The Children's Crusaders,
WhenThe Book of David
was two chapters long, Gelles recalls, a woman from a child-welfare agency
paid him a visit. "She took me aside, and said, 'I want you to finish
that book,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Why?' 'Because that book
says something I can't say but I believe.' And I said, "Why can't
you say it?' And she said, 'Because family preservation pays my salary.
It pays my agency director's salary. And I will be fired if I were to
stand up and criticize something that pays everybody's salary. But I believe
they're doing the wrong thing. And we're putting kids in jeopardy so that
we can pay our mortgages.'"
The desire to preserve the family, like the need to
protect children, is charged with emotion, though not everyone would agree
that the issue is so clearly a case of Principle vs. Expediency.
But federal law charges child-welfare agencies with both preserving and
protecting, and while in many cases there is no conflict, in some there
"It's basically a dichotomy between the rights
of parents and the sovereignty and sacredness of the family as compared
to the rights of the child," says Schwartz. "Because of the
abuses in the old model, we're beginning to see more questions raised
about whether the sacredness of the family should prevail almost in all
situations. And it's causing an uproar in the child-welfare establishment,
as you can well imagine. But this is a coming debate that really has to
The federal directive to make "reasonable efforts"
to "prevent or eliminate the need for removal of a child from his
home, and ... to make it possible for the child to return to his home,"
spelled out in the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, has
been interpreted by many state agencies to mean they should try to keep
families together almost at all costs. "Consequently," says
Schwartz, "we have dead babies -- about 1,500 a year, consistently"
-- about half of whose parents are known to be abusive by child-welfare
While not questioning the vital importance for children
of forming a permanent relationship with the adults responsible for their
upbringing, Schwartz and Gelles do question the assumption that birth
parents are invariably the right ones for the job. Of course, children
are sometimes removed from dangerously abusive or neglectful families
and placed in foster care, but the goal is often to reunite them with
their parents as soon as possible. If in some cases that's a laudable
plan, in others it defies reality. The dream that parenting classes or
therapy or drug-rehabilitation will cause abusive or neglectful parents
to change enough to take decent care of their offspring can lead to years
of foster-care drift.
"We have literally hundreds of thousands of infants
and toddlers who are growing up in the child-welfare system in the United
States," says Schwartz. "And they're bouncing around from foster
home to foster home, which creates all kinds of other problems for them.
But they're there because of this undying hope that we're going to return
all of these children to their natural birth parent or parents. And so
these kids are being raised by the government.
"To think that the child-welfare system could somehow
address the tremendous deprivation and other dysfunctional problems that
these multi-problem families really have," he adds, "was a bizarre,
ill-conceived philosophy, not based on any known theory. And the research
is pretty much bearing that out."
According to Gelles, studies have shown that even most
of the "intensive family-preservation efforts" -- which provide
crisis-intervention services in the client's home for a limited time --
are ineffective at reducing the risk of child abuse. Yet supporters of
these programs -- such as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which was
spending an estimated $4 million a year promoting family preservation
-- continue to advocate them.
"They do things that the Food and Drug Administration
would never allow you to do with a drug!" he says. "I mean,
they're administering a drug -- a program, an intervention -- and when
they're told it doesn't work, they ignore that. Programs should not be
implemented for human beings on the basis of good marketing and deep pockets.
There should be some scientific quality-control."
Gelles does believe that there are some cases where
family-preservation programs are appropriate, but only for certain low-risk
kinds of parents. To put the issue in perspective, he points out that
when women are violently abused by their husbands, judges don't order
them to enroll in an "Intensive Marriage Preservation" program
and assign a "Marriage Preservation Worker" to their families.
And he pointedly wonders how domestic-violence advocates would react if
the federal government identified such a program as the "intervention
of choice" and gave it hundreds of millions of dollars in funding
if there were "no scientific evidence that it was effective."
In his view, and Schwartz's, speeding up the adoption
process is the first step toward improving the system. Gelles, who helped
write the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (which promotes the adoption
of children in foster care and puts a higher priority on their safety),
believes that the adoption rate can "triple" before it starts
straining the seams of the system. And in his view, it's high time we
stopped "demonizing" adoption.
"I had lunch today with somebody who wants to adopt
a child," he says. "She's 31 years old, she's on what she considers
the cusp of acceptability -- and she's thinking of going to China. My
stepsister paid $25,000 to go to Alabama to adopt a child; we have three
friends who paid that much to go to China, Romania and Russia. But they
are not going to pick up the mistakes of the child-welfare system. The
child-welfare system holds a child hostage for six years, allows that
child to be damaged by multiple placements, and then says, 'OK, now that
we've tried this six-year experiment and rehabilitated the mother, we're
going to make the kid available for adoption' -- you're not going to get
a big line at the door."
Babies in foster care, he says, are ready to be adopted
when they're six months old -- and should be. "To hold them hostage
as part of some perverse experiment to see if this time drug-rehab will
take, is just wrong," he says angrily. "It's immoral! And again,
it comes from the fact that child-welfare workers look at the world through
the eyes of their client -- the adult. 'This mother deserves another chance.'
Well, what about this kid who's only going to be one year old once?
What about all the brain cells that have to develop that year?
That have to be wired that year? They don't get a chance to
be rewired next year -- they're wired then. That's a developmental
fact -- a biological, neurological fact. It's irrefutable.
You're going to tell me you're going to hold that off? You can't. Ten
years from now, when the kid's in the juvenile justice system with an
antisocial personality or oppositional defiance disorder, you'll be off
someplace else, and you'll forget that you were the cause of it."
Gelles' passionate, confrontational approach and recommendations
have earned him some equally passionate critics. In the view of New York
University Law Professor Martin Guggenheim, a nationally-known expert
on children's and family rights, Gelles' work "provides a gross distortion"
of the problems encountered by children in foster care.
"He writes and speaks as if the greatest problem
facing foster children is that agencies work too hard in futile efforts
to reunify them with their families of origin," says Guggenheim.
"In contrast, I think the most severe problem facing children in
foster care is the ease with which they are placed there, despite coming
from loving parents who could, with limited state assistance, safely care
for their children at home."
Gelles, Guggenheim argues, "overstates the danger
and safety problem to which children are exposed from their parents, and
ignores the huge number of children who never should have entered foster
care in the first place. He is encouraging the destruction of parental
ties in a world in which there are anterior and graver problems to confront
that would better serve children's interests.
"Where Professor Gelles speaks of the children
who come from particularly dangerous and destructive parents, he and I
would be in agreement," Guggenheim adds. "Where we disagree
is our emphasis, and what really faces us as our greatest driving problems
in the field."
Given the ideological tug of war, it's not surprising
that people like Philadelphia Department of Human Services' Joan Reeves
say that agencies such as hers get "conflicting messages" from
lawmakers about the policies they must implement. "The pendulum either
swings all the way to family preservation" even if it's not in the
best interests of the child, she points out, "or it swings all the
way in the other direction -- where you remove everybody from their family.
"What's needed," she adds, "is research
on how you achieve a balance between the two extremes."