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Another View -- Richard Wexler: Learning the right lessons from foster care tragedy

August 02. 2018 11:43PM

ONE NEED ONLY READ the Union Leader’s searing account of the horrible abuse of a young foster child — and the allegedly slipshod quick-and-dirty process by which the foster home was licensed — to understand why the New Hampshire Division of Children Youth and Families and the private agency involved in the case tried desperately to prevent the public from finding out about it.

Fortunately, the Union Leader fought for the public’s right to know and won. Now that the people of New Hampshire know, they can act. But how? The right kind of action requires reconsidering assumptions that have dominated the child welfare debate in New Hampshire for years. Those false assumptions helped get the state into this mess in the first place.

Assumption #1: Anyone who loses a child to foster care is brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted. Not true.

Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Other cases fall between the extremes. So it’s no wonder two massive studies involving more than 15,000 cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

Assumption #2: Opioids, opioids, opiods. It’s assumed that New Hampshire’s foster-care population has skyrocketed because of the opioid epidemic. Not true.

The problem of opioid abuse is serious and real. But foster care is not skyrocketing because of opioid abuse. Foster care is skyrocketing because of DCYF’s knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to opioid abuse.

In 2016, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, New Hampshire took away children at the tenth highest rate in America, a rate far higher than other states with serious opioid abuse problems.

A few states learned to do better after what happened during the last “drug plague,” crack cocaine. Researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using the usual measures of infant development.

Overall, the children left with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly-addicted parents. But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child. How much better off might the child in this case have been, for example, had DCYF offered his mother intensive home-based drug treatment — as now happens in Connecticut?

Assumption #3: Sure, needless foster care may do terrible things to foster children’s psyches, but, it’s assumed, at least they’re physically safe. Not true.

Of course most children in foster care don’t suffer horrible injuries like those sustained by the child in this case. But one independent study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. Those rates are far higher than what agencies such as DCYF proclaim in official statistics, which involve agencies investigating themselves.

Taking away huge numbers of children needlessly makes everything worse. It creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes. Agencies start begging for beds and beggars can’t be choosers. So there is enormous pressure to lower standards and cut corners — exactly what allegedly happened in this case.

Assumption #4: We can’t be taking away too many children; after all, news accounts are full of stories about children left in dangerous homes. Not true.

Almost always, when children are left in dangerous homes it is because caseworkers were too overloaded to investigate properly.

When high profile cases make news, workers often run scared. They rush to remove even more children needlessly, setting off a foster-care panic. That’s exactly what’s happening in New Hampshire now, and it makes everything worse. The more you take children needlessly, the more overloaded the workers become, so they have even less time to find children in real danger. A foster-care panic makes all children less safe.

That’s why the only states that have improved child safety are those that reformed to embrace safe, proven alternatives to foster care. New Hampshire could become the next such state, if it’s willing to question all those tired, old assumptions.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

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