What’s Going On In Philly’s Foster Care System?

DHS-logo

Last month, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services launched a new advertising and recruitment campaign for new foster families. Local media widely reported the “urgent” need for hundreds of new foster parents in the city.

In Philadelphia, DHS partners with private organizations that receive a mixture of public and private funds and do the hard work of licensing foster parents and actually placing children in safe homes. The foster care system is a patchwork of public and private actors that would collapse without the time, money, and effort of public-spirited citizens. Your tax dollars don’t take care of everything.

One of the news articles profiled a family licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Bethany is one of the agencies the city sends foster care referrals to. It licenses foster parents and places kids in homes. A feel good story. But a few days later reports emerged that last fall Bethany had refused to license a same sex couple for foster care. In response, the city suspended foster care placements at Bethany and Catholic Social Services, which also refuses to license same sex couples.

Ok, you’re caught up on the basic story. I have a few thoughts.

–This is deeply personal for us. We are licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Workers from Catholic Social Services and Bethany have been in our home literally dozens of times. They made Gabe’s adoption possible.

–I am embarrassed to say that I not only didn’t know about Bethany’s policy toward same sex families; I hadn’t even thought about it. I strongly disagree with Bethany’s discriminatory policy. Yet, I did not bother to proactively research this question, nor have I been working for change from the inside. I am complicit.

–The city’s response to this is cowardly. Some reports said that DHS has “discovered” that two of its contracting agencies discriminate. This is simply not true. The only thing that’s changed is that the public now knows about it. So the city has suspended long-running partnerships in an effort to be on the right side of an explosive political issue.

–What about the kids? No one looks good in this fight. The ACLU, the agencies, the city—all talk about what’s best for the children. Bethany cares for LGBT youth, but what message is Bethany sending when it won’t entrust them to LGBT adults? It is discriminatory and pernicious. But for the city, this is all politics. If this was a move with the best interests of kids in mind, DHS would move as quickly as possible to non-discriminatory partnerships without reducing the number of foster homes available to Philadelphia children. Instead, after making an “urgent” call for more foster parents, the city has suddenly drastically reduced the number of foster placements available.

–Let me give you a personal window into how chaotic this decision is. We’re licensed by Bethany. Our renewal is coming up in May. I have no idea if we should renew with Bethany. I have no idea if we can renew with another agency. Would we, instead, have to start back at square one and do the whole months-long process from the beginning with a new agency? I have no idea if or when Bethany may start taking referrals again. Does DHS have plans in place to make up for the lost capacity? Does DHS have any guidance for foster families licensed by Bethany and CSS who are ready to receive children? What am I supposed to do? Hello DHS?

–If you don’t want conservative Christian organizations to be involved in the provision of public goods, you had better get off the sidelines. Give your money away. Give your time. Build new institutions. I don’t want these conservative Christian organizations to discriminate. But I also don’t know if you understand the dystopia we’d be living in if they stopped all their work tomorrow.

–I’m sure I’m not seeing the whole picture, but from where I sit the idea that DHS is prioritizing the well-being of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children doesn’t even pass the laugh test. In this time of rapid social change (Remember when Obama campaigned as an opponent of gay marriage?) we need a generous pluralism. The cause of gay rights is winning and will win. In a battle over foster care, the children are the very last people who should be caught in the crossfire.

Have You Ever Feared the State Will Take Your Children?

carlisle indian industrial school
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1900.

Are you a parent? Have you ever feared that the state will take your children from you? How often do you have this fear? The answer might depend on your racial identity and how much money you make, not your parenting skills.

In the New York Times, Emma Ketteringham draws attention to the under-discussed class and race dynamics of child removal:

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

In that framework, the answer is not affordable housing or transportation, meaningful employment, health care or access to healthy foods, as it should be. Why is the focus always on removing children to foster care and imposing parenting classes? This never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care. Worse, it makes parents fear contacting child services when they need help caring for their children.

“Neglect” cases are often not what they look like on paper. Our clients are trying to raise their kids under tremendous economic and psychological pressures. Often they have faced significant challenges, like homelessness or incarceration. They love their children and cherish their identity as parents. But in court, they face the loss of what is most precious to them: their children.

Ketteringham is writing specifically about New York City’s system but I’m guessing her critique is more broadly applicable. I don’t know much about the foster care system but I hope you’ll indulge a few anecdotal thoughts from my own experiences in church, community, and foster care in recent years.

Alicia and I have known Christians who are fostering, Christians who are trying to get their kids back from the foster care system, and Christians who lost their kids, got them back, and are now on the other side of that awful ordeal. We also know parents who have never had their kids taken from them, but for whom the threat of it is daily background noise.

It came as a great shock to me when I realized that parents I respect live in fear of their kids being taken from them. What made it more surreal was the realization that this is normal for them. “Be careful, the state might take your kids,” is not an unimaginable foreboding; it’s a present possibility. I have lived my life as a parent without this possibility on my horizon. And it’s not because I’m a great parent.

Beyond anecdote, something I do know a little more about is the long history of child removal among Native American children as part of the United States’ settler colonial policies of cultural genocide. See Margaret Jacobs’ great book.

Most of us want to live in a society that seeks to protect children, even to the point of involuntary removal. Yet we must be aware of the dreadful history—and present—of unjust removal. When Alicia and I became foster parents, it didn’t feel heroic. It felt more like we were implicating ourselves in something messy and morally gray. We would do our best to care for a child, but we wouldn’t know—couldn’t know—whether that child should even be with us.