There is an old political adage that you should “never let a crisis go to waste,” meaning that a crisis can awaken public interest and create an opportunity to advance policies that might otherwise be unachievable.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, was able to pass much of his New Deal – including a dramatic expansion of the country’s social safety net via the Social Security Act – in the wake of the Great Depression with the American economy in shambles and the American public desperate for government support.
Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of irony, some child advocates are now using the devastation wrought by the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to advance arguments undermining a key part of the Social Security Act – support for children who cannot be cared for in their own homes.
Several weeks ago, Sherry Lachman, the executive director of Foster America, authored a Time essay suggesting “family separation is not just a problem at the border.” In this piece, Lachman bizarrely equates the separations at the border with removals of U.S. children from their homes by child protective services, suggesting even the latter are “inherently toxic.”
And last week, Vivek Sankaran associated the two systems, misleadingly citing statements in an opinion piece that were made about the border separations to attack child removals by child protective services – without disclosing that these statements actually referred to the latter rather than the former. Sankaran quotes Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard, as follows: “[T]here is so much research on [child removal] that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”
Finding it hard to believe that a distinguished Harvard professor would suggest that children should never be removed into foster care, we contacted Dr. Nelson, who explained that his words were taken out of context, as he was referring to separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and not the removal of children from abusive or neglectful homes. Dr. Nelson agreed that any comparison of the two systems is misconceived, noting: “It is inappropriate to compare children experiencing forced separations from their parents in the context of migration to children removed from parental care due to maltreatment (abuse, neglect).”
The separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was an ill-conceived policy that arose from the desire to discourage migration. Rather than being aimed at protecting children, this policy was adopted despite the obvious fact that it would be extremely harmful to them.
The child welfare system, on the other hand, was created to protect children from harm inflicted by their own parents or guardians. It is a sad fact that some homes are dangerous to their own children. Forty-nine states reported 1,700 child fatalities due to abuse or neglect in 2016, and there is wide consensus that this is likely an under count. We don’t know how many more are severely injured but survive; it is doubtless much higher.
And deaths and severe injuries are only the tip of the iceberg. There is extensive literature on the lifelong consequences of child abuse and neglect. These include chronic health conditions, impaired brain development, poor mental and emotional health, social difficulties, juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, and an increased likelihood of abusing one’s own children.
Moreover, foster care is a rarely-used intervention by CPS. Most systems try hard to keep children at home by providing services to the parents to help remedy the conditions that caused the maltreatment. In 2016, according to federal data, agencies placed slightly over 200,000 children involved in maltreatment investigations in foster care and provided other post-investigation services to about 1.1 million children and families.
Yes, removing children from their parents is often traumatic to the child. But it goes without saying that in some terrible home situations, the damage to a child of staying in the current home would be greater than the damage caused by removal.
As Dr. Nelson puts it:
Of course we would like to see the biological parents be successful in changing the family dynamics and preserving the parent-child relationship but if that is impossible, and the harms to the child continue, then the child should be removed from the home, either temporarily, if the home situation can be remedied, or permanently.
But, it is of utmost importance to act with alacrity – I think in many cases children are left for far too long in their biological homes and by the time they are placed into foster care or adoptive care, they may be irreparably harmed.
Setting aside the vastly different reasons for, and targets of, family separations at the border and child removals by child protective services, there are huge differences between the two sets of policies. Cathy Senderling-McDonald recently wrote an instructive and comprehensive summary of the distinctions, outlining the vast differences in living conditions, objectives, legal structure and oversight.
Using the suffering of parents and children at the border to denigrate foster care is not merely an illogical comparison, it is a harmful one that can result in suffering, lifelong damage, and even death to children. Moreover, it is offensive to those professionals who have devoted their lives to protecting children, and to the children who have suffered and died for lack of such protection.
Let us be clear: we want to prevent children from being removed from their parents whenever it is safe and appropriate to do so.
But let us be equally clear: until we eliminate serious child maltreatment and endangerment from every home, there will always be a need for foster care to keep kids safe. To pretend otherwise is naïve, dangerous and irresponsible.
This op-ed was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on September 6, 2018. I wrote it with Sean Hughes, the director of government relations for the consulting firm Social Change Partners.