Sometimes it seems like basic humanity and common sense get lost in the scramble to affirm parents’ rights at all cost. Nowhere was this more clear than in a quote from Aysha Shomburg, the former New York City child welfare official who was appointed by President Biden to head the Children’s Bureau. As quoted in The Imprint, Schomberg cited a 15-year-old father facing a termination of parental rights as evidence for the need to eliminate the timelines imposed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Speaking of this teen dad, Schomberg said, “That stays in my mind and makes me think, how many young fathers are out there and maybe want to take care of their children, but are maybe up against this timeline?”
After picking my jaw up off the floor, I wondered whether Schomberg thought a fifteen-year old was actually capable of parenting an infant, or whether she thinks ASFA should be amended so a child can stay in foster care as many years as it takes for the parent to grow up.
Schomburg’s statement reminded me of one of the saddest cases I carried as a social worker in the District of Columbia’s foster care system. A two-month-old (I’ll call him “Shawn”) came into care when he was removed from his teenage mother (“Shameka”) after she swung him wildly in his carseat and then stalked off in a temper from a home for teen mothers, abandoning her son there. Shawn was placed with one of the best foster families I have ever known–“the Smiths,” a couple who was Black like Shawn and had raised their own children and fostered numerous others. They quickly fell in love with Shawn and gave him the kind of parenting that textbooks envision. Mrs. Smith stayed home with Shawn all day, talking to him, playing with him, and loving him, until the Smiths placed him in a carefully-chosen early childhood education setting at the age of two. Shawn was the center of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s lives and part of their extended family of children and grandchildren. I’ll never forget that when he fell in love with trains, they found every train-related toy, game or event.
As the months and then years rolled by, Shawn’s mother stopped visiting him. She had named a father for Shawn, but a paternity test came back negative. Shawn’s goal was changed to adoption with the Smiths and I imagined the happy life awaiting him in their loving home. But one day, Shameka admitted that she had lied about the name of the biological father for the sake of revenge against him. She named the real father, and the paternity test was positive. The father (“Antonio”) soon showed up at the agency, a pleasant seventeen-year-old who was delighted to meet his adorable young son. Shawn’s birth father lived with his parents and siblings in subsidized housing and relied on government assistance. Shawn’s grandfather was excited about the new family member. He told me that two of his older sons also had children as teenagers, and that becoming fathers is what made them actually grow up, finish high school, and get jobs.
The Smiths were devastated, but I assured them that the court would not rip a two-year-old away from the only parents he had ever known. But then I talked to the agency attorney and realized there was no question in her mind that the agency had to change the goal to “reunification” with the father, a perfect stranger. And that is exactly what happened. The goal was changed and the Smiths had to bring Shawn to the agency for progressively longer visits with his birth father. At one visit, Mr. Smith was heard crying in the bathroom.
I am glad I was no longer at the agency when Shawn went ‘home’ with his father. But I’ll never forget the day I ran into Shawn’s Guardian ad Litem, the attorney appointed to represent him in court. “We ruined his life,” she told me. She had visited him often in the months following his return home, and and reported that his new household was chaotic, with none of the routine and predictability so crucial for growing children. And we will never know the effects of being ripped away from the Smiths after two years of security and attachment.
I thought about Shawn when I read Aysha Shomburg’s post. I wondered whether Schomburg cared more about the fifteen year-old than about his son. It was not about the infant’s future. It was about the father’s rights. And indeed, most child welfare officials would say Schomburg was correct in not speculating about the child’s future. Child welfare agencies are not in the business of choosing the best parent, just ensuring that the birth parents can provide the minimal acceptable care. But what about the attachment that Shawn had developed over two years with the Smiths? The importance of attachment, and the consequences of disrupting it for a young child, is why the timelines were included in ASFA–the timelines that Schomberg wants to eliminate. So attachment – and the trauma of disrupting it – does not seem to be a significant issue for her.
Schomburg’s citation of a fifteen year old father as an argument against permanency timelines is an illustration of what’s wrong with mainstream child welfare thinking today. It’s all about parents’ rights, while the most basic of children’s needs are disregarded. It is based on an idealized vision of families rather than the way they really are. It’s the kind of thinking that allowed a child named Noah Cuatro to die when the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services told social workers to emphasize his family’s strengths more than its weaknesses. We must stop using that kind of thinking to prescribe our actions toward our most vulnerable citizens–our youngest children.