A chance to give children a childhood

October 07, 1997|By Mona Charen

THE CAREFULLY crafted House bill to promote adoptions, which would overturn years of lousy social policy on the subject without costing a dime, has run into trouble in the Senate. The trouble is named Sen. John Chafee, R-Rhode Island.

The foster care system in the United States is an acknowledged disaster. Half a million children are in the system, and each year, 15,000 "age out" -- meaning they are neither returned to their parents nor adopted. And because federal law has until now encouraged states to do everything possible to keep families together, large numbers of children have been removed from dangerous homes by state authorities only to be returned to abusive and sometimes murderous situations.

According to David Gelles, a family-violence specialist at the University of Rhode Island, 50 percent of all children who are murdered by their parents are already known to child welfare authorities. Conna Craig, an adoption activist and herself a foster and then adopted child, recalls foster brothers and sisters being returned to abusive parents. One little girl had been tied to a space heater by her mother but was, in the name of "family preservation," returned to that mother.

The child must come first

The House bill would reform the law to make child safety the paramount concern of child welfare agencies. States would not be obliged to make best efforts to reunite parents with children if the parent had killed another child, committed felony assault against another child or a sibling, or had his parental rights terminated with respect to another child. Isn't it amazing that common sense has to be spelled out like this?

Children are now kept in the system for years at a time while social workers check in periodically with the wayward parents to see if they are getting their lives in order. The House bill would require that a permanency hearing be held after 18 months. It would also provide bonuses to states for every child successfully adopted.

Though the Senate bill guided by Senator Chafee contains a more stringent 12-month cutoff for permanency hearings, that is a deceptive measure of his bill's effect. Rather than encouraging adoptions and ending the legal limbo in which foster care kids languish, this bill would demote adoption in favor of kinship care, reauthorize the family preservation program (before the data on the program's effectiveness are in) and spend at least $2.3 billion more taxpayer dollars.

There are many people, on both sides of the ideological divide, who believe adoption should be a last resort. The Senate bill doesn't say this explicitly, but in every part of the House statute that mentions adoption the Senate bill substitutes the words "adoption or other permanency options."

In the real world, that means placing the abused or neglected child with a relative, who then gets a stipend from the state. The trouble is, unlike foster or adoptive parents, relatives of abused kids are not vetted first (and since abuse is often intergenerational, they are more likely than the population at large to be abusive). The drug-addict mom has no incentive to go straight since she can drop in and see the kids at Grandma's anytime. Someone has predicted that kinship care could rapidly become ARDC, Aid to Relatives With Dependent Children.

Most loony is a provision of the Senate bill that would allow kids to take their foster care stipends with them and go to live with a parent in a residential treatment facility. Smart? Think about what kinds of parents are in such places. The law itself mentions some: people who are being treated for substance abuse and those who are suffering from postpartum depression.

It is a tragedy that so many children are abused so badly that they must be removed from their parents. The bigger tragedy, however, would be to pretend that federal dollars spent on family preservation, kinship care or any other social service can repair what is irreparable. Denying adoption to many of these kids means denying them a childhood.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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