Monday, December 14, 2009

Looking Beyond the Least Bad Alternative

In 1994 I attended a mandatory training session for child welfare workers during which we argued the pros and cons of both foster care and keeping kids with abusive or neglectful parents. I remember thinking if I had to choose a side, I would probably come down on the side of keeping biological families together. The familiar is better than the unknown and no matter what, abused and neglected children always longed to be with their parents.

Fast forward about six years. By 2000, I had seen too many parents fail at keeping their kids safe and fail at reunification, but not before their children were too old to have a larger pool of adoptive homes to choose from. My heart always broke for the kids we could have saved at a age 2, but didn't set free for adoption until they were 8 or older and their behaviors were too scary for adoptive parents to consider. As time passed, I more often came down on the side of foster care and a commitment to fostering stability for a child.

I'm not the only one who changes sides on this issue. The system seems to favor one side until too many children are hurt, and then it sways to the other. It has always been this way.

Right now Los Angeles County is swaying toward the biological parent side. An LA Times article introduces us to Darlene Compton and her son, Jontay. Darlene has an extensive history of substance abuse and is not parenting her five older children. To her credit, she has some sobriety under her belt now and is caring for two-year-old Jontay with a significant amount of assistance from Children's Services. You can read all about Darlene and Jontay HERE.

What struck me about this article was a comment regarding the return of children to compromised parents as being the "least bad alternative". I'm familiar with this concept and write about it passionately in my book, Invisible Kids. Too often, social workers and others are forced to choose the least bad alternative for foster kids. Foster care isn't always good. We know that from the story of Marcus Fiesel and many other children. Remaining with biological family isn't always good either, as little Trustin Blue taught us.

As a mom, if someone gave me the choice between two bad alternatives for my child, would I accept one or would I exhaust every opportunity looking for something better? I think I would go the ends of the earth to find another option. I think you would too if it was your child.

So why don't we forget about the two bad alternatives for so many foster kids and start looking for a third? I don't think we'd have to look too hard to find it. It is right under our noses.

We are the alternative. Jontay's chance for stability and success largely depends on the support he and his mother receive not from the government, but from the community they live in. The most successful families are rooted in support systems. The kids who have done the best transitioning from foster care back to biological families have foster parents who remain involved as a support to biological parents. And in these cases when reunification fails, these children don't suffer nearly as much. They may lose their primary caregiver, but they still have attachments and a sense of belonging. Both are critical to the lifelong success of every child.

Someday the government will stop showering Darlene with the supports and services that enable her to maintain her sobriety and care appropriately for her little boy. What will happen then? And if she fails, will Jontay be young enough and free from emotional problems to find an adoptive family?

I sincerely hope Darlene and Jontay make it. I also hope we start thinking about how we can bridge the gaps and become the safety nets for kids like Jontay. There are far too many who need us to join this discussion and find better solutions.

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