The young woman on the phone recounted a story all too familiar. She had aged out of the foster care system after living in 25 different placements. Upon exiting the system, she became homeless, suffered from mental health issues and had her own child. She checked herself into a mental health facility and let her child live with the father’s relatives.
After the child’s father severely abused the child while the young woman was away, the agency immediately petitioned for the child to not only be put into foster care, but to be available immediately for adoption. Just a few years after the agency was this young woman’s legal parent, it was now asking the court to immediately terminate her rights to her own child. It had given up on her, not even wanting to give her a chance to participate in services. In their mind, she was permanently unfit, hopeless as a parent.
Attend any meeting or conference discussing the child protection system and you’ll hear advocates coalesce upon our need to support kids aging out of foster care. Let’s extend the amount of time they can stay in the system. Let’s provide them with financial assistance. Let’s give them housing. These policy solutions fit into what we know about youth who have experienced so much trauma in their lives. They need significant support to overcome the barriers they face and to achieve their hopes and dreams. Because they have the same hopes and dreams that all young adults do.
To their credit, policymakers in Washington and around the country have heeded those calls. But when these older youth have children, the system starts singing a different tune, one much less nurturing.
Professionals overlook a lengthy history of trauma, and instead view choices and behaviors in isolation. They wrongly assume that, somehow, having a child erases the childhood trauma a parent experienced. They overlook the impact that a child’s stay in foster care — and the abuse or neglect they might have experienced while in foster care — might have impacted their parenting abilities.
This dangerous mindset that adulthood heals childhood trauma extends to all parents experiencing the child welfare system. In my two decades representing families in the child protection system, I’ve never met a parent who themselves hadn’t experienced significant trauma in their own childhood: time in foster care; abuse from their parent; neglect by an adoptive parent; human trafficking. The list goes on and on.
And all too often, these parents never had the opportunity to process the trauma they experienced as children. As a result, as theologian Richard Rohr describes, they “assuredly transmit it.” Our collective challenge is how to change this trajectory.
Ignoring the trauma history of parents and simply discarding them and treating them as hopeless will certainly not accomplish this. Instead, we can and should adopt a different approach, one that looks to nurture the entire family when a child comes into contact with the child protection system. We can recognize the trauma experienced by all members of the family. We can devise ways of keeping children safe while keeping them closely connected to their parents. Rather than accusing parents of being monsters unworthy of caring for their children, we can recognize their incredible potential to love their children and keep them safe with the right support.
Don’t these values better align with the child protection system we wish to build?
I later learned that the young woman on the phone had her rights terminated by the court without ever being offered a service by the agency. Her fate now rests in the appellate courts. She’s in school to be a nurse, has housing and is addressing her mental health issues. But the void in her life cannot be filled. Until we learn to invest in parents like her, these tragic stories will continue to flood our phone lines.