Last week, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin hired a Florida pastor and his wife as advisers “to provide an assessment of Kentucky’s child welfare system with a focus on laws and policies of the foster care system, the permanent placement and adoption of children within that system, and supports provided to prospective and current foster and adoptive parents.” Among the requirements of their contract is to make recommendations to expedite permanent placement and adoption of children.
As a former foster and adoptive parent with the state of Kentucky, I will be the first to admit that our child welfare system needs all the help it can get. But this hire makes me uncomfortable on several levels. Here are a few of the key questions I have for the governor:
- What makes Chris and Alicia Johnson qualified to do this work?
What we have been told about this couple is that Chris is a Christian pastor from Florida, Alicia also participates in ministry at his church, and they have adopted 7 children from foster care. I too, am a Christian pastor who has adopted 4 children from foster care here in Kentucky. I even worked for 6 years with a local children’s agency, and I don’t think I am in any way qualified to serve in a top position to improve the child welfare system in Kentucky. One thing I learned by working in the field is that foster and adoptive parents are only one part of a very complex system that includes social workers, lawyers, judges, children’s agencies, therapists, foster and adoptive families and birth families. As foster and adoptive parents, we don’t fully experience all aspects of the system, nor even necessarily understand all the connections and layers and forces that come into play in the child welfare system. Furthermore, most anyone who does have experience working in the system will tell you the biggest barriers to having a healthy system is that it is currently overburdened and underfunded. Hiring this couple will do nothing to solve the system’s biggest problem.
- Where are the birth families in this couple’s job description?
The primary goal of foster care is – and should be – reunification of children with their birth families. With the recent controversy surrounding our current presidential administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border, we have been hearing a lot about the trauma that is inflicted on children who are removed from their parents. It doesn’t matter if a potential foster or adoptive family makes more money than a child’s birth family, or lives in a nicer house or is more highly educated than the birth parents, children are still harmed by being removed from their parents. As long as the parents can create a safe home for their children, children are always better off mentally and emotionally if they can stay with their birth family.
Because this is true, any healthy child welfare system puts a large portion of its resources into strengthening birth families, working to remove the barriers in their lives that made them unable to care for their children. As the Child Welfare Information Gateway states on its website, this is always the first goal, and requires the implementation of multiple strategies and resources:
“When children must be removed from their families to ensure their safety, the first goal is to reunite them with their families as soon as possible. Child welfare agencies implement multifaceted strategies that build on family strengths and address concerns. Such strategies may include family engagement, maintaining family and cultural connections, connecting families to evidence-based services, regular and frequent visits among family members and with the worker, and parent education, among others. Returning children home often requires intensive, family-centered services to support a safe and stable family. Services should be tailored to each family’s circumstances and must address the issue(s) that brought the child and family into the child welfare system.”
If reunification is always the first and preferred goal of foster care, why is this completely absent from Governor Bevin’s job description for the advisers he has hired to help improve the system? (And why is nobody in the legislature or in the leadership of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services calling him on it?)
- Where is the emphasis on the needs of the children?
Whenever Matt Bevin talks about wanting to improve foster and adoptive care in Kentucky, he talks about “fast-tracking” adoption, reducing red tape, making it easier and quicker for people to adopt children. All of these priorities center the needs of the adoptive families over and above the needs of the children.
Does anyone really think it’s a good idea to make it “easy” to adopt a child? Particularly when you consider the fact that children in foster care have all been through at least the one trauma of being removed from their parents and in many cases multiple other traumas as well. As a parent who has adopted children from foster care, I can tell you, it is not easy to parent children impacted by trauma. It requires deep commitment, much training, and a willingness to put the child’s needs ahead of one’s own.
How exactly should the process become faster?
- By reducing the amount of training parents have to undergo? This would essentially result in children being adopted by people who are less prepared to handle the challenges of parenting children from foster care.
- By requiring fewer forms or background checks or less complicated home studies? Adoption is a life-time commitment and people who want to adopt should have to “jump through hoops” so that the state can be as sure as possible that children are going to a stable, healthy home.
- By decreasing the amount of time a birth parent has to make the changes needed to have their children returned? While birth parents absolutely do need to be held accountable, they should also be given ample opportunity to get their children back – because whenever that is possible, it is better for the child’s well-being.
Even in cases when a child’s parental rights have already been terminated, sometimes the child needs more time before they are ready to be adopted. Our oldest son was placed with us after parental rights had been terminated and we had originally set a schedule for adoption six months after placement. We ended up delaying that five more months because it was clear that he wasn’t ready. His needs took precedent over our desire to just get the process completed. When undue emphasis is placed on speeding up the adoption process, we run the risk of not acting in a child’s best interest.
This hire by the governor and the goals he expresses about improving the child welfare system raise many questions that so far, no one has pushed him to answer. I had one person say to me recently, “it feels like it has become a form of human trafficking.” When the primary focus of the child welfare system becomes the adoptive and foster parents, instead of the children and their birth families, we run the risk of creating a system that trafficks children from birth families to adoptive families, without considering what is best for the child. Yes, our child welfare system in Kentucky needs to be better. But, Governor, as we seek to improve it, let’s make sure the children’s needs come first in all that we do.