Monday, September 6, 2010

My Thoughts on Child Welfare

Recently I attended a birthday party of an "old" foster daughter. I hadn't seen this child in what felt like quite a while so it was especially nice to be invited and remembered. It was great to see her with her adoptive family. I'll call her Autumn to allow me to write without having to refer to her as her/she continuously, and still maintain her privacy.

Autumn was so happy at her new home, I could feel the sense of ownership and attachment when she called her adoptive mother Mommy and father Daddy.  I got a huge sense of joy from witnessing this happiness in her. This is really what my job of foster parent is to me. A temporary home for children who are on their journey through life toward their home with their family, either adoptive or biological.

Autumn also had a sense of sadness, when her present from her biological parents was brought out. Biological siblings were invited to the party but the biological parents were unable to attend. It was sad for me to see her play with her barbie from her bio parents. There was a dreamy far off look in her eyes, a sense of wondering. Where are my bio parents? Why didn't they attend? Where do they fit in my life now?  I know that there is an empty place in her heart when it comes to her biological parents. It is confusing to Autumn and I know Autumn believes there is something wrong with her and that is why her parents are not in her life.  I felt sad for Autumn realizing what she was feeling, knowing from experience when she lived with me. It was sad for me too having worked with her Biological parents. I truly felt the loss of their presence at the party. I cared for her parents (and still do), developed a  friendship and hoped that they would overcome there addictions and work towards getting Autumn back.  So I also felt pain and frustration with Autumn's sadness.

I recently finished  a book on Child Welfare.(Moving toward positive systems of child and family welfare : current issues and future directions) Something I found quite interesting was how different the experience of Foster Care and Child Welfare is overseas in the Netherlands and Belgium. They first and foremost have a less adversarial feel to their Children's Services and Foster care. The parents are first refereed to an organization where they attend classes 2-3 times a week to help them improve there tool box of parenting skills and also see a psychiatrist to help deal with past issues (99.999% of addicts are dealing with the pain of past issues, just like you and I would want, in my estimation and viewpoint, they are to be loved and not shunned or judged).

Overseas it is viewed as more normal for parents to slip up every once in a while; and because of this view often the parents will sign up voluntarily to get help instead of being mandated or forced to get help. The parent therefore, because of how they are treated (with respect and without threat of losing their children) does not feel like a bad parent attending these classes because it is normal to have problems and society and the community view them as normal and 'ok' and 'just like everybody else'; there is no sense of 'other' or 'worse than' or 'better than'.

If this first organization which is trying to help deal with the addictions and or neglect or other issues does not help accomplish the goals with the parents then it moves forward to a Judge. The Judge then will try different approaches, other community supports, other healing and helping methods, to support the parents and give them the tools they need. Putting the children into foster care, removing the child from the home, even a home where there is what we see as 'abuse and neglect' is only used as a very last resort and in the most serious of cases when they have run out of options and alternatives.  Removing the children from homes in these countries very rarely happens and also only when the physical, emotional or mental safety of the child is severely threatened. Even more rare is adoption of a foster child as foster care is almost always a temporary thing until the parents become more able to cope with life and to properly care for their children.

I thought of the  many Bio parents I've worked with over the past seven years. It is safe to say that they all (with the exception of one) believe the social workers and the system are against them. They have never felt safe, viewed as equals or that they were treated with respect (at least not that they have shared with Matt and I).  What kind of healthy working relationships can be created when dealing with the sense of fear, anger, and mistrust?  If the parent goes into it with a feeling of shame and defeat that comes from having to work with (i.e. 'being forced to') social services, well, I just wonder if there isn't a better way to make people who come into the child welfare system feel more human. Other countries wondered, and acted, and have far more humane systems of dealing with 'social issues'.

I'd like bio parents to feel they are not alone that we all fall short of being a perfect parent at times. Is there not a more loving place for the system to come from than one of inducing the fear of losing your kids and the sense of complete 'power over' that the Goverment and social workers are seen and felt to have over their lives?  Especially for when the root cause of their 'dysfunction' and 'challenges' is most often from abuse they have suffered. I would think that social work would work towards healing and helping the sufferer, not causing further hurt and harm by not addressing the real issues and not getting to root cause...and in my estimation, removing children often does far more harm than good (depending on the severity of the abuse, neglect and issues of course).  In 80% of the fostering cases we have seen, the children and parents are simply in a 'time out' anyway, without any real counseling or therapy or 'help' for either the parents, nor the children, being offered - or accepted or embraced if it is offered (again, this to me speaks of shame, mistrust, anger and a lack of relationship between Government social work and the parents -- all things which some other countries have managed to successfully overcome and navigate for the most part).

What is really wrong with humanizing the pain these parents have gone through? Few of us are perfect parents. Few of us have lived a life completely free of baggage and challenges. Over the years I have known social workers with mental health challenges, addictions challenges, relationship challenges etc., and they are treated humanely (for the most part).  Granted, usually these parents have more baggage to deal with than the average "Joe" but all the more reason to have compassion and to help heal where we can. We could be real with them and let them know we all have times where we loose it, get depressed, get addicted (TV, news, exercise, gossip, internet, drugs, alcohol), and that they are ok and just like everybody else.

I just wonder if there would be less of a need for kids to be removed in the first place if parents felt safe, non-ostracized, normal, human and didn't have the fear and threat of losing their children.  Would less children be removed because the parents were willingly accepting the help offered, and if that help was real, deep and effective, would that not help alleviate the issues so that Children's Services were no longer needed in their lives?  Why not strive to make it work?  Why not follow the models of other countries wherein a 3rd party mediates between the State and the Parent and every conceivable resource that particular family given.  Why not?

My hope is for a system where it is reasonable to expect and gain a relationship of trust with the parents who come into the Child Welfare System. I'd like a system that circles around the parents, bringing in the experts to help the family really delve into their challenges and give them the tools they need to face the problems that life brings (and that life has brought them thus far, for this is the root cause of their challenges). I would love to see supports in place to help the family through the problems they may be having like respite for overwhelmed parents or food and clothing vouchers for the poor and struggling, or addictions supports and counseling which is helpful and effective. Other things too like babysitting and daycare so they can go back to school and get out of their dead end jobs.

As happy as I was for the adoptive family and my foster children I wondered: is this really the best we can do for biological families?  Have we as society decided that this is the best we can and should offer?  I just feel so passionate about these families enmeshed in 'the system' and hope for a better way in helping children and their families, truly helping them.  Not allowing the abuse to continue, but also not allowing the environment of mistrust and power over and non-help to continue either. True helping, it's being successfully done elsewhere, why not here?