Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Best Interests of Whom?

If you have had any connection with the social services systems in our country, you know that the prevailing mantra is that all decisions are made with "the best interests of the child/ren" in mind. While I find this stance noble, even laudable, my firsthand experience leads to believe that it is not the best interests of the child that the institutional structures have in mind. It is my thesis that systems, by their very nature, function for their own self-preservation, their own "best interests," if you will. As a consequence, it is uncommon for a social worker, or a probation officer, or a judge to act in ways that others would perceive to be non-systemically reinforcing. I will acknowledge that the egregious errors of the social services system in years past have been largely rectified. For example, the racism and classism often associated with "the system" of the past have at least been acknowledged, and the evil of these predisoposing factors has been brought to the light of recognition. For example, while it is cumbersome for agencies to insure that Native American children are not under the care of a tribal nation before pursuing adoption in a non-Native family, I support the need to do this for legal, ethical and moral reasons.

What my experience "on the other side" of the social services system has taught me, however, is that first and foremost agencies are concerned with protecting themselves, both individually and corporately. They may purport that it is for legal reasons ("we need to follow the state statute in this regard" or "the federal guidelines allow for this"), but I suspect the reasons are far closer to home than simple law-abiding concern. There is the reality of job security and the indemic, systemic issue of self-preservation.

My feelings are not simply the ramblings of a neurotic or an uneducated or naive observer. While I have a number of specific situations I could cite, I will limit myself (on this occasion) to one in particular.

Years ago -- more than two, probably three -- Claudia and I sought to support of our county social services agency to provide resources for the delinquent behavior of our now seventeen-year-old son. He was academically biding his time in school (doing little), socially falling fast (associating himself with friends of questionable background and activity) and often absent in our home (repeatedly "running" or "forgetting" to come home for days at a time). We were advised there was little they could do, but they did offer PCA (personal care attendant) services for a couple of hours a day and urged us to puruse in-home family therapy. We accepted the offer of PCA services (if for no other reason, for the opportunity for respite; at the other end of optimism we hoped the influence of older, more responsible males might have a positive impact on him), but declined in-home family therapy, believing that it was not our family system that was most in need of intervention.

In the months to follow, his running continued, his absences became more pronounced, other children in our home were affected (one in particular began to run with him, and the others in our home experienced the perplexity and uncertainty of knowing siblings were unaccounted for days at a time), he began to sell his prescription meds to "friends" at school, and we realized the situation was beyond our control.

We turned to system, with which we erroneously believed we were partners. After all, in earlier years in another county we had been respected foster parents, providing training for incoming foster parents and receiving the consistent affirmation of our social services supervisors. We had, we believed, been partners in adopting older, special needs kids from the foster care system so that they would not have to face a future of uncertainty after "aging out of the system."

What we discovered by this time, however, is that we were no longer partners. We were judged to be "the problem" ... with the child/ren in question, in requesting any services at all, in our refusal to pursue the only service they offered (in-home family therapy).

As partners-no-more we were informed that we could refuse to have our child return home, that this would result in his sitting in detention until a hearing would come before the court at which time a CHIPS (in Minnesota lingo "Child in Need of Protection or Services") would be filed. Knowing that Mike would not be directed by us and that our only option was to refuse his presence in our home, we reluctantly made this decision. We were uncomfortable with this forced option, and our intuitive discomfort proved well founded.

We endured hearings in which we were questioned as to why he couldn't live in our home, we were made to look and feel like problematic parents, it was implied and written in documents submitted to the court that our refusal to participate in in-home family therapy was the reason Mike could find no success.

This has been going on now for years. Nine months ago Claudia and I decided that we would remove Mike from the group home he was living in and bring him home. Because the placement was voluntary on our part, we still had that option available to us, and we pursued it. Mike came home Christmas Day 2005. His first two months in our home went well. He attended a small school that focused on kids with various special needs, he did well academically, and he followed our parental lead. By the time he started back at public school (and we believed he deserved the chance to try this again), started to hang out with his old friends and assumed his old behavioral patterns, we could see the "writing on the wall." After another prolonged absence from our home (a number of days), we asked social services to intervene because Mike was no longer safe for himself or for others.

Mike was taken into custody, we were back in court and again harrangued by the judge. "What is so bad in your home that your son doesn't want to live there? What kind of parents are you?" The judge concluded his interrogation by saying, "There must be something between the lines here that I'm missing. I don't hear it and I don't understand it." Similar questions were asked of Mike and his non-committal shrugs were met with irritation and perplexity on the part of the judge, who irritatedly ordered Mike into foster care. It was prior to this hearing (six months ago now) that Mike informed his Guardian Ad Litem and his social worker to no longer refer to us as his parents, but as "Bart" and "Claudia." He never wanted to return home, he told them, because we were bad parents. A surprise to us was Mike's therapist's report to the court, in which he made it clear that "reunification with these parents should not be pursued. This young man deserves the opportunity to live in a loving family for the few years of childhood he has left." We were shocked that Mike's manipulation was effective enough to suck a trained therapist into his perceived "corner."

Mike's social worker told us that she had termianted the rights of other seventeen-year-old's parents, and that she would not hesitate to do so for him. At that point much of the fight in us ebbed away. We decided to let natural consequences ensue. Mike went off to foster care, lasted less than three weeks, and ended up with charges brought against him for vandalism and drug use. Although we were never apprised of the situation (we were told to have no contact with him by his guardian ad litem and his social worker), it became apparent that a new, "loving," "committed" family was not in Mike's future.

By June 1 (less than three months ago) we learned that reunification should not be attempted because of our poor ability to parent and that Mike would be participating in a Department of Corrections work camp for several months. Mike needed to learn about consequences (another post for another time), so off he went in early June. We were again told that we should not have contact with Mike. So we did not.

Three weeks ago or so Mike began to request the opportunity to talk with us. His social worker agreed, so Claudia began to talk with him on the phone. He had written two or three letters in which he apologized for his behavior, assured us he would do better and requested a new pair of shoes (his consistent pattern). Yesterday there was a staffing (to which we received no invitation) in which the staff at his work camp believes Mike should return home. His guardian ad litem and social worker have yet to offer their opinion, but we are fairly certain that they would be relieved to be done with his case (which would be the eventual outcome since we are now living in a new county).

So, even though we have been adjudged by the professionals as not being good enough parents to have Mike live with us, we are being asked to bring him home. I really need to know what has changed. How, in three months' time could we have gone from being the worst option for Mike's life to his most pressing one? I can tell you this. We haven't changed. Our family's values are the same, our parental priorities are consistent, our love for Mike is unchanged. How can a system committed to proving that we have been Mike's issue and problem now recommend that he live with us? The only possible explanation is that the best interests of the system would now be served by our agreement to do so.

So, I ask you: in all of this, whose best interests have been served? Certainly not our family's (but that's never been the question). The parents? (No question here). Mike's? (Seems dubious to me). The system's?

You tell me.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I have seen this scenario played out several times in my county with foster parents and adoptive parents. So much so that I'm not very encouraging of folks adopting children with therapuetic behaviors that I think may or may not make it in adoptive placements. Because I know that if they aren't successful, the parents will be the ones who are viewed as falling short and to blame. I know of a family who was very well respected and adopted a number of children. The one child who disrupted and had to be hospitalized due to severe psychiatric problems is all anyone seems to remember. I feel the family was treated very poorly through that process by the "system" in it's entirety.

Of course they want him to come home...they dont' know what else to do with him because there is no answer to that question.