they are removed from their homes permanently and the potential negative effects of foster care. Some experts are questioning the dominant thinking, calling for permanent removal—adoption–to be used only in extreme and rare situations. Aviv reports:
Sacha Coupet, a professor of law at Loyola University Chicago, who used to work as a guardian ad litem and as a psychologist, worries that the Adoption and Safe Children’s Act, by promoting “adoption as the normative ideal,” has made it easier to avoid “dealing with the enormously complex root causes of child neglect and abuse,” which may have little to do with parenting skills. “There’s this very American notion that mothers should be self-reliant, capable of taking care of their kids without any support, when that’s just not the world we live in,” she said. She finds that child-welfare agencies often “rush to get to the end of the story,” creating a middle-class fairy tale: “a poor kid is rescued by the state, given a new mom and dad, and the slate is wiped clean.”
Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University of Law, who represented children in court for more than a decade, believes that before long we will look back at the policy of “banishing children from their birth families” as a tragic social experiment.
By delving into a single, powerful case study, Aviv illustrates many of the thorny issues and deeply problematic assumptions under which the system currently operates and gives credence to those, like Coupet and Guggenheim, calling for a new approach.
This argument is not in any way to defend abusive parents at the expense of their innocent children, who we must continue to protect with every weapon at our disposal; the effects–physical and psychological–of severe or chronic abuse or neglect are dramatic and horrific and can last a lifetime. But for the many kids removed from their parents’ homes that are not victims of abuse like this, that nagging question of what is best for the child might not be as clear-cut as the reigning system has made it seem. (more…)Add a Comment