Family Courts Are Not Listening to Foster Parents. Many Wonder: Does That Even Make Sense?
By Naomi Schaefer Riley, Real Clear Investigations
Paula Hartley took in 9-day-old infant Baby AN after both of the child’s parents failed screenings for opioids, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines and marijuana in May 2019. Before the Georgia couple moved from Tennessee, the welfare authorities there had already permanently removed three of their older children when they were toddlers because of severe neglect.
Paula, a cousin of the father, quit her job at the local public school to stay home and care for the baby, just as she and her husband Chris, a sixth-grade teacher, had raised their own three children as preschoolers.
The baby stayed with the Hartleys for the first nine months of her life, and they watched the infant develop as her parents continued to spiral downward. Paula saw that the formula she prepared for the baby’s court-appointed visits with the parents, an hour’s drive away, had barely been touched when she was returned by the court-appointed transport service at the end of the day. Paula also observed the mother leaving the child crying strapped in the car seat on a floor inside the house. But just as often, the parents simply cancelled the visits the day before, without giving a reason. Caseworkers confided in Chris and Paula that the parents were not yet ready to have the child for overnight visits – right before the court ordered such stays.
Paula was not permitted to share any of this information during the hearings in January that resulted in the baby’s ultimate return to her parents. Indeed, neither she nor her husband had the right to say anything unless the judge happened to ask them – which he didn’t.
Paula found the whole experience “heartbreaking.” She says the system “weeds out good foster parents and good families — not people there to get a check. This is why people don’t do foster care.”
The general legal silencing of the Hartleys and foster parents like them, typically the most reliably informed about children in their care, is a little-publicized and much-resented aspect of America’s foster care system, which is shrouded in secrecy to protect the identities and privacy of children and families.
On one hand, the system, which cost the federal and state governments over $10 billion combined in 2018, is meant to act in the best interests of the estimated 440,000 foster children nationwide. There is even a federally imposed limit on total time spent in foster care, after which the natural parents are supposed to lose permanent custody and new legal arrangements are to be made.
On the other hand, the first goal of foster care agencies and family courts is to reunify children with their parents whenever possible. In practice, critics say, that means the state grants parents an unlimited amount of time to clean up the substance abuse that is the root problem in many, if not most, foster care situations. Caught in the middle are foster parents who care for kids for durations well exceeding federal statutes – sometimes years – but who are still legally regarded as little more than a 15-year-old babysitter hired for a Saturday night.
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