On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik left their six-month-old daughter in their home with her grandmother, citing a doctor’s appointment. They then drove to a Christmas party at his workplace, where they opened fire, killing 14 people and injuring 22 more.
The pair were killed that day in a gun battle with police. FBI agents whisked the screaming baby away from her grandmother. A year later, the toddler is still in foster care.
Farook’s older sister, Saira Khan, has been trying to adopt her niece for the past 11 months, as described in the Washington Post. Khan and her husband are the closest surviving relatives of their niece. She knew them well, having seen them weekly during her first half-year on Earth.
Khan and her husband report having no idea of her brother’s murderous plans. She knew he had become more religious and intolerant over the past ten years, bringing home an equally conservative wife from Saudi Arabia. But they say they had no idea that this man with no criminal record or history of violence could even contemplate such a heinous act.
It was two months after the shooting before the Khans even saw their niece again. When they finally did, it was for a one-hour visit at an agency office. According to Saira Khan, the child was unrecognizable. She did not smile or interact, and her arms and legs seemed to have atrophied.
The caseworker told her that the child had not adapted well to her new home. That is not surprising, since she had never drunk from a bottle or been spoken to in English. At one point she stopped gaining weight and ended up in the hospital.
It was only in May that the child was allowed regular visits with her family in their home. Twice a week, she arrives for a six-hour visit with detailed instructions from the foster family about eating, napping, and not cutting her bangs.
Mr. and Mrs. Khan filed for adoption a few days after the shooting. They have undergone a background check and a home inspection. But the judge in the child’s court case says that she cannot be placed with the Khans until the FBI completes its ongoing investigation of their possible involvement in the shooting.
In the meantime, the Khans’ attorney is not even allowed to attend the periodic court hearings in the case. The child’s attorney has not even visited the Khans in order to assess their suitability as adoptive parents or even just to find out where the child is spending twelve hours every week. On the bright side, the Khans report that the county social worker supports the child’s placement with them.
The Khans sound like an ideal adoptive family. He manages a team of 12 in printer sales. She is finishing a master’s degree in education but has postponed her internship in order to be available for regular visits with her niece.
They have two children and a three-bedroom house at the end of a cul de sac in a suburb of Riverside. A room is all ready for the new family member.
When Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), there was much talk about a child’s sense of time being different from that of an adult. That is why ASFA put timelines in place to make sure that children do not languish in foster care for years.
The child in question already had a relationship with her aunt and uncle when she was taken into foster care. By leaving the child in the foster family for what amounts to two-thirds of her life, the agency has disrupted the existing bond and ensured that the child formed a new bond with her new family.
The longer the child stays with her current foster family, the more strongly she will bond to them and the harder a third transition will become. We don’t know the lifelong impacts of incurring two such disruptions in the first year of life, but we do know that disrupted attachments can impair healthy child development.
In a previous column, I opposed disrupting the bond between a child and a foster family to place a child with relatives who come forward a year or more after the child was placed in foster care. But in this case, the relatives lost no time in requesting custody of the child. The county has behaved irresponsibly in deferring the request long after background checks and home inspections were done and the relatives were cleared of any involvement in the crime.
According to the San Bernadino County Children and Family Services website, “kinship placement [placement with a relative] is the preferred placement option for children who come into care.” In its 2014 annual report, the agency boasts of increasing the proportion of children removed from their homes who are placed with relatives from from 26.9 percent in 2010 to 35.5 percent in 2014.
If events had played out differently, the child might not have come into care at all. If her parents had left her at her grandmother’s apartment, the FBI might never have removed the child and taken her to CPS.
And why the FBI took the child to CPS rather than leaving her with her family is another question that needs to be answered. If a child is orphaned or the parents are incapacitated, CPS does not normally come in. Instead, the family decides who will raise the child and petition for custody in court.
I don’t understand why placement of this child with her family should be held hostage to the FBI investigation. Yes, if they are found guilty and locked up, the baby would have to be placed with someone else. But keeping her away from her family now, when no charges have even been filed against the Khans after a year, seems a far more damaging and unethical option.
Note: This article was updated on Dec. 2.