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Fostering Doubts 

by Michael Bowen

Broach the topic of foster care among school administrators, special ed teachers and social workers, and often they tell about children being neglected and exploited by their foster parents. While foster care helps some children make the transition to a "forever home," many more in the system are simply warehoused and shuffled about.

One local couple, who successfully made the transition from foster parenting to adoptive parenting, nonetheless voiced frustration with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). (Some details have been changed in the following accounts to protect identities.)

Like many other families, they found private, independent and international adoption all "prohibitively expensive." In contrast, the foster-adopt program sounded attractive. After rigorous scrutiny by the state, they became foster parents with an opportunity to adopt a meth baby, a little girl with prenatal methamphetamine exposure.

Another foster parent, however, had the girl in receiving (temporary) care, and insisted on examining for himself the suitability of the couple and their home, effectively blocking the intended adoption. One of the prospective parents comments that "because of the paucity of foster parents, the state grants a substantial amount of authority" to them. Some foster families the couple has worked with seemed less interested in a child's welfare than in whatever Social Security payments they could receive on the child's behalf, over and above any DSHS subsidy. While the couple has since successfully adopted, they are nevertheless disturbed by their experiences with fostering. One of the new parents claims that the system "is as dysfunctional as the homes the kids come from."

Two Spokane County foster parents, speaking anonymously and on background, understandably convey a different perspective on foster care. In more than a dozen years in the system, they have fostered hundreds of children. Some were severely emotionally disturbed. Some were innocents caught up in their birthparents' abuse, neglect, drug problems and criminal activities. These foster parents have seen Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) babies whose parents, were indifferent to them, and who appeared to be improving under foster care, only to have relatives swoop in and demand custody. The woman speaks in exasperation about how the legal and welfare bureaucracies "keep putting blood relatives over even the baby." One FAS girl was taken out of the couple's home, despite their ability to provide fulltime parenting. The new custodial parents, off in another state, "were working [long] shifts, and they just put [her] directly into daycare."

While the phrase "the best interests of the child" has become a mantra within the adoption community and even a legal standard, this foster parent feels that it's a criterion often ignored by family law judges. "I disagree totally with decisions to reconcile families" above other considerations, she says.

What can be done? Useful suggestions for foster care reform include Medicaid waivers for foster children; flexible funding which follows a child from home to home; more respite services for the caregivers; assigning particular social workers to children with disabilities, at least up to age five; easing the transition into adulthood for kids with multiple disabilities; and allowing only one child in a given foster home, if that child has special needs.

Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard University has identified four needed emphases: recognizing that there is systemic abuse and neglect; expediting Termination of Parental Rights, so that after one year of the parents' attempted rehabilitation, children are free to be placed for adoption; rehabilitating families concurrently with the planning for adoption or permanent placement elsewhere; and requiring new solutions, "not just family preservation in new clothes."

If such reforms could be put in place, perhaps then we would no longer hear the stories of extremely well qualified potential foster parents being so ill-treated by bureaucrats that they abandon fostering and pursue private and international adoption instead. Perhaps then we would no longer tolerate having these foster kids -- everyone's children, after all -- "age out" within the foster care system.
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