I’m Sorry We Failed You

A prisoner’s hands seen through bars. Photo: Shutterstock

I turned on my computer to start my day’s work when a reminder popped up on my screen. Today marked the birthday of Alonzo, a child I had represented many years back when he was a 9-year old child in foster care.

The reminder flooded my mind with so many memories – his sweet smile; his constant efforts to get fries at a local McDonald’s; his persistent negotiations to trade information about his life for candy. Although just a kid, he knew how to use his charm to win over adults.

But on this day, Alonzo was celebrating his entrance into the world from a very different place – the state penitentiary – where he has been for almost seven years, and where he will likely remain for the next four decades. When Alonzo was 18 years old, he and several friends set out to rob a schoolteacher. The robbery went awry, and they ended up killing him. In his mug shot, Alonzo’s charming smile was replaced with a menacing scowl. He no longer resembled the kid in my back seat headed to McDonald’s.

Since his arrest and subsequent conviction, I’ve often wrestled with the question of what went wrong. How did the foster care system fail this child? How could we create someone filled with so much hatred and anger? How can we prevent this from ever happening again?

And over and over again, I come back to a unifying answer – that the root cause of Alonzo’s anger was being disconnected from those who loved him, disconnection that the foster care system only exacerbated.

Alonzo entered the foster care system after his aunt, with whom he had been living, called Child Protective Services (CPS) seeking help after she noticed Alonzo engaging in sexualized behavior with her own son. She did not want Alonzo taken from her home; instead she sought assistance. But upon receiving the referral, CPS went to the home, took Alonzo from his family and placed him in foster care, where he’d remain until he was transferred to state prison a decade later.

After he entered foster care, Alonzo first lived with relatives, who couldn’t afford to raise him. He then entered the world of group homes, and bounced around from one to another. Every time he moved, he became further disconnected from those who loved him. I vividly remember him, as he grew older, becoming more reluctant to talk about what he wanted. He simply wanted to be left alone because in his mind, the world didn’t care.

Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School.

Despite her desperate efforts, his aunt was unable to get custody of Alonzo, and was only able to see him during weekly, supervised visits. This only intensified Alonzo’s anger. He felt unloved. He felt disconnected. And he was becoming unhinged, no longer caring about life. With each move – of which he experienced at least 10 – the system was losing this child. And then it finally did, when he committed murder.

So many lessons can be drawn from Alonzo’s story. First, CPS is not designed to serve as a prevention agency. So as long as families turn to CPS for meaningful assistance, they will be disappointed. The agency lacks the tools to effectively keep families together. Instead, it either offers substandard or no assistance to families, or overreacts.

Simply put, the agency is designed to protect children from “bad” people. It is not aimed to help struggling families connect with the right services to help stabilize living arrangements.

Second, when children enter foster care, we must prioritize maintaining those relationships in their lives that remind children that they are loved. Nothing matters more than reminding a child that he is tethered to a family, that he does belong to a tribe. Once a child forgets this, there is little we can do to help him. This must become child welfare’s North Star.

Finally, when tragedy strikes – as it did in Alonzo’s case – the system must use it as an opportunity to reflect and introspect. It must stop just blaming individual actors – in this case Alonzo –and instead must hold itself culpable for the adult it helped to produce.

What caused Alonzo to murder another human being? How did he become so hardened? What could the system have done to prevent this from happening? Leaders of child welfare systems rarely ask themselves these questions, and report the answers in a transparent way. Instead, they deny responsibility and repeat mistakes.

Until we redesign our child welfare system, engage other partners like the school system and mental health programs that adopt a public health approach to struggling families, and design a comprehensive and well-coordinated prevention program, kids like Alonzo will continue to unnecessarily enter foster care.

So on this birthday, I have no gift to offer Alonzo. Instead, just a simple apology. I’m sorry we failed you.

Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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