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The Children's Crusaders, continued...

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 is plenty.
   "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 occur."
   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 authorities.
   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."

 

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