Over the past year, we’ve grown far too accustomed to watching the horror of family separation at the southern border. The crying children, the weeping parents, the little girl screaming “mommy” as her mother is taken away.
As someone who grew up as a foster kid, it reminds me that we in Massachusetts separate children from their families every day — more than 9,000 last year. Unlike at the border, we have good reason. The children are almost always victims of neglect or abuse. But make no mistake, just as it is at the border, separation is traumatic.
It starts with a knock on the door. A Department of Children and Families employee has come to remove the child from his or her home, a gut-wrenching experience for any child.
The vast majority of these kids don’t want to leave. They love their parents no matter what. Their living conditions are all they’ve ever known, so for them it’s normalcy. When they are taken, they are confused, afraid, hurt and often blaming themselves. They assume they must have done something wrong.
And here’s where the trauma gets compounded: Mental health services are often not immediately available. Kids are often left to deal with the twin feelings of abandonment and guilt by themselves.
As a recent Globe investigation laid bare, the trauma doesn’t end there.
The current shortage of long-term homes means the children are placed in a series of “hotline homes,” way stations on the path to a permanent placement. Kids can often get shuttled to two or three different homes before finding that long-term home. They get to relive their separation trauma over and over.
Many are placed with loving, caring families. Others are not so lucky. Foster families might be more interested in the monthly stipend than in providing real care. In those cases, the foster child might get left out of family trips. They might wear the same clothes every day.
DCF social workers, saddled with bulging caseloads, don’t pick up on the problems. The kids soldier on. Even the most loving families can’t make up for the fact that their old identity as a regular kid has been stripped away. They are now a “state kid” or “ward of the state.” Often, when the truth about a child’s foster status is revealed at school, he or she is taunted and bullied.
All the while, mental health assistance is inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst. We take kids who are often healthy and plunge them into a chaotic system that produces damaged and troubled adults. Nationwide, the percentage of foster kids who obtain a bachelor’s degree is in the single digits. Twenty-five percent will end up incarcerated within two years of leaving the foster system.
For some, the crisis identified in the Globe stories suggests the need to keep children in their biological homes. Historically, we have often seen this seesaw effect. A child tragically dies in a foster home? We then focus on keeping the kids in their biological home. A child dies in a biological home? We then start ripping kids out of families at the slightest hint of trouble.
If children are safe in their biological homes, then, of course, we would all prefer that outcome. But that’s a big if. The latest crisis should not put undue pressure on caseworkers to preserve families at the expense of a child’s safety.
Instead of constantly shifting with the political winds, we need to agree on the best practices for child separation and stick with them. Here are several other steps we should take that will both reduce trauma and increase the number of foster beds by helping foster parents stick with the system:
Give kids mental health services from the moment a child is removed from his or her home.
Give foster parents adequate financial support, including child care, so they can provide the care kids need.
Provide immediate training for relatives who take kids in — so-called kinship care — and support after training. We can’t assume family members are any less in need of help than other families might be.
Accelerate adoptions and permanent guardianships by removing red tape and making successful conclusions a priority. Kids need the security and stability that come with permanency.
Finally, make an irrevocable commitment to make the DCF budget recession-proof. No more throwing this department into chaos every time the economy sputters.
We’ve made many beneficial changes over the years — adding dollars here and there, slowly investing in technology, and shifting policies incrementally. But we can’t afford incrementalism anymore. Thousands of kids each year enter the program. Thousands more age out, moving into adulthood bearing the scars of our flawed system.
These are our children. We took them in and said we would care for them. We need to do better by our foster children. Right away. No excuses.
Stan Rosenberg is the former Massachusetts Senate president and was a longtime member of the Legislature’s Foster Kids’ Caucus.