As I started to clean up the kitchen after Christmas dinner with my family, a text message appeared on my phone. The message simply read, “Merry Christmas,” with a picture attached. The picture showed a young man embracing his mother as he was leaving her home that evening.
The picture took my breath away.
Fifteen years ago, I was that young man’s lawyer when he was in the foster care system. He had lived the life in the system we never want to see. He spent a decade in group homes – over 30 placements in total – until he aged out of the system.
When I last saw her, his mother – a sweet and kind woman who loved her children deeply – was battling a long-term addiction to drugs, never able to fully conquer her demons. Her children remained in foster care, most with kin, because she could not get clean. Yet she always emotionally supported them, as we’d want any mother to do.
Now, time had passed, and 15 years later, here were the two embracing after Christmas dinner.
After leaving foster care, the young man spent time incarcerated and experienced homelessness. But he discovered Christianity and reoriented his life to serve others. It literally saved him. Now he manages a restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area, and is well on the path to achieving what had eluded him for so many years – a stable, happy life.
His mother has been clean for years. She sees all of her children – now adults – regularly, and relishes the role of being a grandmother, cooking Christmas dinner – for her entire crew. Accompanying the picture of the two embracing was one of the entire family, with smiles abounding – a family who remained connected after enduring so much pain.
One of my greatest fears of the child protection system is that we undermine these vital relationships in our need to simplify complex relationships. Parents are given a year to address concerns, regardless of the deep-seated trauma that underlie them. If they can’t, then the system pivots to terminating parental rights so that we can find another family to care for the child.
Sometimes we succeed in identifying those families. Often we don’t.
But regardless of whether we can find a substitute family for that child, we often miss a bigger point. Families, and the relationships within them, are far more enduring and resilient than we want to acknowledge. In our quest for legal permanence, we forget about a child’s need for relational permanence, often defined as a child’s lifelong connection with caring adults. For example, too often, we ratify adoptions with the hope of providing a child with a legally permanent home. But in doing so, we cut off the child’s ability to have permanent relationships with those who have – and will always – matter to him. A mother. A sibling. A grandparent. Hence the countless number of stories of adopted children searching for their kin.
Even though the mother in the photo was never able to physically care for the young man I represented, they always remained emotionally tethered. Fortunately, contrary to the prevailing narrative in child protection, the court saw that and never sought to terminate that connection. The refusal of the court to simplify complex relationships into simplistic permanency decisions made the Christmas embrace possible.
As we embark on a new year within the child protection system, might we flip the script and adopt a new prevailing narrative – that we identify what relationships matter to the child, unequivocally support them, and then use our legal tools to allow the child to benefit from those relationships. Might we better serve families by refusing to permanently destroy relationships between children and their parents that are important to children?
Perhaps if we do just this, we might give the child the stability they deserve, while also ending the needless pain we inflict on too many families every day.