Part 2 of a 2-part Reflection on Adoption and Foster Care:
Empowering Parents on Behalf of Their Young Children
Part 1 of the reflection on adoption and foster care addressed how to give older children a voice, when the court has determined that the child cannot be safely returned to their home. [Part One] Part 2 considers how to empower parents with young children in decision-making, in particular mothers who have struggled with drug dependency, when the state is ready to step in and remove the child. The parent may be continuing to have significant struggles with parenting a young child or may have delivered a drug-exposed infant. Often, this mother is overwhelmed and living a chaotic life, because of a chaotic childhood. People charged with helping the parent in establishing a safety plan may need to consider additional tools to help empower her, in conjunction with the usual state-system-safety-toolkit. This parent might be able to reflect on her own life, for answers in making decisions for her child. By helping her overlay her own childhood experiences and current situation onto her child’s future and allowing the parent to look at options outside of foster care, we can give the child a voice through the parent.
Parents do not want their children to be raised in foster care. A mother who is not capable of raising her infant through childhood and beyond should be given information about all available options for her child and offered guidance on what each option truly means for her and her child. Then she should have a voice in the decision-making. In many instances, she is merely shamed and dismissed--by the hospital staff, by the caseworkers, and by society, for succumbing to drug dependency. This is not helpful to her or her child. If asked, this mother will frequently tell you she’s doing the best that she can with her child, while carrying her own history of trauma. The state workers typically default to the handbook and to what the system has always done: remove the child, find a temporary home for the child [usually followed by several other temporary homes (with friends, relatives, foster parents)], and give the mother a list of requirements she must meet and boxes she must check, in order to re-establish a parenting role with her child.
We (and the law) assume parents want to do what is best for their children. But we put all parents into a one-system bucket, without offering information about alternatives, contemplating potential outcomes, or considering an individual’s capacity to parent now and in the long-term. We fail to offer them true options, with skills, tools, and support for success. A parent can only make an informed decision if she is provided with information, options, and support for her decision. Voluntary adoption is rarely offered as an option when a mother delivers a drug-exposed child, even when the child is struggling with withdrawals and detoxing in a NICU. Instead, people will criticize her, complain about her “bad choices,” and offer her temporary fixes for what has been a long-term struggle.
No one believes a child’s life will be enhanced through foster care, even in the best foster homes. Having a revolving door of temporary playmates and parental figures cannot create stability. Many of the older children being removed have already been in and out of the system more than one time. Usually, by the time a child in foster care hits the tween and teen years, they have suffered many removals, multiple foster homes, and a host of “helpers”--too many to count. Children become so experienced and knowledgeable about the child welfare system, they could educate their caregivers about what comes next! Tragically, these children have lost their childhoods and often have no trust that an adult will ever truly be there for them.
Often, the children who spend many years in foster care were initially brought in as infants and toddlers, sometimes starting their lives in foster care directly from the hospital at birth. In Texas, during Fiscal Year 2020, 5,202 infants were placed in foster care. 52% of all child removals by the state were infants and toddlers.
When a child is born exposed to a dangerous drug, the front-line state worker jumps into action, creating a safety plan and often putting the infant in a foster home. At the same time, the state worker starts looking for other relatives or kinship connections to take responsibility for the baby and/or creating a plan for how the child could be returned to their mother. From this difficult beginning, too many children move in and out of foster care. They may rotate in and out of their parents’ homes, spend time in state group homes, transition to other relatives’ or friends’ homes, and often end their childhoods back in foster care.
We can do so much better. If a mother has experienced past traumas, ask about and acknowledge her history of pain and suffering. Do not shame her; empower her to help choose the best future for her child, as well as focusing on her own long-term needs. She cannot take care of a child if she cannot take care of herself, and her baby may not be able to wait for her recovery. A child needs stability and permanency; the mother may not be able to provide that quickly enough to be a stable force for her child, but she can have a voice in finding that stability.
By giving the mother a voice, you give the child a voice. What would this mother have wanted for herself, if she could have repeated her own childhood? Can she give her child her own reimagined childhood? Can she be the parent she wants her child to have? Are there other relatives who can give that ideal childhood to her child? Is adoption something that might fulfill the dreams she has for her child?
What if we work with the mother at the beginning of her journey to parenthood? Help her consider her options, allow her to imagine a life for her child, and assist her in finding a path that could lead to her own success, whether she is parenting or choosing adoptive parents for her child. Let’s give the child a voice, by facilitating conversations, education, dream sharing, and goal setting with the parent, before defaulting to placing the baby in foster care. With a new approach, maybe more children will avoid the foster care system altogether, or at least, they may have a shorter and more successful trek through the system and into a stable, dependable, loving, forever home and family.