Foster care is like chemotherapy

I recently met someone who works to help former prisoners re-integrate into society. I asked her what she would change to improve the system. In response, she talked about the need to provide basic things for young children, such as food, housing, and education. I’ve been interested in the importance of keeping young children with their families as often as possible, so I was excited to see how two different causes – recidivism and reducing foster care rates – could be similar. 

In July, Michigan Radio, an NPR station, ran a story about the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, which has been operating in Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood for several years. Apparently, the neighborhood has an incredibly high rate of child removal. Although the focus is on Osborn, the Center also serves families throughout Wayne County. The Center provides free legal and social work help in order to keep kids out of foster care. It receives referrals from the Department of Human Services when a child is unsafe because of some unresolved legal issue.

Vivek Sankaran, the Center’s founder explained: “In all the cases we deal with, there’s no doubt that the parent loves for and is providing proper care for the child. But there is sort of a third party that may be interfering with the parents’ ability to provide care for that child.”

Since the Center opened in 2009, none of the children it served entered foster care. And of those already in foster care, 95 percent were adopted or reunified with a family member.

In an attempt to explain the reality of being in foster care, the article’s author wrote, “Sankaren compares foster care to chemotherapy. It’s there for very serious cases when you need it, but it has drastic side effects.”

I really like this comparison because it’s shocking enough to draw attention and succinct enough to be memorable. Plus, I think it’s accurate.

It would be great to see more programs like this, and apparently, other states are looking into it.

“That’s When I Knew I Was Adopted”

My fellow NPR fans know that the “Story Corps” program is a great way to hear intimate stories from ordinary people’s lives.  On my local NPR station, Story Corps airs on Friday mornings, and I recently heard an interesting story about adoption. On that episode, Diane Tells His Name was interviewed by her daughter. Diane shared how, at the age of 37, she discovered she was adopted. As a Native American, she felt that she never fit in with her white family, so she was relieved to discover the truth. Diane went on to discover her heritage and then to adopt a daughter from her own tribe. I thought Diane’s story was particularly moving given the media attention that has recently been given to the fostering and adoption of native children (see New York Times article). Please take a minute to listen to Diane’s story.

Diane Tells His Name, 61, grew up unaware of her Native American identity. When she discovered the truth in her late 30s, she adopted a child from her Lakota tribe, Bonnie Buchanan.

Diane and her daughter (by Story Corps)

Playing god

I’ve written before about this adoption issue in Spain. Apparently, from 1939 through the 1980s, at least 300,000 babies in Spain were stolen and placed for adoption. This issue came to light recently, and now families across Spain are searching for each other. NPR just reported about the status of these searches and interviewed some family members who are still searching.

A journalist quoted in the article said, “To steal a baby you needed a doctor willing to do it, and also a nun. They were acting like they were gods, deciding who deserved a child and who didn’t.”

It’s still incredible to me that these thefts were happening in a developed country only 30 years ago.

Early childhood brain development

Many adoptive parents know that our children may have experienced neglect in their early years. We also know that those years are critical to development, so I turned up the volume when I heard a report about this on Michigan Radio, an NPR-member station. Michigan Radio currently has a great series called “State of Opportunity,” a “multi-year reporting and community engagement project focused on how poverty affects children in Michigan.” One of the program’s reports was called “Five things to know about early childhood brain development.” During the program, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, explained how children’s brains change during their first years of life. Here is a summary of his “five things to know”:

1. A baby forms 700 new neural connections per second in the first years of life.

2. An infant’s brain is dependent on responsiveness from adults.

3. Language disparities show up early, and last a lifetime.

4. The stresses of poverty can affect a child’s brain development.

5. The only way to dramatically decrease the gaps in achievement is to begin providing learning experiences much sooner than standard school aged entry.

Although I certainly can’t change what happened in my kids’ early years, having this type of information does help me to understand their struggles and challenges better.

Keeping families together in Michigan

Here’s a new update to Michigan’s ongoing quest to improve the state’s foster care system. As Michigan Radio recently reported, the state is piloting a new program designed to keep young children with their families and out of foster care. According to the report, DHS Director Maura Corrigan said: “Research confirms what most people instinctively know: All things being equal, the best place for children is in their own home with their own family. Under this federal waiver, the department will use funding to wrap around at-risk families with vital services- keeping children both at home and safe.”

I definitely think that children are better off with their first families, but it’s true that our family would not be what it is if this program had been in place in our county a few years ago. Our kids were both under five when they were placed in foster care, the exact age that this program targets. Naturally, I love my children and can’t imagine our life without them now. But would they be better off with their first family? It’s hard to know how things would be different and I try never to entertain “what if” scenarios because the fact is, things are the way they are and we can’t go back and change them.

At least other Michigan kids will have another chance with their first families in the future.

A foster care law suit in Michigan

Michigan has done a lot to improve the state’s foster care system lately, but there are still problems. Michigan radio recently reported on a lawsuit that several parents have brought against the state’s Department of Human Services for failing to disclose that their adoptive children had special needs, which should have qualified them for federal aid. Apparently, these parents are struggling to pay the bills associated with their children’s treatment. Thankfully, we were given very accurate descriptions of our children’s histories and issues. Adoption is hard enough and I can’t imagine not having the support that we need.

Second best

I don’t believe that my position as BE and BC’s mother is the result of destiny, fate, or anything else. If the world were as it should be, my children would still be safely with their first parents. I won’t glorify my children’s pain and loss by saying that J and I were ordained to be their parents. We are only BE and BC’s parents because something went horribly wrong, and we  were chosen as option number two. We will always be second best, because ideally, children should be with their first parents.

I recently read an article in The New York Times that expressed my feelings about this perfectly. The author, Matthew Hutson, begins by saying that he doesn’t believe in destiny. In fact, he’s currently researching a book on what he calls “magical thinking.” During the course of his research, he spoke with many adoptive parents who explained that they felt something like destiny brought them together with their children. However, Hutson quotes one adoptive parent who didn’t feel this way. She said:

“I don’t know if I’d say my children were ‘meant’ to be mine — it does seem like a slap in the face to the sacrifices of their birth parents, as well as turning a blind eye to the loses my children may (or may not) feel about being adopted as they grow up. But am I in awe of the amazing alchemy of timing, chance, life paths intersecting and a thousand other intangible happenings that made these children mine? Do I think about the small changes in those random happenings that could have brought other children into my family, whether biologically or by adoption? And do I gasp in wonder at how lucky I am that these are my children? At the alchemy that created my family? Yes, yes I do.”

The Three Fates

In the News: Extended benefits for foster children

My home state of Michigan continues to make good improvements to the foster care system. Most recently, the state has extended benefits for children in foster care. A new law will allow foster kids to continue to receive a housing subsidy and health coverage until the age of 21, and to continue to work with foster care caseworkers. The benefits will be available to those who are enrolled in college or job training, or working at least 80 hours a month. The law still has to be approved by the Federal government, and unfortunately was passed only as the result of a lawsuit against the state. Read more about the law here.

In the News: Forced Adoptions

I came across this article from Yahoo News about an investigation into forced adoptions. It seems to be pretty common knowledge that this happened a lot in the 1940s – 60s, but apparently it happened in a number of countries as late as the 1980s. If that isn’t shocking enough, the article shares how some of these mothers described their experiences. The most common description was “sad,” but there are many other, more devastating descriptions, such as “horrifying,” “tragic,” “barbaric,” and even “soul rape.” Check out the whole article here.

In the News: There are no parenting rules

In 2010, novelist Eric Jong wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about parenting; specifically, her opposition to attachment parenting. Since the article is more than a year old, it’s not really “news” anymore, but since it was “new” to me, I wanted to share some of my favorite parts.

1. Erica wrote, “We also assume that ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are exclusive terms, though in other cultures, these terms are applied to a variety of aunts, uncles and other adults. Kinship is not exclusively biological, after all, and you need a brood to raise a brood. Cooperative child-rearing is obviously convenient, but some anthropologists believe that it also serves another more important function: Multiple caregivers enhance the cognitive skills of babies and young children. Any family in which there are parents, grandparents, nannies and other concerned adults understands how readily children adapt to different caregivers.”

Our family certainly relies on help from our extended family and friends, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as our kids’ schools and “latchkey” workers. Naturally, we are the most important adults in our children’s lives, but not the only ones. I like Erica’s acknowledgment that we don’t have to do it on our own, and it might even be beneficial for our kids to have multiple caregivers.

2. “Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child’s home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.”

I’ve always been a perfectionist and I love to control as much as possible. I like Erica’s reminder that “the world is our home” and that when we think we can control the world, we set ourselves up for failure.

3. “In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the “noble savage” view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.”

I’m so thankful to be living at this time, because I really believe there is no better time to be a woman. But, we still have so much further to go – Erica is right in that part of our problem is that women are still most responsible for child rearing. But, I also like that Erica points out “Do the best you can. There are no rules.”

What do you think about these points and about Erica’s article as a whole? I’d love to hear your thoughts.