by Julia Steiny
Charles Dickens filled his novels with orphans who'd "lost their people" by death or other circumstances. The word "Dickensian" refers to a heartlessly industrializing world where such children were liabilities, plain and simple. Actually, our current Congress seems to feel similarly about the hundreds of thousands of kids they're hoping to throw off food stamps and subsidized lunches. We're no longer Dickensian, exactly, but in this economy, compassion costs too much money, plain and simple. I guess we've finally arrived at a post-moral culture.
Happily, there still are people, non-politicians, willing to go to extreme measures to feed the hungry and care for the orphans. In a moment we'll meet a St. Louis group who developed terrific solutions that are kinder, more effective, and even cheaper than the gruel we're giving kids now.
But first let's meet Christopher Hatch.
Removed from his biological family at age 3, Hatch spent 15 years as a ward of social services. States generally boot kids out of care at 18, figuring they no longer need adult guidance (and care costs tax dollars.) Now he's a college-going 23-year-old adult. Apparently many Congressional members believe that poor, neglected or abused kids could be just like Hatch, if only they tried harder. He did overcome a hideous life.
Speaking publicly, he ponders three what-if scenarios. First, "What would things have been like if only I had been adopted by the first (foster-care) family? We went to Disney World, camping. There were no other foster kids. They were my family. One night they told me they weren't going to adopt me. No, I could not see my sister at school to say goodbye.
Second, "If only I'd been adopted by the second family. But the social worker showed up and said they'd decided to get a divorce and were no longer interested in adopting.
As Hatch got older, PTSD from early abuse and changing families started catching up with him. After about 10 years old, kids get less adorable, and less adoptable.
"They drove me to a residential shelter. You start to believe you can be thrown away, that you're disposable." Which led him to the third wistful thought: "If only I'd been placed with my bio brother. There were records that showed he and I weren't (He makes finger quotes in the air) "getting along" at ages 2 and 3. But being permanent with anyone is a big deal. Then later, at a summer camp, I saw a familiar kid, and I'm like: He's my brother! He'd been living about 10 minutes from where I lived. But the two sets of pre-adoptive parents didn't get along. So the relationship between us was severed. Now he lives in Florida.
"The point of why I'm telling you this, is that it's happening to kids and youth right now. I promised myself I would try to make that stop."
Extreme recruiting ends much madness.
In 2009, a St. Louis-based, 23-person committee vowed to get kids like Hatch into permanent families within 12 to 20 weeks, after coming to social services (Time Magazine first alerted me to them).
Later called the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, they hired detectives, ex-policemen, to track down every possible member of the child's extended biological family. Go find the kid's tribe. Gather them into a Family Group Conference, the technique that humanized social and justice services in New Zealand. Skype and similar technologies bring far-flung families into the room. A facilitator guides the discussion about where a child like baby Hatch would thrive. Yes, some families refuse to participate. Which is why recruiting has to be extreme. They need every single possible option. This is not easy work. But it's powerful and effective.
After all, Extended Biological Family, this is your child.
Your flesh and blood. Your responsibility. The whole tribe needs to support whoever takes on primary custody. And lo: permanency rates soared to 70%. Regular family-service agencies are lucky to get a 40% placement rate within 5 years, not 20 weeks.
Often, even if the first family didn't work out, the child stays within the family network, maintaining ties. Brothers stay in relationship if one family can't take all the siblings. While not a complete cure, it's hugely better.
The Coalition's website explains, "The old assumption was that if a child's parents couldn't care for her, everyone else in the family would have a similarly negative influence — that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The new conventional wisdom is that having contact with family is critical to a child's identity, and if you haven't found any family members who can be a positive influence, then you haven't looked hard enough."
There. Do that. Surely extreme recruiting is cheaper than cleaning up after all the damage bouncing around in state care does. Foster families are often heroic, and the system will always need them. But blood relations work out best.
If we really valued families more, such measures would not seem extreme, but good dollars and sense. Never mind the right thing to do.
Although "right" things sounds like compassionate morals, and as our leaders are demonstrating, morals are becoming completely irrelevant.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.