WE see the news stories all too often. Three young children in Washington state, who police say were abandoned by their mother with no heat and no food, locked inside a house littered with garbage and animal waste. Or the case of a former foster child returned to a family in Florida, where a relative allegedly beat her to death.
These horrendous situations leave us shaking our heads. Why does it happen, often even after Child Protective Services reports or alerts from teachers or the concerns expressed by foster parents? Why does the system fail to address what is in a child’s best interest?
Why? Because the pendulum that years ago swung toward premature removal of kids from neglectful or abusive parents today has swung toward the other extreme. The child-welfare system is now too slow and too overburdened to provide the intensive support needed to properly rehabilitate parents or expeditiously sever parental ties when that is the most appropriate option.
I know. I spent almost 10 years in foster care. First removed from my home when I was 3 years old, I bounced between 14 different foster placements while my mother was in and out of jail, battling addiction. My mother promised to get clean, find housing and complete her case plan. She swore she was the only one who really loved me.
Yet, for nearly a decade — what seemed like a lifetime to a child — I remained in limbo. I changed schools twice a year until seventh grade. A few times, a caseworker showed up at my school with a trash bag full of my belongings and, without notice, I’d be taken to yet another unfamiliar home.
Many of my foster parents were kind and well-intentioned. However, 25 percent of my foster parents were or became felons. I was powerless in these situations as the state dragged its feet and refused to make the decisions that could lead me to a permanent, loving family.
When I was finally adopted at the age of 12, my amazingly patient new family had their hands full with an angry, distrustful preteen. I’ll be forever grateful for their love and acceptance.
Today, as a foster and adoptive parent myself, I know that much more meaningful strategies can be implemented to ensure safety and permanency for vulnerable children. We must get back to a place where the child is our main focus.
Biological parents face difficult situations as they try to reunite with their children. We need more initiatives like King County’s Parents for Parents program and more organizations like Childhaven. Local and state government must be willing to fund more caseworkers and child protection investigators, provide them with better training, and empower them to act swiftly when children are clearly endangered.
Above all, we must treat children like individuals with rights rather than as the property of their parents or silent wards of the system. No one ever explained to me what was happening with my mother. No one ever asked me what I wanted.
Let’s balance the pendulum. It’s not about biology. It’s not about budgets. It’s about doing what’s right for children.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is the author of the best-seller “Three Little Words.” Her second memoir, “Three More Words,” will be released in May.