Posted: 12/30/11 05:37 PM ET
The nuclear secret of child welfare is that most of the children in foster care should not be there. Most children in foster care are harmed more than they are helped by being taken from their families, and by being kept in foster care for too long. Children in foster care are torn from their schools, separated from their siblings, over-prescribed psychotropic drugs, and housed in dangerous group homes rife with abuse -- and it all happens behind the iron curtain of secret court proceedings.
Things haven't improved since 1991, when the National Commission on Children wrote "If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child-welfare system."
What's going on here? We're reminded almost any time a politician gets up a head of steam -- about Social Security, the budget deficit, crime, even foreign policy -- that there is no lack of ardor for children's issues. Everyone is in favor of children.
But our good intentions are rechanneled destructively by a grand narrative that is equal parts pernicious, inaccurate, and pervasive. A false storyline suffuses child welfare in the press, public discourse, and even among the lawyers, social workers and judges responsible for children in the system. That narrative is one of brutal, deviant, monstrous parents, and children who are fruit that doesn't fall far from the tree. We can't escape it, but it just ain't true.
To give you an idea of the relentlessness of the messages drummed into our heads, more than 90 percent of news stories about children are about violence by and against children. One researcher found that 70 to 95% of stories about child welfare are "horror stories," about gruesome, brutal injuries inflicted on children by unfathomably beastly parents.
As a result, when we think of children and foster care, we imagine brutality, savagery, deviance, and abuse. We think of horrible, heinous misdeeds perpetrated by monstrous felons. We think of murders that scream from the headlines, and the vile tragedy of family sexual abuse perpetrated against children ruined for life. These are, to use Edgar Cahn's phrase, "throwaway people."
There is another story, however. In fact, more than 70% of the children in foster care are there because of allegations that they were neglected, not abused. And neglect -- lack of food, clothing, shelter, supervision, or other necessities of life -- is poverty by another name: more than one-third of children in foster care, for example, could be living with their parents if only their parents had better housing.
Harmful, unnecessary foster care placements are epidemic in D.C. and throughout the nation. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently found, "[m]any children who are in foster care do not need to be there." Locally, then-incoming Mayor Gray's human services transition team warned of the harms caused by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency's "expensive and harmful current practice of unnecessarily removing children from their birth families." A report issued by the federally-mandated D.C. Citizens Review Panel indicates that hundreds of children annually are taken from their families unlawfully. And in 60% of my students' cases at the University of the District of Columbia, the children were returned home from foster homes or group homes -- and were never found to be abused or neglected. These are kids who were taken from their homes for a few days, or a few weeks, or three months -- but it turned out they weren't abused or neglected, so they were returned.