I grew up in Dallas, and my siblings and I used to run the Turkey Trot every year on Thanksgiving. On one stretch of the race, we’d have to run by big bloody photos and anti-abortion activists shouting about God and murder and the rights of the unborn. For the next mile or so, we’d talk about what we wished we’d shouted back, never landing on the perfect sentence that might make them change their minds. But if I ran by those protesters today, I know exactly what I’d say: “You’d better be licensed foster parents!” Because the already strained and broken foster care system is about to be even more overwhelmed.
My husband, Eric, and I got a call for our first foster care placement at 11 on a Friday morning, and by 2 that afternoon, we were holding a 3-day-old infant in the NICU. She weighed less than five pounds. Our attachment to her was fierce and immediate.
We were told by social workers that our foster daughter’s mother was a “poor prognosis” and that we would most likely be able to adopt the baby, who was her mother’s fourth child. Her three previous children had been taken away, too, and not returned.
But what happened to those three other children happened in different states, not in Idaho, which is what’s known as a “reunification state.” Social workers in Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare return foster children to their birth families more than 70 percent of the time. The national reunification average is around 50 percent. In Idaho, reunification is the primary goal, and when it happens, the case is closed, and all the supports the family had while the child was in foster care—access to mental health counseling, to rehab, to social workers, to job training, to affordable housing, to free childcare in the form of a foster family—disappear. This fixation on reunification—like the fixation on ending access to abortion—is pro-child in name only, not in practice, and not in effects.
Our foster daughter lived with us for almost 10 months. When the social worker told me in a courtroom hallway that she had decided it was time to reunify the baby with her mother, despite the warning signs, despite a decades-long history of struggles with addiction—I asked, “Would you trust her with your own children?”
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t trust her to watch my dog for an hour.”
“You wouldn’t trust her with your dog, but you’re going to give her an infant?”
“That’s not the standard of care,” she said. “What we’re looking for is minimal parenting ability. One step above do-no-harm.”
The standard of care for dogs is apparently higher. I am a member of a Citizen Review Panel in Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare, tasked with reading and reviewing case files and making recommendations for how to improve the foster care system. In one of the cases, a social worker went into a home where there had been reports of neglect and abuse. She left the neglected and abused children in the home; she removed the emaciated dog.
Everything I worried was going to happen after our foster daughter was returned to her mother did happen—and more. Cut off from the supports she’d had while her daughter was living with us, the mother relapsed and lost her job. There was violence, neglect, drugs. Our foster daughter’s biological father was released from prison. During an argument, he reportedly fired a gun across her mother’s stomach, leaving gunpowder burns on her skin. We were told he broke her mother’s arm with a hammer. She splinted it with a pencil and walked herself to the hospital. While she was at the hospital, our foster daughter was taken away from her again.
We aren’t committed to taking good care of children in this country. According to the most recent U.S. Census Poverty Data, more than 10 million children lived in poverty in 2019– that’s one in seven. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that almost half of all children living in poverty live in extreme poverty, which is defined as an annual income of $13,086 for a family of four. Recently, Congress could have made permanent the expanded child tax credit instituted by the Biden administration during the pandemic, but they didn’t, sending millions of children back in poverty. Blaming poor people for being poor seems to have more urgency for so-called family-values politicians than creating a more equal society where all children can thrive.
And don’t believe the Christian Right’s rhetoric about this historic Supreme Court decision that ending access to abortion will dramatically increase the number of children placed for adoption. It won’t. But it will increase unsafe abortions and the number of children entering foster care.
Nearly 500,000 children are in foster care in the U.S. on any given day. More than 37 percent of children in the United States experience a CPS investigation by the time they are 18. That’s one in every three children. And the foster care system is broken. Underfunded and underresourced. You can read ProPublica’s reporting about the dangerous shadow foster care system. Or the systemic conflation of abuse and neglect. Or the prevalent practice of sending foster children to mental health facilities where they are abused.
The foster care system is also racist. There is “no difference in the actual incidence of child abuse or neglect among different ethnic groups.” Nevertheless, many professionals in the foster care system “routinely contend that Native American and African American children are the most at-risk for child abuse and neglect.” Based on this racist misperception, the system removes these children from their families at higher rates than other children. Although Black parents don’t abuse their children more than white parents, Black children are placed in foster care at twice the rate of white children—and they are more likely not to be returned. They also receive fewer services and are more often harmed and abused while they’re trapped in the very system that is supposed to protect them.
People often ask me how I think we should fix the foster care system. The answer I usually give is this: End poverty. Affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, access to rehab programs, access to mental health services, universal healthcare, paid parental leave, universal preschool—if these structures were in place, very few children would end up in foster care. And if the so-called pro-life movement actually cared about the children it’s so eager to see born, then ending poverty would be their goal, too. But it isn’t. If this anti-abortion movement were really “pro-child” and “pro-family,” then they would be doing everything in their power to make sure the world these new children are about to enter looked very different. They would be working to build a more just and life-giving country for the most vulnerable among us. But they’re doing the opposite. Federal data analyzed by The Associated Press show that “states with some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws are also some of the hardest places to have and raise a healthy child, especially for the poor.” For example, Mississippi has the “largest share of children living in poverty and babies with low birth rates,” while Texas has the highest rate of women receiving no prenatal care. And just look at the Governor of Texas. He’s planning to use the Supreme Court’s ruling to sue the federal government and insist he doesn’t have an obligation to educate children who are undocumented in public schools.
Many of the people arguing for forced pregnancy are Christian. I have a doctorate in theology, and my decades of study and my years of preparation for the priesthood have shown me we’ll call anything holy if it oppresses women. I’ve also learned that we don’t know all that much about Jesus. But we do know this: He was Jewish, he wasn’t white, and he hung out with those on the margins, with sex workers and immigrants and people who were poor. And he didn’t say anything about abortion, at least nothing that’s been recorded in the four stories we call the Gospels. But he did say a lot about ending poverty. And welcoming the stranger. And loving your enemies. And loving your neighbor as yourself.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett has said we don’t need abortion because a woman can just leave her newborn baby on the steps of a fire station or a police station (that is, if she survives pregnancy in a country with the highest maternal mortality rate among industrialized nations, which affects women of color with great disproportionality). That option, Coney Barrett insisted, relieves women of the undue burden of parenting. She was talking about Safe Haven Laws—state laws enacted in response to the unsafe abandonment of infants. Idaho’s Safe Haven Law allows a custodial parent to abandon their “unwanted newborn not older than thirty days” without fear of prosecution. Eric and I are on the Safe Haven list. Should a baby be abandoned somewhere near us, we will be called as a possible foster placement for that child.
These abandoned infants enter the foster care system, and Coney Barrett’s casual language about Safe Haven Laws reveals her ignorance about the foster care system and how often children are harmed when they are placed in care. A Johns Hopkins University study of a group of foster children in Maryland “found that children in foster care are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their peers not in this setting, and children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused.” A study in Oregon and Washington found that “almost one-third of foster children reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the home.” And many of the child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids are from foster care or group homes. Studies from New York and Connecticut “found that 50 percent of human trafficking victims were involved with child welfare systems or juvenile justice systems and that 80 percent of girls involved in human trafficking had been in the child welfare system in the past.” The FBI recovered sex trafficking victims from over 70 cities in 2013, and over 60 percent of them had been in foster care or group homes.
Coney Barrett’s words also expose her radical disregard for birth mothers. The “burden of parenting” remains even when parents place a child for adoption, even if the parents understand adoption to be in the best interest of their child. Often that burden takes the form of grief. Though she’s an adoptive parent herself, Coney Barrett doesn’t seem to know much about current adoption best practices, or the questions adopted children have about their birth families, or the loss birth parents feel who choose to place their children for adoption, or the ongoing supports and counseling they need. Eric and I adopted our son. Like many adoptions now, it’s an open adoption, which means our son will always know he’s adopted and will always know his birth parents. His birth family is our family now, too. Our son’s birth mother had always wanted to help a family have a child. She’d intended to be a surrogate but was disqualified due to a kink in her umbilical cord when she’d given birth to her daughter 13 years before. She was devastated, and then, unexpectedly pregnant. She chose to place her son with us. Still, she grieves that loss, and still, she needs support, even though she doesn’t regret her decision. All of that can be true at once.
When our foster daughter was taken away from her mother again by Child Protective Services, she was living in a different state and was placed with a different family, strangers she’d never met, friends of the social workers. Though we fought hard to have her placed with us, we could not convince the social workers to return her to the only stable home she’d ever known. Luckily, she’s thriving in her new placement. Her half-brother lives with her, and it’s clear her new foster parents love her and take good care of her. She’s a happy, bossy, funny, beautiful, bright child. Eric and I Zoom with her every Thursday morning. She sings to us. She dances. She asks us to feed carrots and apples to her toy horses through the screen. We play games and draw and pretend to eat pancakes and make funny faces.
“Are there any monsters in your house?” she asks sometimes.
“No,” we say. “No monsters.”
“There are no monsters in this house either,” she says, shaking her head, solemn.
But there are monsters in our country’s House and Senate and Supreme Court. And the consequences of their laws and their neglect will be devastating for all of us.
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