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Frozen Children, Icy Silence--Time To Adopt Openness

When two children -- two adopted children -- end up dead in a block of ice hidden in their mother's freezer, the entire child welfare apparatus flies into a panic.

Almost immediately after the news broke about the gruesome case of Renee Bowman and her children, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty called a news conference to say that the city had done no wrong (the family lived in Maryland, but the children had been adopted in the District). The Baltimore-based agency that cleared Bowman to adopt dropped into a defensive crouch from which it has yet to emerge. And social workers braced for another round of outraged cries for heads to roll.

It sure looks like someone messed up. You might think that the people charged with investigating Bowman before she adopted one child in 2001 and two others in 2004 should have known and raised alarms about facts such as these: Bowman was convicted of threatening bodily harm to a 72-year-old motorist just two years before the first adoption; she may have had an abusive mate; she filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001; she described her childhood to friends as akin to that of "an abused dog"; and her own mother had been a homeless wanderer of the city's streets.

Now we learn that Maryland's social services agency got a complaint accusing Bowman of child neglect last January, sent a caseworker to the house and concluded that everything was fine -- "clean and appropriately furnished," though with a funky smell that was attributed to mildew.

Still, it is possible, as Fenty and some adoption advocates argue, that everyone did their jobs, that Bowman passed every screening, and that whatever went horribly wrong in her life happened only after she had adopted the children.

The problem is, we can't know. And the fact is, it is our business.

In the reflexively privacy-obsessed world of adoptions, it is somehow an imposition if the public wants to know where the state's wards end up, who is collecting the stipends taxpayers shell out to encourage adoption and how all that money is being spent. We know best, social workers say.

But anytime public money is involved, it's the public's job to demand oversight and accountability, and the only road to that goal is transparency.

I met Adam Pertman many years ago when he was a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. After experiencing the joys and frustrations of adoption, he left the news business to advocate for those who give that loving gift of parenthood. Now, as director of the Adoption Institute, he understands both instincts: the newsman's passionate belief that sunshine is the best medicine, and the adoption world's embrace of secrecy to protect children and grant adoptive parents the same rights birth parents enjoy.

When he trains social workers, Pertman tells them: "Your secrets don't do you any good. The only time you get in the news is when someone dies, and it's because you won't give out any information."

The roots of that secrecy lie in the not-so-distant past, when adoption carried a powerful stigma. "This is a whole institution built on stigma and secrecy and shame," Pertman says, "on people being told to lie for the rest of their lives. You didn't tell your children they were adopted. Amazingly, we got to the other side, and adoption is no longer anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about. But the remnants of that era of secrecy are profound."

Executives at the Board of Child Care, the Methodist church-affiliated agency that investigated Bowman's suitability for adoption, would not talk to me. The top boss didn't even return my call. The reflex is to circle the wagons and board up the windows.

Luckily, some see that public trust is essential. Janice Goldwater, who runs Adoptions Together, a private agency in Silver Spring not connected to the Bowman case, opened her files so I could see how exhaustively her social workers investigate families being considered as adoptive parents.

Adoptive parents tell me they feel as if they've had a colonic irrigation of their finances, family history and even their sex lives. Social workers interview friends, relatives and co-workers; examine tax, criminal and credit records; and ask about religion, guns, drugs and corporal punishment. Families are rejected if they are likely to spank the child, keep unlocked guns in the house or put the child to sleep on a bunk bed or sofa bed.

And somehow a Renee Bowman gets through. How? The pathetic truth is that people inside the system already know that answer, but the rest of us might never know.

The legacy of secrecy lives on. Goldwater, who has an adopted child as well as three birth children, was appalled to see that her adopted child's birth certificate was rewritten to show Goldwater and her husband as the birth parents, a deception that fools no one.

Goldwater and Pertman are both wary of making adoption records public, even in a case that ends in an awful crime. Once an adoption has been completed, they argue, the parents should have the same rights as a birth parent.

But the public has an obligation to children who were placed by the government. Bowman, for example, received $2,400 a month in federal money to defray the cost of raising her three children. In the current system, there is no way to see if that money is being spent as intended.

"There are sound, competent professionals doing this work," Goldwater says. "We have to show people that, not hide anytime something bad happens."

UPDATE (11 A.M.): Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school, this morning passes along an email by Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, arguing for opening up adoption hearings, as 15 states have already done:

Even journalists who disagree with my organization on everything else usually find common ground with us on one point: The enormous harm done to children by the secrecy that permeates child welfare - the closed court hearings and sealed records.

So I'm surprised the Post hasn't done what many other newspapers have in the wake of child abuse tragedies - demanded, over and over, that, at a minimum, the court hearings be opened.

One of the reasons the child welfare system in Allegheny County, Pa. is, relatively speaking, a national model, is that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette crusaded to get the courts opened, and then followed up with outstanding reporting on what was going on there.

Since 1980 about 15 states have truly opened these hearings. And even though many of these began as pilot projects with sunset dates, not one of these states has closed them again. And in state after state onetime opponents of openness became converts. It's been harder to get records open, but there has been some progress there as well.

How might that have helped in the most recent tragedy? Here's an excerpt from an e-mail that Prof. [Matthew] Fraidin of UDC Law School sent yesterday to Petula Dvorak [The Post's reporter who's been covering the Bowman case]:

"Petula, don't you want to open up the court's file of the adoption cases to see what is in there? Don't you want to listen to the tape of the adoption proceedings, or read a transcript? The neglect case files of the children would tell you when Ms. Bowman entered the children's lives, what their condition was when they went to live with her, whether the social worker and GAL and judge really gave Ms. Bowman any scrutiny: did the s/w or GAL visit the children regularly before the adoptions were granted? CFSA (and the Board of Child Care, the private agency that licensed Ms. Bowman) have files, too, showing what Ms. Bowman told them, whether they checked it out, how well they knew her, whether they watched her with the children, whether they wondered why her employment ended in 2000, whether they explored her bankruptcy filings in 2000 and 2001. Etc., etc. and so on and so forth.

There is a WORLD of information in the court files and in CFSA's files, and a puzzle in there that, if put together thoughtfully, could save children's lives. What happened? How? Why? Were there shortcuts? What assumptions were made? What pressures were the social worker and GAL (who probably was carrying 75 to 100 cases at the time) under? ..."

In New York State, Family Courts were opened by order of Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. No one has made the case better. Said Judge Kaye: "Sunshine is good for children."

Isn't it time to demand that the courts in D.C. let the sunshine in?

By Marc Fisher |  October 5, 2008; 9:19 AM ET
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Comments

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There should not be a financial incentive to adopt a child. The fact that she received 2,400 a month of federal funding is absurd. It encourages people to adopt for the wrong reasons. A tax credit-maybe but cold cash-NO way.

Posted by: horrified in AZ | October 5, 2008 10:39 AM

I agree with this post.
There should not be a financial incentive to adopt a child.

Posted by: elle | October 5, 2008 10:52 AM

I agree that the veil of secrecy helps no one in foster care and adoptions and school issues and even mental health. The secrecy (a/k/a confidentiality) only serves to perpetuate stigma that should not exist and needs to be eradicated. For example, we view people with mental illness as "crazy" while we view people with high blood pressure as needing medical treatment. And we view anyone who has been through bankruptcy as irresponsible -- not someone who needs to learn to manage money or who had an unfortunate confluence of circumstances.

Transparency promotes accountability. More importantly, transparency promotes new learning and systems improvement.

The reason transparency is not embraced in our culture is because transparency promotes nothing more than finger-pointing. The minute someone makes a mistake, everybody (especially the media) pounces and second guesses and writes about how stupendously incompetent the decision-makers are. All this without knowing what information the decision-makers were working with at the time. And the decision-makers 'circle the wagons', which is simple human nature to protect oneself from attack. So we're caught in a vicious vortex that we cannot escape.

One thing occurs to me with respect to the tragic path of these girls that I have not seen discussed anywhere. Ms. Bowman was probably their foster mother for a long, long time before she became their adoptive mother. It takes a very long time to move children from a goal of reunification to a goal of adoption -- often years. So by the time these girls became available for adoption, Ms. Bowman was, to them, their mother. The decision-makers understand that and weigh things like a bankruptcy or a verbal altercation or threat against disrupting the girls attachment to their mother yet again.

The issues raised here are (1) since every foster parent is potentially an adoptive parent, the vetting standards need to be the same which would be very expensive; and (2) how many current foster parents have background incidents similar to Ms. Bowman's that arise after a child has been placed with them?

I recently learned that when an adoption is completed, the birth certificate is changed -- essentially eradicating the child's birth information. This strikes me as simply bizarre. Certainly, it's misguided. One of the reasons children adopted out of child welfare are not 'followed' is the concern about further stigmatizing the child. But if we treat adoption like it's some shameful secret, children will continue to feel ashamed about being adopted.

Lastly, CPS calls shot through the roof after the Jacks tragedy came to light. I heard nothing about an increase in calls to the foster/adoptive parent recruiting office. Sad to say, I expect the same to happen again this time.

Posted by: sheckycat | October 5, 2008 12:29 PM

A number of years ago I adopted my stepdaughter. I was living in Scotland at the time, and went through a very rigorous background check so that I could legally adopt a child who had been under my care for 7 years as her step father.

It was explained to me by the social worker that the reason they where so thorough was that back a couple of centuries ago they had a number of cases where adopted children had been murdered by their adoptive parent after taking out insurance on the childs life.

I can see parallels in this case where it looks like this womens prime motivation was personal enrichment. What is astounding is that none of the social workers involved where able to see beyond the fact that this womens was making her living off being an adoptive parent.

There may be a couple of prejudices working within the adoption industry that lead to these kinds of problems.

They may be a little over zealous in trying to get children at risk in to an adoption placement because this clears the child off their case file.

There may be to much emphasis on placing the child with an adoptive parent with the same racial profile when better candidates from a different racial group exist.

They may be prone to offloading problem cases onto someone that they know is motivated to adopt as many children as possible because of the financial rewards involved.

Posted by: Callum | October 5, 2008 1:34 PM

The days that secrecy was held to protect children and grant adoptive parents the same rights birth parents enjoy, are long gone. The baby scoop era of secrecy and shame are almost 40 years behind and what rests is secrecy merely existing to protect the child placement industry from scrutiny.

Posted by: Niels | October 5, 2008 3:50 PM

Marc Fisher's headline for this article is beyond tasteless. The liberal Post needs to become more sensitive to the loss everyone feels for the murdered children. Using Icy and Frozen in the headline is something the NY Post might do!

Posted by: Post-pone | October 5, 2008 5:29 PM

I believe the stipend is sometimes given, depending on family income, to encourage adoption instead of foster care. It's so that there won't be a financial incentive to foster children instead of adopt them. I don't know that I agree with it in principle, but with so many unadopted children out there, I don't know that we should restrict adoption to the middle class and wealthy.

Posted by: Anon | October 5, 2008 5:36 PM

It seems that DC, unlike VA and MD, is often in the news for failure to protect its children, among other things. Is this a part of a systematic failure of the DC government that has resulted in tax theft and other problems by government employees?

When will district residents stand up and demand changes?

Posted by: Not-in-DC | October 5, 2008 6:22 PM

I suspect sadly that Bowman was able to adopt these children despite her past was because they were minorities. Minority children have a much harder time finding homes and the financial incentive given is to get those poor children out of foster care and into a consistent home. This is the risk we take instead of institutional care which has its own issues. There will always be stories such as this--regarding birth children or adopted children. To end the issues the public agencies need far greater funding to do the job we expect of them. Parenting is hard work, period. Parenting an older adopted child is harder. My wife and I have a birth child and an adopted one. The adopted one has institutional issues (he was 6 when we got him) and he drives us up a wall sometimes. But we love him and know that we are trying to do something good as we all venture forth in this adventure of life. Know that everyone here in the story, and circumstantial to it, is trying to do good. Blame ignores the complex issues that this story misses.

Posted by: anon | October 5, 2008 6:32 PM

"
Marc Fisher's headline for this article is beyond tasteless. The liberal Post needs to become more sensitive to the loss everyone feels for the murdered children. Using Icy and Frozen in the headline is something the NY Post might do!

Posted by: Post-pone | October 5, 2008 5:29 PM "

WHAT loss? The false loss of feeling bad about someone you never knew or cared about? Who cared about these children? You're worried about the title of the $#%^ article? You think that's important? What is wrong with your priorities?

Posted by: ep thorn | October 5, 2008 7:07 PM

"Now we learn that Maryland's social services agency got a complaint accusing Bowman of child neglect last January, sent a caseworker to the house and concluded that everything was fine -- "clean and appropriately furnished," though with a funky smell that was attributed to mildew."

...did she see the kids alive?

And what about follow-up visits?

"There should not be a financial incentive to adopt a child."

...what about to *have* a child?

Look, there is what is, and "what should be" is a matter for the courts to decide, obviously

Posted by: jfc1 | October 5, 2008 7:57 PM

Focusing exclusively on the secrecy of adoption misses the greater point. We need to focus on preventing child abuse. The rates of child abuse and neglect are higher biological families than in adopted families.
So, this story is horrible and does show that something went very wrong with this particular adoption. But we should have the same outrage and the same desire to get involved in all cases of abuse.

Posted by: Beth | October 5, 2008 7:59 PM

The stipend isn't supposed to be an income-producing payment and for most adoptive parents it isn't-that money is the only way most families can afford to raise these children. We adopted three "waiting" children as a sibling group out of foster care-to keep them together--and used every penny of the stipend to get them the tutoring, mental health care and medical care they needed due to the neglect and abuse they had suffered. We NEVER made a cent on that subsidy, it made it possible for the kids to have a home and stay together.

The Board of Child Care has a terrible history--if you want to look for the roots of this tragedy, that's the place.

Posted by: Adoptive Mom | October 5, 2008 8:49 PM

Why do I bet that we are going to learn that the head of the "Board for Child Care" is the spouse, sibling, or child of some honcho at DC social services?

Posted by: Paul | October 5, 2008 8:51 PM

I think there's another side to this story. I'm not in any way excusing the Bowman case, but I'm not sure that making adoption records easy to access would change anything at all. It might simply discourage responsible, caring people from adopting.

Posted by: Joyce | October 5, 2008 9:08 PM

"The reflex is to circle the wagons and board up the windows."

Umm, I didn't know that wagons had windows.

Posted by: Ivan Groznii | October 5, 2008 9:14 PM

Adoptive parents SHOULD have the same rights as birth parents. Birth parents are not required to go through background checks, interviews, home inspections, produce letters of recommendation, submit medical records, and if any mental health records, etc., in fact the only requirements for birth parents are functioning reproductive organs. It would seem that the safer parent in this case would be the parent who has gone through a background check.

Biological parents have also murdered their own children. How many babies end up in dumpsters? I am fairly certain that adoptive parents did not put them there.

I am uncertain as to why all of these articles that I am seeing include the word "adoption" in the title. That is blatant discrimination against all adoptive parents. I have one biological child and two adopted children and I can assure you that I feel like no less of a parent to the children that I adopted than I do the one that I gave birth to. I do however feel like the world views me as less of a parent when I see the public's need to specify whether or not a child is adopted.

Renee Bowman was probably a qualified parent when she adopted her three children (a bankruptcy is hardly an indication that a person is capable of murder, bankruptcy is common, it is most likely that anybody reading this article has a neighbor who has at some point declared bankruptcy). It would be a likely assumption that at some point she developed a severe mental illness.

I understand the public's desire to go on a witch hunt and somehow find somebody else responsible rather than state the obvious: It could not have been predicted, the children are dead and it is very sad. People should express sorrow, not anger. This anger will only discourage people from giving orphaned children homes.

Posted by: Becky | October 6, 2008 8:43 AM

This shouldn't be about the rights of adoptive parent, but about the rights of children to a safe environment to live in. There is no denying the safety of the children in this particular case was not met.

Over time I archived cases of abuse and murder of children within their adoptive families. So far the archive containts 176 cases and is only a tip of the proverbial ice berg. This is not an isolated incident.

See: http://poundpuplegacy.org/abuse_cases

Posted by: Anonymous | October 6, 2008 12:14 PM

the weird thing
is that the mother gets 2,400$
for taking care of all 3 :S

Posted by: saaranga K | October 6, 2008 7:46 PM

In recent years, there have been numerous stories in newspapers around the world about the failures of the departments of Family Services and Social Services to do their respective jobs of monitoring and assisting children in dangerous situations. Do we ever read about a child murdered by a family that the Department of Children & Families or the Sheriff's Office has not already investigated, usually more than once? What will it take to protect these innocent children?
These stories are a step in the right direction, but one wonders if perhaps they came too late. All the outrage in the world can't resurrect a dead child.

Too many children have died as a result of wrong decisions by CPS. With power comes responsibility and accountability, which most officials ignore. A child welfare system so overwhelmed with children who DON'T need to be in foster care,the less time they have to find children in real danger.

The CPS is actually wrong on both sides more than half of the time. In fact, the figure was 80% by four different studies by four different independent organizations. The CPS took away children who were not abused nor neglected 80% of the time. The CPS passed up taking away children who were abused 80% of the time and left them in danger.

Let's NOT allow these precious children's death to be in vain - in the news one day, forgotten the next.


Children Who Didn't Have to Die - Website http://suncanaa.com/

Posted by: Suncana | October 7, 2008 3:57 AM

Who will notify the natural moms and dads of these deceased children? It is their moral right to know what happened to their children. They, too, need to grieve at the funeral and burial.

Posted by: Joan Wheeler | October 7, 2008 11:59 AM

I didn't realize the nanny state had advanced so far that kids aren't allowed to sleep in bunk beds anymore, or is that only if they are going to be adopted? If everything is going to be open and in public then it seems like there should be some parity between what is required of birth parents and adoptive ones. If a case worker can come and ask you anything about your finances or personal life and then publish it to any curious reporter without your consent who would adopt? There is a reason people are flying off to guatamala and china to get kids afterall.

Posted by: Boston, MA | October 7, 2008 4:17 PM

Dear Mayor's, You all fail as mayor's .You ask why? You fail to connect the dots of innocent biological parents being accused of false abuse and false alligation cases, These children are never returned home or with loving realtives. ITS the federal funds . Thousands of cases of abused even death while these foster children are placed in these homes. The children are abused,beat and killed. WE the people and the children ask of you to rewrite these bills that protect us. Return us home to our biological families and relatives that have fought the system that abuses us. Social workers their employees and foster care providers need to be held accountable for false documents and false records they produce. The laws are to keep family with family. This is not happening. These agencies refuse to turn the children back over to the parents or relatives because of the money,the funds. These agencies produce false and fraud cases. Our future are our biological families being together , our future are our families who are being refused our constitutional rights. Read the stories: kidjacked.com
http://poundpuplegacy.org/abuse cases
http://suncanaa.com
and many more sites,of foster care children being abused and killed. This is what you all have to live with. This is how these people deal with our children. THEY DO NOT CARE, THEY ARE IN IT FOR THE MONEY. WE THE PEOPLE MAKE A STAND RETUIRN OUR CHILDREN AND RELATIVES IN FALSE ABUSE AND FALSE ALLIGATION CASES.

Posted by: niki | October 7, 2008 9:30 PM

Type in the name Arthur Bracke-Middlesex County virginia social worker accused of sexually molesting boys. He was indicted.
Read Arthur Bracke homepages-were he claimes he is the pied piper and he was sexually molested as a boy. There is also rumors he never had a license to social work,foster crae or adopt. This county will not have any press conferences or his office workers. Read a aunts story on topix.net of her fraud and corruption case by Arthur Bracke and his office. This is what a aunt had to deal with in the removal of an unfounded abuse and neglect case .2 girls removed from the biological parents. The aunt had all licenses and custody /adoption signed by the biological parents and she was frauded by this county. Read her story it is sad but true. Read all the blogs.

Posted by: niki | October 7, 2008 9:36 PM

I didn't know that bankruptcy was a crime. I also think that we should be giving stipends to parents that adopt children to take care of them.
I guess Mr. Fisher would have only wealthy people adopt children.
Also, why would anyone comment to The Post when they are only interested in sensationalizing a story. You don't care that thousands of adoptions have been performed successfully. You have only demoralized social workers in the Child Welfare System. That's why there are all these vacancies. Most of these people work very hard for low pay and they do it because they care about children.
The Post doesn't care. You only want to sell your paper with Tabloid headlines which I find offensive. This is a tragedy.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 8, 2008 1:26 PM

This goes out to anonymous,ou sound like a Social Worker. If you are a social worker,heres a question for you. How many times in a month do you have face to face contact with children in foster homes? How many foster homes do you believe are fit for children? Have you seen any abuse in foster homes put upon innocent children?
What role do you play in to help protect children, who may have been taken away from biological parents who just has a dirty house,and were low income, but the children were loved and well? Do you feel false records of unfounded abuse cases be re-examined? Reopened? Do you feel if this Arthur Bracke (AKA) social worker convicted of molesting boys under age of 10, all his unfounded child abuse cases be re-opened or re-examined?

Posted by: niki | October 11, 2008 10:00 AM

To anonymous, you sound like a typical social worker. When children are taken from biological families of unfounded child abuse and unfounded child neglect,
and were never charged with any form of abuse, What do you feel the procedure should be? Do you feel children who have siblings of different race backgrounds should be split up in foster homes?

Posted by: niki | October 11, 2008 10:03 AM

I thank the washington post for their stories of children being abused or killed in foster homes. May this open many doors for innocent families and children stripped from their rights. The rights to live. The rights to grow up with biological family. The bucks for our children must stop. Biological parents should have the money given to them in raising their own children not strangers in the abusive system. These agencies and employees must be held accountable for there false records and false actions in cases .

Posted by: niki | October 11, 2008 10:12 AM

THANK YOU MARC FISHER,
MAY GOD BLESS YOU .
MAY YOU UNVEIL WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING TO OUR LOST,LOVED CHILDREN IN FOSTER HOMES.

Posted by: niki | October 11, 2008 10:14 AM

I will not degrade all social workers.
We do have some fine, honest, caring social workers in St. Mary's County Leonardtown,Maryland, who are caring, honest and go that extra mile at keeping biological families together. They meet the needs of those families who need help.
They work with families and meet the needs to keep families together. This is what social working is all about. For that I repremand these workers who go beyond the
call of duty and who care. These social workers, deserve an award for exceptional work in our community. May all counties be as professional and caring as our county social workers are.

Posted by: anonymous | October 11, 2008 10:51 AM

The citizens of the District (and jurisdictions around the country) have a right to be concerned about what happens to the large number of children who have been abused and neglected and are in the custody of the local child welfare agency. Many of the posters responding to this article (and the many others who have posted other articles since the revelation of the Jacks tragedy) ask valid questions regarding the way in which the child welfare system operates. I do believe, however, that there are many facets to the inner working of the child welfare that most people do not understand. One major point of consideration I think most people tend to miss regarding children in foster care is that there are typically several phases of a child's time in foster care....which results in the likelihood that the child will have several different social worker's throughout the "life of a case".

For example, the investigative social worker who determines that a child has been abused or neglected is probably not going to be the child that initially begins working with the birth family. If the investigative social worker (and all the relevant components of the system (i.e., school, mental health, medical, etc.) conducts a sound, thorough, and timely (i.e., within 30 days of receiving a report of abuse/neglect) assessment, depending on the level of risk assessed during the investigation, the focus child will either remain in the home with the birth family or be removed from the birth parent(s) and placed in a foster home. In the former situation, a (second) social worker will be assigned to work with the birth family and the child in the home to prevent removal, or, in the latter situation, a social worker will be assigned to work with the birth family to reunify the child in the home. Some of the duties of the social worker in the latter situation are to facilitate visits between the child and the parents, monitor the child's placement in the foster home, ensure the child receives medical, dental, vision, and other appointments, assess for needed services (i.e., medication management, individual therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) It is typically the hope that the child will be able to keep the same social worker during this time, but, unfortunately, social workers come and go for a number of reasons (i.e., burnout, career change, better job = less stressful work/better pay, promotion, etc.). In my opinion, each time this happens, valuable historic information about the child, family, and case is lost.

After a child has been removed, birth families are given roughly a year to do what needs to be done to ameliorate the conditions that resulted in the child's removal, which could include, but is not limited to, substance abuse treatment, parenting class, anger management class, individual and family therapy, as well as, simply visiting with the child on a regular basis. If the birth family is not successful in ameliorating the initial abuse/neglect conditions, the child's case plan goal is typically changed by the Court to adoption. It is the hope that adoptive homes will be identified for children relatively quickly so that they do not languish in foster care. Unfortunately, the District does not have a large number of eligible and appropriate families who have come forward as prospective adoptive families for children in foster care and it makes it VERY difficult to do the very important work of placing children in safe, stable and permanent homes where they will be loved and nurtured. (SIDE NOTE: I encourage those of you who are outraged by what you are reading in the papers to truly consider if you may have the space in your home and the love in your heart to consider adoption. Loving, nurturing people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc., are greatly needed and desired.) At any rate, if a child remains in foster care for too long without being matched with an adoptive resource, the child may be given a goal of Alternative Planned Permanent Living Arrangement or APPLA, which essentially means that the child welfare agency is responsible for ensuring the the child in foster care grows into adulthood with the skills necessary to be an independent, well-rounded adult and citizen. Imagine how difficult this could be for a child who may not have a permanent connection to a family after several years, sometimes adrift, in foster care. In my humble opinion as a social worker, I do not believe that APPLA should ever be considered as an option for any child....why give up hope of connecting a child with a permanent family. I must add that DC's child welfare agency does a wonderful thing that very few jurisdictions in this country can claim...a child does not leave the foster care system until the age of 21, in most places, the child leaves the system at 18.

Despite what may be presented, reunification of children with their birth families is the penultimate goal of children in foster care. In theory, the child welfare system and its employees should do all that they can to ensure that families experiencing challenges (whatever they may be) in providing safe, stable, and permanent homes for their children have what they needed to successful parent their children. In the event that this can not happens (for whatever reasons...and they are different from family to family), the next best option is adoption.

When an adoptive family is identified, typically in DC, an adoption social worker is assigned to work with the child and the adoptive family. There is usually a period of joint activity between the previous social worker and the adoption social worker to help smooth the transition for the child. The adoption social worker is ultimately responsible for monitoring all aspects of the child's transition into the adoptive home. Please be aware that by the time the adoption social worker is assigned, either a private agency or the licensing arm of CFSA has completed a thorough home study, or essentially a background check, of the adoptive home.

In my time as a social worker in DC's child welfare system, I have come across a number of issues that make achieving permanency for our children very, very difficult. Some of it appears to be a part of the way the bureaucracy of CFSA works, part of it is the way the bureaucracy of DC government works, part of it is the unfortunate lack of resources...particularly the lack of foster care and adoptive placement resources for our children which means that we must place children in Maryland and other jurisdictions where our social work license prevents us from practicing so we must work with social workers in other jurisdictions (needless to say, this can be such a nightmare which requires a completely different post to explain in detail)......I could go on....I probably will at some point because working in the child welfare system can be so complicated.

I am rambling at this point…I apologize, but there is SO much that needs to be explained and understood. I can not speak for other social workers, but when I am assigned to work with a child and I schedule an initial visit…I am sometimes dismayed by what I encounter. In at least 20% of my cases, the home in which the child is placed is clearly unsuitable from the moment I make contact with the foster or prospective adoptive parent. My first thought is usually: Why in the hell has this child been in this home for over a year (or two or three or six)? I can listen to the way the “parent” speaks of the child and observe how he or she looks at him to get a sense that this is not an appropriate placement for the child. Never mind that the parent does not participate in therapy sessions, does not take the child to routine medical appointments, fails to return my phone calls (but calls immediately when the $900 monthly payment for foster care is late), etc. Why in the hell would we sign off on this child’s continued placement in this home when he/she clearly does not seem to be loved and nurtured the way he/she deserves?

Why? Complicated question. Oftentimes, it is because we do not have another appropriate home in which to place the child. As I’ve mentioned before, we simply do not have enough good foster and adoptive families. Wait…I want to make sure I am not being misleading…we can find licensed homes, but the families that are available may not match the child’s needs (i.e., the child may have multiple physical or cognitive limitations, or a history of sexual abuse or sexual perpetration that may prevent the child’s placement in a home with children who are younger, or may be gay or transgendered, or may set fires, or may cut himself/herself, or may run away, among other things). Because the child is the first priority, to me, it does not make sense to just arbitrarily place a child in the home simply for the sake of saying he/she has been placed; however, this type of clinical determination can not be followed through upon because CFSA does not have a large enough pool of qualified foster and adoptive parents available to meet the needs of our diverse children.

OK…this post is all over the place and I am going to try to bring it to an end. I have to tell you, I work with many talented, committed, caring, thoughtful, conscientious social workers who work very hard on behalf of the children and families they serve. Many of my colleagues continue to persevere for their children and families in the face of growing caseloads, departing colleagues, uncertain times, and administration and policy changes. If you had the opportunity to meet some of these wonderful individuals, you would be proud that your tax dollars are responsible for such excellent work and advocacy on behalf of the District’s children in foster care.

There are other social workers. There are those who enjoy the relatively high salaries paid for child welfare social worker in DC (compared to other jurisdictions). There are those who commit themselves to the agency for two years once they have graduated from graduate school with their MSW—just long enough to receive the two years of supervision and post-MSW work experience to apply for their LICSW (i.e., social work license to practice independently). There are those who are simply incompetent. There are those who have been working for a number of years and or simply looking forward to retirement. There are those who want to leave but recognize they may not find another job in social worker that pays as well. There are those who want to leave but they have become accustomed to the lifestyle that this job (and the salary) affords them. Some of these social workers in the aforementioned categories have excellent clinical skills, but for one reason or another, they do not always use them or they do not stay at CFSA long enough to really have a significant impact.

I have rambled enough at this point. I just wanted to provide a little more information about how things work in the District’s child welfare system. This does not cover everything by any means, just a start. Food for thought.

I encourage all of you to get involved if you can. Consider being an adoptive or foster parent. Become a mentor. Volunteer to tutor. Donate clothes, cribs, etc., to CFSA. Maybe you have a hobby or talent of some sort (i.e., web design, construction, ANYTHING) that could be put to excellent use in the ultimate service of the children under the care of CFSA. Call the agency and offer a suggestion…you may suggest something that may never have been considered. Talk with a friend or loved one about the possibilities. Pass it on.

Posted by: DC Social Worker | October 11, 2008 7:59 PM

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