In his recent post about financing child welfare, Sean Hughes implied that it is an exaggeration to say that children are removed from their families solely due to poverty. I suppose that depends on what one means by “due to poverty.”
Here’s what I know about some of the children placed with me when I was a foster parent.
One was removed due to a spanking which turned out to be the first time her father ever hit her. Another was removed after “rough handling” on the way to the car as she was being suspended from school. Another was hit by the aunt she lived with after the child threw a bottle that hit her aunt in the temple.
So yes, the label placed on most of these children was “abused,” rather than “neglected.” For a long time, I assumed these incidents were just the tip of the iceberg, and that I would be more shocked if I knew the whole story. After a while, I realized that was the whole story.
I didn’t get it. I started asking the workers why they were removed over things so minor. I pointed out that I spanked my own kids, and “roughly” seems like a pretty human response when finding out your child has been suspended from school. Plus, I don’t know what I would do if a child threw a bottle and hit me in the temple. I doubt if we would sit down and have a talk about making good choices.
One worker said, “There’s a difference between them and us,” as if that explained anything. Another said, “Don’t worry about it. Those parents are the dregs of humanity.” As I started meeting the parents, I actually liked most of them. I didn’t find them to be the dregs of humanity. The biggest difference I found between them and me was that they were poor. So, it seemed to me, the children were taken because of poverty.
I eventually became active in trying to reform our system so kids like these could stay home with the families they loved. I testified at a public hearing. The next week, the state Department of Human Services, as it was called then, told “the other side of the story,” bringing with them kids who said they were appreciative of what the state did for them in putting them in foster care.
I’ll never forget one of them. He was a young man in his twenties, twitching and staring at his hands as he talked. He said the state saved his life by removing him. When asked about his experience in foster care, he said he had been in 20 different placements, 21 if you counted the month he lived in a cardboard box after running away from his foster home.
He must have come from really awful parents if that life was a step up from what he would have had. And yes, some children are taken from really awful parents and some children need to be in foster care.
But it crossed my mind, if my home wasn’t full of kids who didn’t need to be there, that young man might have come to me and maybe I would have been his last placement.
Mary Callahan is a registered nurse and organizer for the Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform, and the author of the 2003 book Memoirs of a Baby Stealer: Lessons I’ve Learned as a Foster Mother.