' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Foster kids do best when placed with extended family

Monday, December 5, 2011

Foster kids do best when placed with extended family

A couple who adopted nine boys through the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DFC) has been charged with sexually assaulting two of the boys, reports The Hartford Courant. George Harasz and Doug Wirth had been certified as foster parents, and a private adoption agency had recommended the adoptive placements to DCF. The two men also ran a puppy breeding business in the basement of their home and put the boys to work in it. In 2009, Harasz was cited for cruelty to animals when an animal control officer found 50 dogs in the basement. “Police said the room had inadequate ventilation and the smell of urine and feces was overwhelming.”*

This is just one of many stories of children being abused, even murdered, in foster or adoptive homes that appear daily in the media across the United States.  

Back in the 1970’s as a young lawyer in Portland, Oregon I represented parents whose children had been taken from them by the state Children's Services Division (CSD).  I soon recognized that, for the most part, these parents were not bad people; they had done things, often because of poverty, and, in some cases, ignorance, that the state and the courts considered neglectful. As a birth mother, I had a lot of sympathy for these parents.

Oregon followed what I came to call the “washing machine” philosophy of child welfare: place children in a “neutral” setting, far from their homes, where they would be “cleansed” from the taint of their biological family. CSD workers occasionally allowed parents to visit their children under supervision, but often cut off visits at the insistence of the foster parents. They complained that children cried when their parents left and were hard to settle down, demonstrating, according to CSD workers, that the parents were a negative influence. CSD workers also routinely dismissed parents’ complaints that their children were mistreated in foster care.

Several years later I went to work for the State of Oregon as a budget analyst, and, as chance would have it, my first assignment was CSD. I learned that a driving force behind child welfare policy was the political power of those who provided “services” to children. Foster parent associations, group home operators, residential agencies--all had tremendous clout with legislators. When CSD proposed reducing out of home care due to budget constraints, providers showed up in full force, filling legislators’ heads with horror stories about children murdered by their parents. CSD administrators supported the providers, aware that currying favor with providers was necessary to stay in their job. Legislators responded by reducing funds for in-home services and increasing them for out-of-home services. (No child was going to die on their watch.) A sad note: years later I read that the directors of two prominent residential agencies sexually molesting children over a lengthy period of time.

I came to realize that to some extent CSD was not in the business of protecting children in their homes but in the business of supplying providers with children to keep providers in business. Child welfare operated much like our infant adoption system which has been twisted from its original purpose of finding families for children into finding children for would-be parents.

Although my career took me in a different direction, I kept an eye out for news stories about child welfare. In 1999, I was visiting my daughter who lived in Seattle at the time and happened upon an article about the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) and its efforts at reforming the system that so appalled me years earlier. NCCPR is a non-profit, tax exempt corporation whose directors read like a who’s who of child welfare experts. Here’s NCCPR’s “Quick Read” on child welfare. Things haven’t changed much since the 1970's:
“The failings of America’s child welfare system can be summed up by the very rationalization often used to justify the way it works, an approach that can be boiled down to ‘take the child and run.’ You’ve probably heard it many times: Sure adults may suffer when their children are needlessly taken away, but it is claimed, we have to ‘err on the side of the child.’ In fact, there probably is no phrase in the child welfare lexicon that has done more harm to children than ‘err on the side of the child.’

"When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates. For a young enough child, it can be an experience akin to kidnapping. Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished. One recent study of foster care ‘alumni’ found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be ‘doing well.’

..."A second study, of 15,000 cases, is even more devastating. That study found that even maltreated children left in their own homes with little or no help fared better, on average, than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

..."All that harm can occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are but the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population. …That same alumni study found that one-third of foster children said they’d been abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.

…"Furthermore, the more a foster care system is overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. …

"But that isn’t even the worst of it. Everyone knows how badly caseworkers are overwhelmed. They often make bad decisions in both directions—leaving some children in dangerous homes, even as more children are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kind of services. The more that workers are overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger so they make even more mistakes in both directions. That is almost always the real explanation for the horror-story cases that make headlines.  

… "The only [child welfare] systems that succeed emphasize family preservation.”**
Besides overusing foster care, Oregon’s CSD preferred to place children with strangers rather than relatives---although relatives were willing and able to care for the children or adopt them if their parents had had their rights terminated. More of the washing-machine philosophy. The rational was that “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree” and relatives can’t be trusted not to return children to their bad parents the minute child welfare worker turns her back. When the state did place children with relatives, it paid them at lower rates than it paid stranger foster parents. 

Eventually legislators had heard enough complaints about child welfare and passed a law in 2007 requiring CSD (now Department of Human Services, DHS) to make diligent efforts to find a child’s relatives and give preference to relatives for placement. The underlying rational is that "kinship care is as old as humankind, and family connections are truly deep in our DNA," wrote Lois Ann Day, director of Child Welfare program, in The Oregonian. Earlier in the year, we reported on this kind of placement in St. Louis that found that older kids (ten and up), kids with special needs, and hard-to-place family groups are likely to fare best when they are placed with extended family members. ***

The success rate for these kinds of in-family adoptions is huge. Relatives are likelier than strangers to be unfazed by a kid's special needs, such as being bipolar, because it's probable that the disorder runs in the family and the great aunt considering the adoption is already familiar with the condition because Cousin George has it too. Consequently, the family not only knows how to deal with it, but is willing to. Cultural connections and religion are likely to stay the same. You don't need to be a genius to understand that people do best, and are the most comfortable, when they grow up among their own kind and can recognize physical traits and talents in the people around them.


  1. AMEN! From one former foster - that barely touches the surface of what happens in foster care and the sad part is that the number they claimed, 20%, is a high estimate not the real number. I have yet to see a single former foster child that shared any of my foster homes since 1987. The last one I saw was a girl with 3 children - all ragged and runny nosed - looking as if she was living on the streets.

    We get dumped into a system which has no way out other than time and that also has very few decent people involved. Rape, murder, and any manner of abuse is common - by adults and other fosters and biological children of the foster parents.....

    I lived in 13 homes - in 6.5 years. I was not abused in 1 - the last one.

  2. My sister adopted teo children out of the system. After receiving horrific abuse at home, they went to a home that again abused them. The older child (3 or 4 yrs old) would go down and steal food for her baby brother (1 or 2). The next home was a loving stop but Catholic Charities wouldn give my sister any contact info. A chance meeting at a local library caused a reunion with the kind foster family and a life long friendship ensued. My neice is in jail, just had her fifth child, three adopted out and the oldest living with my sister and her husband. When reaching adulthood my niece looked for her mother and it didn't go well. They did drugs and went on a shoplifting spree together. My nephew sustained a head injury at 8 yrs old (hit by a car in the cross walk with a crossing guard present). He has fared better than his sister and is leading a productive life. Who knows how he would have done without the head injury.
    I wonder how the kids would have done if the state were to have found a family member to take care of the kids.
    My sister was one of the people that took in children that really needed a home and it was one trauma after another. We are all better people for having the kids in our lives but I wonder if they could have been spared if the early abuse was handled differently.

  3. This is an appalling story that highlights the lack of oversight and concern for children who are unfortunate enough to enter the foster care/adoption system.

    Kinship care is probably the best option for children in the majority of situations. Nevertheless it is important not to idealize the benefits of placing children with kin caregivers. Such placements still require careful assessment on a case by case basis. Not all extended family is what it seems, and the past history of potential caregivers, family or not, is ALWAYS relevant.

  4. Quoting Anon 10:03, "the older child (3 or 4 yrs old) would go down and steal food for her baby brother (1 or 2)."

    I'm assuming this happened in one of the foster homes (not in your sisters home) and they used this as an excuse to move the children? At any rate, I find it disturbing when foster homes call it "stealing" when a child helps himself to food. In this case it seems that the older child was seeking to protect the baby from hunger - hardly stealing in my opinion. My mother never would have called it "stealing" if I helped myself to a few extra cookies. She would have explained that it's not a good idea to gorge on cookies, but it would not have been considered a crime, as it so often labeled in foster homes.

  5. Anon 10:03 here
    @ Maybe. It occurred at one of the abusive foster homes. My sister did everything imaginable to help her adoptive children. Love does not conquer all.
    @ anon 10:07
    My sister provided a safe loving home. The kids were in every kind of therapy. My sister was a stay at home mom who to this day does all she can for my niece. She won't send her anything when she's using but when shes in jail my sister send her letters and takes her calls weekly. So my niece did get a loving mother but maybe if she was taken from the parents and put with relatives she wouldn't have encountered the abusive foster home that didn't give the kids enough food.
    Some kids just get the shaft by life, too.

  6. Kinship care is not necessarily great. I was a foster child in kinship care, dealing with family with alcoholism, depression, abuse etc, living in poverty at times. My social worker didn't look too carefully when she made her yearly visit. Kids who lose their parents are vulnerable, period. Outcomes for foster care or adoption can be good or bad, and kinship care is the same. Please don't unduly romanticize bio ties for these vulnerable kids.

  7. Former Foster Kid - While I hear you saying your life sucked in kinship care, I also hear you saying you think that poverty vs. being rich is really better. No offense, but I lived in FOSTER HOMES -no kinship care - that were wonderful in the money department, and trust me, money doesn't make up for anything - EVER.

    Every child has a different situation, but since you did have kinship care you have no idea what it is like to be completely alone in the world - I DO. I would have killed to have been dumped with some member of my family. No one wanted me... and trust me that hurts more than any amount of poverty, booze and stupidity. Knowing you truly are garbage that is only worth something if someone can collect money and warehouse you.

  8. Kinship care is the answer for some, not all. Especially when the kin have their own problems and resent having to raise their niece or grandchild or sister's child. There may be less abuse in kinship care, but there is still abuse.

    Our foster care system is terrible and rife with abuse. There need to be multiple solutions to even begin to fix it and more kinship care is just one, not the ultimate solution.

  9. We are not overly romanticizing anything--just showing that places that use kinship as a starting point for foster care have more successful results and happier, healthier kids overall than cities that do not.

  10. Lori, I don't think Former Foster Kid meant that money makes up for loss of original family. Poverty can mean more than just lack of money. It sounds to me that the alcoholism, depression, abuse etc, that FFK described were symptomatic of wider family dysfunction and very likely contributed to the poverty described in the comment.
    Intergenerational and extended family dysfunction does exist. It's real. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child identifies the family as the ideal environment for raising children. However, it also acknowledges that some families are unable to care appropriately for their children, and this applies to extended family too.
    Assessment needs to be the same for relative as for non-relative foster parents. The danger of not doing so was highlighted in Canada ten years ago by the death of 5-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin who died of gross neglect while under the care of his grandparents who had previous recorded convictions of child abuse. Their criminal history was overlooked, at least in part, because they were kin.

  11. HeavenstoBetsy wrote:"Assessment needs to be the same for relative as for non-relative foster parents."

    That is absolutely true but I think what this blog post is trying to do is counter the prevailing American attitude that biology doesn't matter, that it is love that makes a famly.

    I recently came across a quote from Oprah Winfrey that said "Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother".

    I was never in foster care but I most certainly would have preferred being raised by a competent and caring aunt and uncle rather than strangers.

  12. HeavenstoBetsy, thanks for your helpful interpretation of my earlier comment. I lived with the dysfunction that left my mom too damaged to parent me.

    Lori, I hear a lot of pain of your reaction to my words, and some assumptions. I'm truly sorry that you didn't have family who would step in to care for you. I can't begin to know your pain. Please don't assume you know mine, esp based on one short comment.

  13. Robin, I understand the intention behind this post and applaud it. However, I think that many readers who would otherwise be open to persuasion are going to be turned off by the categorical nature of the headline.

    I have always thought that when there is a legitimate point to be made, especially when it runs counter to a widely-held but mistaken belief, it doesn't help to go to the opposite extreme. People don't want to hear. If the goal really is to convince, a more nuanced approach is much more likely to be successful.

    With respect to the Oprah quote, it seems to me that she is universalizing her own experience with her mother, which by all accounts, was not good.
    However, it is interesting to note that she credits kinship care for giving her the strength to overcome the obstacles she faced in her early life.

  14. You can't fit nuance into a headline. But you got the point...so that is what counts

  15. Former foster kid said: " Kids who lose their parents are vulnerable, period."

    Reading these stories about foster care deeply distresses me. If parents are not going to take responsibility for their children then adoption is the better answer. I can't even imagine being battered from pillar to post like these children. Although I didn't get the warmest APs on the planet, I was a member of a family and had a home. Every child deserves that not to be tossed around again and again with no sense of security.

    It's easy to say the foster care system is broken but these are children's lives we're talking about, real human lives that are being damaged. And probably for some beyond repair.

  16. Robin,

    We agree that if parents can't/won't care for their kids, adoption is better than long term foster care. The thing is that many children are placed in foster care when the don't need to be there in the first place. Their parents are willing and able to care for them but need some short term help.

    What the experts tell us is that if the kids are to be adopted, kinship adoption is generally better than stranger adoption.

    Stranger adoption is no guarantee of stability. Adoptions from foster care often disrupt and the kids return to foster care, then to perhaps to another adoptive home.

    Because there are so many kids in the system, state officials allow unsuitable people to adopt -- thus the cases of kids who are abused and killed in adoptive homes.

  17. Jane,
    I would also rather see kinship adoption or a quick return to bio-parents when possible. However, it seems that the reality is that many kids get into foster care and stay there their whole growing up years with no sense of home and family.

    I was that vulnerable kid whose parents didn't take care of me after I was born. I am aware that there are no guarantees with stranger adoption. Actually it is very risky. But I do think there is a better alternative for kids than going from home to home for 18 years and then being aged out of the system.

  18. "You can't fit nuance into a headline."
    You could have in this instance. Adding a simple word such as "usually" would have done the trick.

    "But you got the point ... That is what counts."
    Actually I didn't need to "get the point" because I already have it. However, if I was not already in general agreement with the premise, I doubt if I would have read any further than the the headline.
    It seems to me that if one is trying to be persuasive, overstating the case only weakens the argument.

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  20. I was a DHS worker in Oregon. Prior to that I was on their clerical staff, and I was actually the person responsible (in my county) for conducting relative searches for ALL kids who came into the system. This was prior to 2007.

    I just wanted to clarify that though the legislation may not have existed until 2007, it was still considered "best practice" and was required per our agency policy.

    I worked really hard to find any and all relatives, exhausting every avenue I could find and sending letters to every potentially correct address. It was heartbreaking. I did occasionally hear from relatives who wanted to provide kinship care, but mostly I received letters back with the "no" boxes checked off and nothing more. Sometimes there were notes indicating they wanted nothing to do with the parent and feared caring for the children would open that door. I even had some relatives cite the old apple/tree argument (using those exact words) as a reason they didn't want to get involved!

    Because all of my work in this area was "behind the scenes" (in the clerical realm), and relative responses were confidential (unless they were willing to care for the children), it would have been easy to assume, as this post indicates you did, that none of these efforts were being made.

    I 100% agree that relatives should be the first option investigated when it's necessary to remove children from their parents. Not only can kinship placements contribute to more stability and permanent connections, but it can also allow parents and children to maintain a relationship even if the parent is not able to ultimately regain custody.

    That said, it's also important to realize that many parents involved with child welfare are survivors of abuse themselves. Sometimes parents don't WANT their relatives to be considered as placements; some refused to provide any information re: relatives at all. Many times their relatives also have child welfare involvement. This is not an apple/tree thing, it's the reality of intergenerational cycles of abuse, addiction, and mental illness.

    Part of what makes child welfare work so hard is that every single case is different. This seems so obvious, but the implications are huge. There is no way to "know for sure" what is best in any given family. I can guarantee you that every single child welfare worker's worst nightmare is for something bad to happen to a child on their caseload, be it in the home of their parent, kin, a "stranger" foster placement, a residential facility, or an adoptive placement. I did not take my responsibility, or the gravity of my decisions, lightly.

    I honestly loved the youth on my caseload, and though I left child welfare 6 years ago I am still in touch with many of them to this day. If there is anything I can do to help any one of them, you can bet I will drop everything and do it. They all have my cell number and my email and they know they can use them any time of day or night.

    This comment is not intended to defend "the system" in any way-I agree that it is broken in many ways. I actually left my casework job to advocate for changes in the way placement decisions are made, especially for older youth who so often get labelled with all kinds of unjustified mental health diagnoses and end up bouncing between residential facilities (THE most isolating, restrictive, and stigmatizing placement choice of all).

    I do thank you for providing a space where these important, and UNDER-talked-about, issues can be discussed and where information can be shared.

  21. Thanks for writing, FormerOregonian.

    To clarify, when I spoke of the apparent hostility to placing children with family members, I was referring to the 1970's and early 80's. I also know that child welfare gets a lot of undeserved criticism for trying to reunite families.

    I do appreciate the challenges of child welfare work. My sister was a child welfare worker in Chicago from 1965 to 1986.

  22. As a foster parent currently fighting to maintain the children I was entrusted with, I must ask, at what point is it considered too late for relatives to be the best interest? We have had twins for over a year and now that tpr is near the bond the kids have to us is considered null and void because distant relatives are available. Relatives that haven't ever been in the kids life before so at this point the kids are struggling with the visits occurring. I totally believe family should be the first choice when children need a safe place but with all the states being so pro family, is it still in the children's best interest to be moved again now after all this time just because of blood? what kond of damage will occur because we are "ripping" kids out of their loving, nuturing homes to place them with a new set of strangers.



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