Foster Care – Doing It Right Is Part of the Deal!

“Over the next 10 months, Jake and his brother were moved 11 times, sometimes in short succession.” This quote is from a report issues by the Saskatchewan Advocate, Bob Pringle. The report details the events that occurred to Jake prior to his death. In taking a child into care, we enter into a bargain with them that care will be better. As the report notes, Jake was a vulnerable child.

Our investigation found that Jake was vulnerable in many ways due to his young age, the challenges presented by his parents, his inability to talk along with suspected delays in other areas, and his 11 placements during his 19 months in care. (p.5)

Bob Pringle
Bob Pringle

This is a serious challenge for a child. Coming from dysfunction, systemically Jake was placed in a form of systemic dysfunction but with strangers. Pringle also notes that the role of child protection when a child is in care is to act as a parent so they should do that – which can be tough when the parent is a system that cannot offer stability in placement and relationships. Children can pay a price for that.

Child protection did not prioritize Jake’s developmental health in the management of his case, as they should have when acting as his parent. As a result, many opportunities to address his suspected developmental delays were missed. (p.5)

It is not that others were unconcerned, as the report notes that several other professionals had raised their worries for Jake. As the report title suggests, Jake got lost in the system.

I pondered the issues of foster care as well when I saw the story of Detective Jack Mook. He is a Pittsburgh police officer who found two boys living in foster care in what is described as horridly deficient conditions. His story is reported by the Huffington Post. However, this is a story of a system that appears to have lost sight of two boys who ought not to have been living in the home. It appears not to have been a fit place for them. Fortunately, this story has a happier chapter now being written.

Fostering got a further bad rap as a Calgary foster parent was convicted of sexual assaults of several children in his care over a period of years. The Calgary Herald reports that the abuse seems to have gone on for about 9 years.

Yet, fostering is tough work typically done by highly dedicated people who seek to offer temporary or longer term care to children who cannot be with their families. Research recently published by Thompson, McPherson & Marsland remind us that there is a cost, particularly for family who have their own biological children in the home. Relationship change as a result of the foster children. These researchers note that biological children place importance in their position within the family (e.g. oldest, youngest). This forms part of how they relate to their parents. This positional security can be disrupted with foster children also present. Foster children also bring competition for parental resources – a competition that biological children must enter.

Foster parents and their children need support. As the story of Jake illustrates, children coming into foster care arrive often with significant challenges that can place a great deal of demands on the whole of the family system. The biological relationships still need nurturing while creating room for the foster children to be part of the family.

As children come into care we offer them a bargain that this will be better. We have a real obligation to honour the bargain. But we also have an obligation to effectively support foster parents and their biological children.

Thompson H, McPherson S, Marsland L (2014) “Am I damaging my own family?”: relational changes between foster carers and their birth children, Child Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry. OnlineFirst doi:10.1177/1359104514554310

Where is the Voice of the Child?

Jeffrey Baldwin
Jeffrey Baldwin

A few months ago, I conducted a survey of just under 50 lawyers who represent children in the child protection system. I was interested in the degree to which children have voice when their parents are being assessed. Child protection often contracts for parenting capacity assessments to determine what the strengths and deficits of a parent might be and what might be done to return children to parental care, or avoid taking children into care.

For the family, these assessments are a “big deal”. The outcome can impact case plans, interventions that are or are not offered and, most importantly, whether the child should be in the care of the parents. Courts take a lot of notice of these assessments.

Child protection should be a child-centered business. After all, it is really about the best interest of the child. You can imagine how taken aback I was when all but one lawyer said that the child’s voice is rarely or almost never evident in these assessments.

In a seminar I ran with lawyers, I was told that assessors in their jurisdiction rarely even saw the child with the parents. They went on to say that assessors typically did not interview children of an age when that would be appropriate.

The results of my research shocked me, quite frankly. What it does suggest is that, at least in this process, the focus on the child has been lost. The rights of the parents have garnered too much attention by comparison.

I thought about this as well when reading the latest report from the Child Advocate in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The advocate spoke of numerous times that child welfare was involved with a particular child but that child was not interviewed or seen – repeatedly. This is not the first time that I have read reports of children who have died while involved with child protection where the reports note that the child was almost invisible in the case plan. One of the more famous cases comes out of the United Kingdom, the case of Victoria Climbie.

Another notorious case was in Toronto where workers failed to see Jeffrey Baldwin through many visits missing that he was starving to death.

These should act as powerful reminders that the child is the core purpose of the child protection system. The child needs to be seen, the child needs to have a voice and that voice needs to be heard.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of  CBCNews
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