I remember the call and the words I used and the things she said in response. I think I will always remember them.
“Can you tell me how long the placement will be?”
“Oh, this little boy is not going home,” came the response.
I of course knew better at the time…or did I?
He had just been discharged from the hospital and was being placed directly into foster care. The intake worker was looking for a bed for a needy little boy. She might have said it because she didn’t want to lose us or maybe she really believed that he would never go home or maybe it was a little of both. No one ever could know what might ultimately happen to him, or to us. But what was the risk we were taking–could anyone tell me? How could we make an informed decision about our willingness to take the risk that a child we fostered might actually be returned to his biological family, if social services didn’t know themselves? What kind of decision are you asking us to make? What is the risk you wish us to assume–that one day in the very near future after having poured ourselves out as an offering to this child, that you will come back to claim him and return him to the nightmare from which he came?
We are wiser now, now that we are on the brink of losing our foster son. Through this experience we’ve discovered that while case workers have no clue as to how to ascertain risk, it is possible to put some parameters around it at least for foster parents. We know that there are two main factors that determine risk. The first may sound crazy but here goes. As we have discovered, reunification is the driver when it comes to children placed in the foster care system. By law it is what social services will pursue and pursue and pursue. By all means let’s address the ills, let’s fix the problems, let’s piece back together the family unit whatever the cost. But the reality is that BCDSS is completely overwhelmed by the number of cases in this city and there is not enough money in anyone’s budget, State or local, to fix the “fixable” families. The old cliché about the band-aid applies here. Because BCDSS can only afford the band-aid, it is all they have to put over the gushing, gaping wound before the patient is sent stumbling home.
Here is the crazy part. In cases where children have been removed from the home, reunification is the driver unless, unless any of the following is found to exist: chronic abuse, chronic and life-threatening neglect, sexual abuse or torture. In our society a parent must cause what in most cases would result in irreparable damage to a child before the court and social services will consider moving directly to the termination of parental rights (TPR). The risk then in cases where any one of the terrible four exists (chronic abuse, chronic and life-threatening neglect, sexual abuse or torture) is understanding exactly what they mean. Sexual abuse and torture are somewhat self-evident. There is either evidence to support them or not, and often there are accompanying criminal charges. In looking at risk objectively, the qualifier word “chronic” placed before abuse and neglect allow the courts and social services room for interpretation. What is chronic? How many occasions of abuse? Neglect, but how long in duration? How extreme? How significant the level of endangerment? How much does the child have to suffer?
We did not feel that BCDSS made the proper decision in this case. We made that argument before the Citizen’s Review Board (CRB), because it seemed to be the only place where we were given a voice. We attempted to lay out all of the facts that we were aware of. Unfortunately the CRB as a party in the case doesn’t seem to matter much. I spent weeks working on a brief that put forth the case for requesting that his permanency plan be changed to adoption and that the court begin to work towards TPR. Nothing has happened regarding that document or our meeting with the Board. We don’t expect that the brief will ever see the light of day. Unfortunately we are a little too little and a little too late. No one allowed us to speak up when it mattered and no one cares now. All parties agreed a long time ago that the circumstances of our foster son’s case were not serious enough to warrant moving to terminating parental rights. At this point we have nothing.
The risk for us is that this system is operating under its own set of guidelines that are not necessarily those that most in society would understand. The courts are full of cases where parents render horrendous acts upon their children. Having been exposed to these kinds of cases everyday a set of warped standards have been developed by which social services and the courts use to judge each case. What might be considered sufficient as chronic abuse and neglect by any rational person in society is seen by those who handle the worst cases of abuse and neglect as something less–something where reunification seems plausible. Based upon the facts of our foster son’s case, one has to wonder how those facts were interpreted given the standards for pursuit of TPR. You begin to ask yourself, how much as a society are we willing to allow before a parent has crossed the line–for good. The damage that a child must suffer has to be significant in order for the wheels of the machine to start moving towards parental rights being terminated.
There is another risk factor that foster parents must contemplate before taking a placement. What is the likelihood that a child’s parents or other relatives will put forth some level of effort, in fact any level of effort to regain custody of a child? The availability and the willingness of parents and relatives have a significant impact on the risk of a placement. Is social services able to stay in contact with the mother? Is the father known? Is one or both parents incarcerated–if so for how long? Is there contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles? Is anyone willing to take the child in? In our case we have not heard of any relative involvement, incarceration is not an issue–the biological parents are around and there is some level of effort. I wish that in all of this there were more of a sense of desperation. I worry that our foster son is returning but no one including BCDSS is alarmed by the reunification process. I wonder about all of the missed opportunities to make his little life better, easier, safer, happier. Is this an opportunity to put a “fixable” family back together?
So we have two deadly risk laden strikes against us: no one considers the facts of this case sufficient to pursue TPR and his parents are around. As my partner shared in another post recently–we’re screwed.
What foster parents don’t realize, can’t realize is the toll that risk places upon you emotionally. Unless your child has a good worker, there is often little to no information provided to foster parents. You function in this absence of knowing whether actions that are taking place outside of your home through social services and through the court system are moving you further down the path to adoption; leaving you floundering in the limbo of the system; or pushing you towards the door of reunification.
Which brings me to the end of the notion of risk. A statistician or economist could probably develop a model that could quantify risk. There would be analysis of records from actual court documents, data retrieved from information kept by the State, add in some demographics and it would all neatly spit out the risk factor for any given child. The problem is that unless you have been through it once already, a foster parent has no idea of what risk means practically, actually. I have heard prospective foster-to-adopt parents state how they could never take a placement that meant assuming risk. They are smarter than I. They recognized somehow the tragic toll that risk and ultimately loss can have on a foster parent. We bear the risk everyday knowing little or nothing about what is happening, thinking that any day, anytime, anyone from social services could arrive and depart with our little package. We walk around with the sense of fear and dread as visit day approaches every week with his parents. We think about how much we love him and how much he loves us and how unbearable it would be for us if he were to leave. It is the knowledge that he is not ours and may never be. It is the sensation that I will never see him speak a full sentence or go to school or play baseball or ask for money to go to the movies. The risk is that all of this will haunt you while he is with you, as he is leaving you, and after he is gone. The risk is not what you can imagine or quantify. The risk is what you bear with you but try to keep at bay so that you can just love him, and care for him and give him what he so desperately needs–love that is undiluted and uncontaminated by your fears–love that is unconditional and flowing freely in spite of the risk that you will lose him–the love from a father to a son as if we would always belong to each other.