Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why The Social Services System Cannot Parent a Child

Disclaimer: This is not a rant against individuals in the social services system who work valiantly on behalf of neglected, abused or mentally ill children. It is a commentary about the system itself.

In the past decade plus of parenting children who have come to us through the child welfare system, I have become convinced of this: the social services system cannot parent a child. The very system which was developed a hundred years and which has morphed throughout the ensuing century is the one authorized to protect vulnerable children in our society; however, it is not a substitute for human, committed, real parents. For some reason society as a whole has become convinced that because we have a system in place we need not be overly concerned with the children entrusted to that system. After all, we think, either naively or avoidantly, there are "people to take care of that, aren't there?" Any time we believe that any system, or inanimate structure created by imperfect people, modified by cultural mores and widely interpreted from county to county and state to state ... any time we believe a system can be trusted we are wrong.

This blog is not a rant about people working within the system who cannot be trusted, although there is probably room for that assertion as well. I continue to believe, even in the absence sometimes of much evidence, that there are, in fact, many competent, concerned, committed and good people working within the system on behalf of children.

Here is what brings this issue, once again, to the fore for me. If you have been following Claudia's blog you know that our son John has recently been transitioned from the one placement in the past four years that has worked for him. In the past four years he has been hospitalized several times, in emergency shelter care a couple of times, in juvenile delinquency center a number of times and in different foster homes at least three times. In all those placements, he has done the best in the boy's ranch where he had been for a year's time. His success there, however, meant for our county that it was time to "let him out to try again." The policy in our county, as I understand it, is that once a juvenile has been in a residential placement for one year's time he or she needs to be brought back out to see if "they can make it" on the outside. Against our concerns and our pleadings for John's best interest ("Why would you take a kid out of a place where he is doing well only to fail?") he returned back to our community at the beginning of the new year and was placed in a foster home.

We knew it would not work. In fact we were told that those making the decision on his behalf knew it would not work, either, but they had to try it because of the policy. Within three weeks his new foster care experience came to a crashing halt. He became aggressive in his foster home, having not taken his medication for a number of weeks. He has been placed in a residential setting more restrictive the one from which he was removed a month ago. "This will teach John that he can't act that way," is the attitude we receive from those in the system who have been entrusted with John's best interests.

Yesterday in the mail I received my copy of the judge's order placing John in his foster home. Yes, that's right. More than a month after John appeared in court (the first week of January), the order was finally processed three weeks later (coinciding, ironically, at about the same time as his departure from the foster home in question) and then mailed two weeks after he was already out of the foster home.

I understand that the court system is flooded. I know that judges are busy people. It doesn't matter to me that the paperwork took so long to be completed since we already know what the outcome of that decision is.

But what does matter to me is that our son John now sits in a restrictive setting (where he has been at some time in the distant past), rapidly approaching the age of eighteen, having been disrupted one more time from the only location where he had been doing pretty well. Those entrusted with his best interests have done well by their policies, but not very well by our son.

And the beauty of it for the system dwellers is this: in less than six months when John turns eighteen they won't have to worry about him at all. He will be out of their hands. When you work within a "child welfare system" you don't have to wonder with any sense of personal investment what happens when the child becomes an adult. After all, we have a criminal justice system that will pick up the pieces.

Another system, another broken, faulty attempt to care for children with mental health issues. And another panoply of individuals who no longer have an individual's "best interests" in mind, but society's. This is why a system cannot raise a child. Because a system has no heart, no flexibility, only a concern for its own self-perpetuation.

And it's parents, committed to the years beyond eighteen, who are the ones who absorb the pain, the frustration, the helplessness of life when someone you love does not fit easily or well into the strictures of society. It's the parents who are the heart, and sadly, the ones whose views are least often considered in the whole process.


debbie said...

bart, your pain and love for your son come through so clearly. i don't know what the answer is going to be. our psychiatrist doesn't feel my children will be able to live with me past about 10 years old as their agression is already so very apparent. i read these blogs and lay at night terrified what will happen to them. these children we have are so rewarding when you see the smallest progress and yet so heartbreaking when you look at their future.

Don said...

Well, Bart, I read you blog and once again thought "Yep, I know how that is." The my son's biological mother's rights were terminated in July of 2004. The adoption was final in October 2006. And no one could tell me what the hold up was about.

It's too bad the system is at it is. It sounds like John at least had a chance in the residence home. How could this system that is supposed to know what it's doing believe for a second that any of these children can be rehabilitated in the course of one year? It takes years and years, and that's if the child is responsive at all.