Friday, May 15, 2009

Student shares experiences with DCFS

This is a student reaction paper.  My comments are at the end in this red font.

I am a single parent who now works and goes to college, and has a young, precious daughter. But, life is not always and has not been so peachy these past few years. My daughter and I have been, and still are, involved in the system. When DCFS first came into my life, when my daughter was just a few months old, I hated them. I did not understand what was going on and why they were in my life. Since all of this has

happened and I have learned more about DCFS through experience, this class, and life in general, I realize that they are not all that bad. 

Here goes my story. When my daughter was born, her dad and I lived in an apartment. She had everything that she needed. Her dad did not work, and he was gone all the time, doing whatever it was that he did. I worked, took care of the house, and our daughter. She was with his sisters, her aunts, a lot, because I had to work 40+ hours a week to be able to afford food, rent, necessities, child care, gas, and everything else for me, her and her dad. 

My baby daughter got sick with pneumonia when she was about four months old and had to go to the hospital. She didn't fully recover, and yet they sent us home. I had to take off work for four days to stay with her in the hospital. Within three weeks, three doctor's visits and two more hospital visits later, Brooke was back in the hospital with pneumonia again. Well, before her father, she, and I could leave the hospital that time, DCFS caseworkers met us at the hospital. They stated that someone called them and told them that her father and I were manufacturing crystal meth out of our apartment and that is why she was sick all of the time. We both knew that the allegation was ridiculous. So, the caseworkers followed us to the house and realized that there was no foul play going on. 

But, they drug tested us, and since her father dropped dirty, they continued to stay in our lives ever since. To make a long story short, I dropped dirty for weed about six months later, after we went to court to keep custody of our daughter. They took her that day, which was four days before her first birthday. Ever since then, I have had to go through rehab, which I have completed successfully, outpatient rehab, which I have completed successfully, and also anger management classes, domestic violence classes, parenting classes, mental health assessments, counseling appointments, and many other various hoops, which I have also all completed successfully. This has been going on for about 3 years now, and I have finally just recently gotten to keep my daughter over nights, and weekends, until finally all the time. 

One of the reasons that it has been going on so long is because before I became a mother, when I was younger, I went through a period where I went on a crime spree and ended up in jails and prison for almost a year. Anyway, my point is that at any time a DCFS caseworker can be called and snatch a child up over anything (in my case, a test showed I had used marijuana, and that was it). This is good in a sense, because one does not want a child to be put into a situation to where they will eventually experience harm. But, in another sense, child welfare rules make it so difficult for the parents to obtain custody and rights again for their children, that I understand why and how so many parents never get their kids back and they get stuck in the system.

I was lucky enough to have family (well, my daughter’s paternal aunt) to take care of my daughter so that she didn't have to be shuffled around from foster home to foster home. I mean, what is actually better for a child, to be at a somewhat unstable home with their parents, or to be shifted from foster home to foster home, never knowing who they are going to be with and what is going to happen to them at each of those houses? So, I’m glad in our case there was someone in our extended family who was ready to help, and DCFS worked with her. 

I have heard many horror stories of things that go on at foster homes and centers where they keep the kids that no one wants. I think that if DCFS makes the parents go through drug drops, counseling, parenting classes, rehabs, and all of the other hoops that they have to go through, I believe that they should make the foster parents go through the same things. They should take the time to drug test foster parents and make them go to parenting classes and counseling. 

I have seen many things in my life, and a lot of people do not deserve the beautiful children that they have. But, if there are no foster parents that can handle them, and nowhere to put them, what is actually better for the child? Because isn't that what it is all about? The safety and welfare of the children? Sometimes I think and have seen that the foster homes are worse for the children than their home life would have ever been. 

So, for this reaction essay, I just wanted to write about how I think that the DCFS, or Department of Child and Family Services needs to be harder on the foster parents and give them the same hoops to jump over that they give to the actual birth parents, because who is there to say that one is better than the other, when they are actually just watching the every move of the birth parent?

I think your point is that parents who encounter the child protective services professionals are forced to experience quite a bit of intrusive meddling in their lives. You are concerned that the foster parents who care for the children may be not significantly better than the parent(s) who must give up the children. I have a few points to raise.

First, it seems to me that foster parents are screened, and they are supposed to submit to a certain degree of training and evaluation. You are correct that some foster parents are abusive.  I seem to have read somewhere that rates of abuse in foster homes are quite low these days, although in the 1980s or early 1990s I believe foster parents had a much higher rate of child maltreatment than other families. Of course, the sort of children who are put in foster parent households may be the sort of children who elicit a bit more maltreatment, but still, I think there was a big problem with foster parents, and now the problem with them is not so big, relative to what it was.

Second, I understand there is some difficulty in finding and keeping quality foster parents. This is a problem that puts pressure on child welfare systems to reduce the degree of screening and training and background checking they do.  That is, if you want to attract more foster parents, you need to make it easier and more comfortable for people to become foster parents.

Third, I understand that the alternatives to foster parenting can be difficult. Kinship care, where an aunt or cousin or grandparent is the foster family for a child removed from parental custody is generally the best type of alternative foster family arrangement.  This is statistically true (and we know this partly because of research done at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign), and so its sensible for policies to give preference to kinship care. But, it may be that the extended kin can be just as troubled as the birth family, so there are of course anecdotal cases where grandparents or aunts or cousins are worse than the biological parents.  Another alternative to foster care or kinship care is institutionalized care. However, children’s homes and residential child care centers are not very cost-effective. Also, some children in foster care who end up in institutions are too troubled to be safely placed in a foster family, and it seems a problem to put relatively well-adjusted or vulnerable children into a social milieu with the deeply disturbed or aggressive children with behavior-disorders.

Fourth, you describe the training and classes you were forced to take as “hoops” that you were forced to go through in order to win back custody of your daughter. Yes, I can see that in a sense these were “tricks” you were being forced to perform. However, you know the intention of the child welfare system is to provide parents with experiences and courses that will make them better parents. You do not say anything about these courses being of any value. You don’t mention learning anything in these courses. Since you don’t mention any good coming from these experiences, but you do mention them as hoops, it is odd that you should suggest that foster parents go through them.  Why? If they were merely annoying time-wasting “hoops” you grudgingly attended, why inflict them on others? If they were valuable experience that made you a better parent, then yes, it would make sense for foster parents to take them, but then why have you omitted any mention of any good that you gain from the classes and so forth? I’m very curious whether the parent training and family preservation work done through classes and home visits and social worker mentoring of parents in your situation do any good for parents and their children. These are our society’s way of helping keep biological parents with their children, and your description of this process as “hoops” seems discouraging to me, as I was hoping these would be valued experiences that would make parents find new ways of taking care of their children in healthier ways.

Fifth, you describe having your daughter removed from your custody when you were tested for marijuana use. I am astonished that a parent could lose custody of a child when they tested positive for marijuana use. In your case there was a record of past involvement with the corrections system, but such a history is not uncommon among certain segments of the poorer or historically oppressed groups in our society. Had you tested positive for a narcotic, I would understand the removal of your daughter, but marijuana?  It’s baffling. Perhaps your description of training sessions as “hoops” is a sign of resentment for the injustice of having your daughter removed for such a trivial problem. 

Sixth, your story brings up the issue of the father. I’ve had students with boyfriends who were struggling with substance addiction. More than one of my students has dropped out of college or graduate school to follow and care for guys with serious drug problems. And I know of one case where a male student left a good career to care for his drug-addicted girlfriend. In these cases, there is significant love there in the relationship, but the drugs or alcohol is damaging the brain and functioning of the addict. Now, what about the situation where a couple has a child, and one partner is a fair-to-good parent, but their parenting is compromised by their caregiving obligations for the addicted partner? I think it is fairly common for one parent to be addicted to alcohol or drugs, and generally be a fairly awful parent as a result. The healthier parent might have the potential or instincts to be a great parent, but they are so busy caring for their sick partner that their parenting is compromised. In these cases, the relatively healthy parent might sometimes self-medicate with prescription drugs, alcohol, or marijuana to deal with the emotional misery one goes through when one is in love with a substance-addicted person. In such situations what is to be done? I know sometimes child care workers want to get the child out of a home where one parent is using drugs, and the child welfare workers might demand that the “clean” parent reject the addicted parent in order to establish a drug-free home where the child will be safe. Is it better for a child to have two parents living together when one parent is addicted to alcohol or drugs, or is it better for that child to have only one parent at home, but get the benefit of a drug-free home? 

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