Remember “crack babies?” Back in the 1980s, they were the infants supposedly doomed to a life of “certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.” The predictions were accompanied by graphic depictions of infants going through withdrawal, and condemnation of their mothers for “choosing” addiction over their children.
None of the dire predictions came true. And when researchers studied children born with cocaine in their systems; one group placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them, the results were stunning: After six months, the children left with their birth mothers typically did better on standard measures of infant development. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.
For the children, the frenzy made everything worse. It led to the mass confiscation of infants from mothers who were stereotyped as the most evil human beings on Earth. The children themselves were stigmatized – and that stigma often caused more problems than their mothers’ drug use. That’s why more than 50 leading medical experts have signed a letter begging policymakers not to make the same mistakes with the latest “drug plague” – opioids.
Unfortunately, not everyone is listening. Witness Darcy Olsen’s commentary in support of SB1452. Olsen portrays the bill as a benign little fix to speed up the legal process in child welfare cases. In fact, SB1452 is so extreme that even one of the original sponsors changed her mind and voted against it in committee.
SB1452 makes draconian changes that would have the effect of vastly increasing the number of children needlessly taken from their own homes and consigned to the chaos of Arizona foster care.
It adds entire new categories of cases involving substance-exposed newborns in which the state Department of Child Safety would not even be permitted to offer drug treatment or other help. DCS would be barred from considering a child’s best interests case-by-case. The agency would be forced to refuse all help to the family and immediately seek to terminate parental rights. That really means terminating the children’s rights to their parents.
This does not apply only to the extreme horror-story cases cited by Olsen. The mother desperate for treatment to break free of her addiction and the mother who doesn’t care are treated identically. The crack experience should have taught us that this does terrible harm to their children. Children also will be hurt because their mothers are likely to be scared away from hospitals and even from prenatal care.
Proponents of SB1452 want us to believe that all those additional children taken away won’t be in foster care for long because an army of the affluent will rush forward to adopt them. But we’ve tried that for 20 years and it hasn’t worked.
SB1452 is simply a hyped-up version of existing federal law which already seeks to rush the removal of children into foster care and rush them into adoptive homes. But terminations of parental rights keep outpacing adoptions, creating a huge increase in the number of children who leave foster care as young adults with no permanent home at all.
Proponents want us to believe that the system lavishes services on no-good parents while their children languish in foster care. In fact, children don’t languish in foster care because the system does everything for their own families; they languish in foster care because the system often does nothing for their own families. The failure to help families stay together has been exhaustively documented by The Arizona Republic, the Arizona Daily Star and a class-action lawsuit.
The children remain filed away and forgotten as overloaded caseworkers rush on to the next case – despite the fact that massive studies show that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
When children really must be taken from their parents, study after study has shown that children do better when placed with relatives than when placed with total strangers. That’s why 45 states have a preference for kinship care in their state law. SB1452 would remove the kinship care preference in Arizona.
Children languishing in foster care is a huge problem – it’s the entire reason for the family preservation movement, which seeks to keep children from ever entering foster care needlessly in the first place. But SB1452 will only make that problem worse.
Real solutions require reducing the number or children taken away needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect and providing high quality services, including drug treatment, to speed reunification. That will give DCS time to focus on finding children in real danger and, when necessary, move swiftly to seek termination of parental rights.