It’s that time of year, when nonprofits try to appeal to your heart and your wallet. And as my inbox fills with appeals from foster care agencies for money to “help the children,” my mind keeps skipping to green stick figures holding hands, drawn by a child in foster care I worked with nearly 10 years ago.
Fresh out of college, as a behavioral coach at a foster care agency, I was assigned to work with a 5-year-old I’ll call Violet to protect her privacy. When I first met Violet, she hid behind a wall, peering out occasionally to look at me and quickly ducking back out of sight in a fit of giggles whenever I caught her eye.
At the time, Violet was living with one sister in a foster home; their three siblings lived in other foster placements. She’d been referred to us because she often had tantrums — crying, screaming, and not listening to directions. In the referral form, Violet, who is Black, was labeled as “disruptive” and “defiant.” That’s not unusual: authority figures more commonly describe Black girls that way.
I met with Violet three times a week for over a year to teach her about emotions, coping skills, and “positive behaviors.” We spent many sessions coloring and drawing. She often drew her family as stick figures, saying, “I miss my mommy,” “I miss my sister,” and “I miss my brother.”
Violet’s family was always on her mind. But in the monthly child safety conferences — which included the Child Protective Services caseworker, the school psychologist, the therapist, me, and sometimes the foster parent or Violet’s mom — not once did we discuss how desperately Violet missed her family. Her foster parent wanted her on medication to stop the tantrums. That’s also not unusual; psychotropic medications are prescribed to 1 in 3 foster children, as young as preschoolers. Violet’s tantrums in class meant she was pulled out so often that she was behind in every subject — another common occurrence for kids in her situation; in state standardized testing, students in foster care score 16 to 20 percentile points lower than the rest of their cohort.
And yet, in conferences, we always talked about the tantrums without talking about what she was telling us: how badly she wanted to be home with her family.
So why was Violet in foster care to begin with? Because her mom, who I’ll call Jade, fled domestic violence after her boyfriend tried to kill her in front of her children. Jade escaped with them all to a domestic violence shelter. Under a practice called mandated reporting, the shelter called CPS, which cited her for child negligence and exposure to violence. Because Jade couldn’t offer the children stable housing and had tested positive for drugs, CPS declared her an unfit mother and removed her kids.
Trying to see and win back her children became Jade’s full-time job. With no car, she was on buses for hours at a time to attend supervised visits, court dates, and various court-mandated services. If Jade was late or didn’t show, it was used against her in court. These were scheduled during regular working hours and easily subject to change, so she couldn’t keep a job. And none of this is unusual, either.
But it was extremely hard on Violet. Families typically get one two-hour supervised visit per week — totaling just over four days together per year. Violet and her family had always been very close. Suddenly, she was living with strangers. How would any 5-year-old respond if she witnessed someone try to kill her mother, lost her home and family, and only got to see her mother for less than a week every year — with a group of unknown white therapists watching the whole time?
She might well throw tantrums.
Violet and Jade were treated as if something was wrong with their minds rather than their circumstances. We had therapeutic interventions for Violet’s tantrums, but no plan for getting her family back together. CPS mandated therapy for Jade, when what she needed was affordable housing, transportation, and weekdays clear of appointments so that she could work.
All of this is, in fact, business as usual. The child welfare system pathologizes the children and parents it claims to help. Violet’s story is one of hundreds of thousands. There are, of course, extreme cases of parents who are simply not capable of caring for their children, but the majority of cases in the current child welfare system are opened for symptoms of poverty. Even with a recent federal focus on “preventive services,” parents often don’t receive help with the problem that put them in court in the first place.
If a parent was reported for leaving a child at home, they get parenting coaching, not child care. If a parent was reported for not taking a child to the doctor, they get parenting classes, not health insurance. We treat social problems as personal failures, instead of delivering what families need.
Imagine Violet’s life if she had had what middle-class children have: a home, family dinners, music lessons, and summer camp counselors. Instead of a behavioral coach, maybe Violet could have had a soccer coach. Instead of drawing desperately missed family members, maybe Violet could have been drawing aliens, princesses, and action figures. Instead of pathologizing and separating Violet, Jade, and all the families enmeshed in this system, maybe we could keep families together, and build a society that values the bond between children and their parents.
Jasmine Wali, who has a master’s degree in social work, is the director of policy and advocacy at JMACforFamilies, a nonprofit working to replace the child welfare system with better support for parents. Send comments to email@example.com.