Monday, August 06, 2012

Parent rights at what cost?

Recently, I've read two memoirs by adults who wished they had been taken away from their parents. One was Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle, and I'm currently reading Daphne Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress.

Walls describes a childhood with two charming intellectual parents who just didn't prioritize things like groceries or heating fuel. At one point the child welfare people came to investigate, but Walls was able to head them off, terrified that she will be separated not from from her parents, but from her siblings.

Scholinski spent much of her adolescence in psychiatric hospitals for oppositional defiant disorder, which both she and the hospitals chalked up to her chaotic and affectionless family life. She describes her feelings upon being hospitalized:

"I didn't let on but part of me kind of wanted to go. Any place had to feel safer than home. Over the summer my father had sat on me, his knees on my shoulders, and poked me in the chest while I tried furiously to kick him, to get him off so I could breathe . . . I guess if I felt anything riding up the elevator to the third floor if Michael Reese, it was a stab of hope."

I realize these are extreme cases, but I wonder how many such cases are out there.

The social workers and judges who make these decision have two responsibilities. First, they must protect the health and safety of the child. Second, they must try to keep families intact. Those things don't always combine well.

I've heard parents say their children were taken away for no good reason. (Of course, they're free to say they weren't abusing or neglecting their kids, and if the Department of Children and Families has evidence to the contrary, they're not allowed to release it to the public.) And yes, I know there have been abuses of the system, especially against Native American families. Probably there still are incompetent or biased social workers taking kids away from families who could have cared for them if they had been properly referred for housing assistance, food stamps, etc. And yes, there is a shortage of those resources that may make the difference between being able to care for your kids and not.

But I've also heard social workers say they think the system is too permissive, that birth families are sometimes given too many chances, that children are moved from foster care back to the home too many times before parental rights are terminated. By the time the kids have spent a few years bouncing between homes, they're too old to be easily adoptable and have endured too many disrupted attachments.

Parents have a legal right to their children, unless they really screw up. Children need families, and in most cases their original parents are the best people to raise them. But in the cases where that's not true, I'm not so keen on protecting parental rights at the expense of the children.

I wonder what an outcome-based rather than rights-based approach to this would look like.

Children seldom say they want to be separated from their parents at the time, because children cling to the only supports they know. But once they're grown? I'd love to see a study that asks adults:

Did your parents lose custody of you?
1) No, and it was the right decision
2) No, but I wish they had
3) Yes, and it was the right decision
4) Yes, but I wish they hadn't

I don't know what results we would get, but it would be a good tool for knowing if our policy is tipping too much in one direction or another.

1 comment:

Boris Yakubchik said...

Re: potential study with questions about parents losing custody & value of the decision

While a picture may emerge from having people answer these types of questions, it would be hard to know how much to rely on the results: people are bad at evaluating what could have been (people are bad at affective forecasting). It's an important question to ask about none-the-less, it's just that it would be very hard to know even if people answer honestly.