Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday's Tears - Parental Rights Issues

Thinking about foster care should make you think about all the issues that go with it, including termination of parental rights.  I've talked about how sensitive parental rights are in the past, but for a variety of reasons I feel led to discuss it again today.

If you review my past post you'll see that termination breaks my heart.  It obviously breaks my heart for the kids who have had to endure through a situation horrible enough to make their parents face TPR in the first place, but it also breaks my heart for the parents who lose their children and the extended families who are left broken by the situation, no matter the reason. 

Termination happens for a variety of causes and regardless I don't believe that TPR is the ultimate best choice for families.  What I mean is that parents should be healthy and whole and have the full ability, willingness, and choice to raise their children into healthy and whole adults.  The family should be intact.  Of course, this isn't the case in a fallen world.  Parents aren't healthy and whole (ever) and they are never able to raise their children into healthy and whole adults.  Period.  Parents have hurts and hang-ups.  They aren't perfect.  Children inevitably end-up with hurts and hang-ups.  Even the best parents make mistakes, they can't always protect their children from harm, and children by nature will also make mistakes causing their own harm.  I think it's foolish for us as a society to expect parents to be perfect and to never make a mistake.

With all that said, there is a big difference between true abuse and neglect and common parenting mistakes.  One thing you should learn as a foster parent is that the line that separates those two things, the line separating cases that should end in termination and those in reunification, is sometimes hard to distinguish.  Not only are you often dealing with half-truths and multi-faceted perceptions, but you're also dealing with political precedent and policy (your own and that of the government).  Personally, I tend to be on the side of things that wants to protect parental rights in raising the children vs. the government's involvement in parental matters.  I think it's the responsibility of parents to figure out how to raise their children, what discipline methods to use, what to teach their children, how to feed, nurture, etc.  That being said, I also recognize the need for us as a society to step in when clear abuse and/or neglect is occuring.

Bad people exist, therefore bad parents exist.  I remember this case that to me was a clear case of abuse.  Or we hear on the news all-to-often about babies and toddlers who end-up in the emergency room or worse die from injuries related to a parent "punishing" there child by pouring scalding hot water on them or punching them in the stomach or somehow breaking their ribs and skull.  From police officer friends I hear all too often about parents who pimp out their children for drug money, an income, or just for their own pleasure.  Clearly there is a need for us to step in and help the children who can't help themselves.

But then there are cases like this one that is all over the news today.  A child who is obese was removed from his parents.  I'm not going to get into the case details here, partly because I don't know them and partly because I'm troubled that this case is public at all, but it's a good example of where there is more of a gray area.  Should parents lose their rights if their children are overweight?  If they are severely overweight?  A caller on a radio show this morning made the point that if the child was under-nourished/malnurished/not fed for a year they would be removed, how is this different?  I could make arguments either way on what I know about this case, but the bottom line is that I wish it didn't have to come to this. 

I heard also on the radio today the insistance this is abuse (probably better labeled medical neglect, but again I don't know the details of the case) and the insistance that the foster parents would be presumably well-equipped to handle this type of case.  I sure hope so, but in my experience as a foster parent I'm going to doubt that there are many foster parents really skilled at helping an overweight child lose weight.  We foster parents are often given children with "food issues", but usually they result from a lack of food, improper use of food as a parenting strategy, and potential association with food and abuse.  Typically (though not always) these children are underweight or have other unhealthy relationships with food such as hoarding, vomiting, refusal to eat healthy foods (or any foods) and binging.  If for no other reason than this type of removal is rare, it is unlikely they will find (or even look for - another issue entirely) a foster parent specifically skilled in helping a 3rd grader loose significant weight.  Regardless, the tragedy in it all is that the child is likely to end up blaming himself for the removal and having an even lower self-esteem/self-value, etc. than he would have faced by being obese, which will naturally (but not certainly) lead to further unhealthy behavior in the future. 

I talked to my mom this week about a sign I saw on vacation.  It said something along the lines of "29% of our children are in poverty".  My point to her was that doesn't really mean anything.  What does poverty mean besides the opposite of wealthy?  Does it mean they don't have enough food to eat?  Does it mean they don't have shelter?  Clothes?  An ipod?  Depending on who you ask, poverty means different things and in my opinion doesn't in and of itself mean something is wrong.  Surely I don't want people to live "in poverty" and I feel it's my personal responsibility to seek out injustice and fix it as best as I can, but it doesn't mean that they are living horrible lives, necesarily.  Now, if you told me they don't have enough food to grow and mature, that would be a problem.  If you told me they don't have a jacket when it's snowing outside, that's a problem.  If you told me the absolute only housing they could get is infested with rat droppings and other contaminants, that is a problem and those are the things we need to address.  Do any of these things mean the child should be removed from his/her parents?

There was another story yesteray about children living in a semi-truck with their dad.  They had enough to eat, they had access to showers, they had clothes.  They called it an adventure.  Do they need to be rescued and put into foster care?

What about my daughter now, who lived the first 9 months of her life on the streets and in shelters with her parents?  Did she need rescued?  Her case is more complex than that and involved multiple illnesses and made-up illnesses and parental mental illness and domestic violence, but did she need removed because her parents were poor?  She had enough to eat (though at that age it was all formula), she had many illnesses (but had access to proper medical care, should they have used it appropriately), she had shelter (in a homeless shelter)...did she need to be put in foster care? 

How do you know?

These are the things we (should) wrestle with as foster parents.  Thankfully we don't have to make the call - unless you're involved in the legal side of things you don't have to decide whether removal is warranted.  If you have a concern you can call and report your concern.  If you're a foster parent you have the opporutnity to work with parents and support them in getting their kids back if you think that's the right thing to do for the children.  You can pray for wisdom. 

In the meantime you can take care of the children the best you know how.  You can provide them with what you feel all kids "deserve", not the least of which is love, safe/clean shelter, sufficient nourishing food, adequate clothing.  In the meantime while you have them you can do everything you can to help them heal from everything they've faced and maybe give them resources to heal when faced with things in the future because they will face things, no matter where they end up.

These are my thoughts on the subject today.  I wish I had all the answers but I don't.  Nevertheless I do something, the next right thing.  Join me?


Mama P said...

I've had this discussion so many times with people who are angry that my foster children are returned to homes where they have far less than in my home, or less rules, or unhealthy habits, etc.

I get angry too, but when you stop and think about it...if a child is loved, fed, medically cared for, and not in danger, what would the reason be for removing a child?

Smoking? Drinking? Not giving them a consistent bedtime?

Hardly. Of COURSE to me, I want more for my babies than what they have, but when it comes down to it, they are not legally mine. They are mine in my heart, but they belong to their parents.

Should someone take my own child away because I let him watch TV whenever he wants? Because he is 5 and sleeps in bed with us? Because someone doesnt agree with those things?

A good point I had for a friend of mine was that "better life" is not a valid reason to take a parent's rights away from them. If Donald Trump showed up at my door tomorrow to take my child, my child would have a "better" life...access to more finances, more expensive clothes, healthier food, better private education, etc. However, my child is MINE, not Donald Trump's, and people would think it crazy if my child were removed from our lower middle class home so he could have a "better life," so why is it not crazy to be able to take a child because they eat too much food? Lots of parents don't put their kids into carseats, which is imminent danger...so do you take every child away from a parent that doesn't use a carseat?

It's a hard hard topic...you're right...lots of gray areas and questions in the absence of more info.

Sharla said...

We certainly had cases where our foster kids were returned to situations that we felt were unsafe (and those times, the kids did eventually return to us most of the time), but we also had kids who were returned to birth family and are still doing well years later. We have contact with some. They don't have the ideal life, but they are with a parent who loves them, is making an effort, is clean (off drugs), and is trying to break the cycle they grew up in. I wouldn't want someone to be able to come in and take my kids without cause.

I've read up as much as I can about this obesity case and I have conflicted feelings about it, but I do think that the answer has to be in putting supports, education, and services in place for the entire family, not in removing the child and causing more emotional damage perhaps resulting in even more unhealthy eating patterns.

It is a very complicated thing though, as the rights of the child have to be paramount since they are the ones at most risk and often too young to speak for themselves.