Sounding the Alarm

We have been sounding this alarm for a while. Haunted by the echoes of countless stories that seemed to defy common sense, we were prompted to talk with leading child welfare journalist Naomi Shafer Riely for an interview to raise awareness. Citing concerns over the dramatic shifts in the number of children in foster care, halting licensing any new families, and swift case closures and reunifications, we sat down to talk with Naomi for this December 2020 article. 

Research has long been critical of foster care and with reason. Nobody wants their children to be raised in and by the foster care system.It may be unpopular and a political faux pas not to fall in line with the colleagues who approach foster care with an ‘all or nothing approach, placing children back with biological families that cannot or will not provide a safe and stable environment for their children. It seems like common sense to prove the protection prior to placing children back into harm’s way by implementing measures of stability and holding families accountable for children’s sake. The website for the State of New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency states that they are responsible for “arranging for the child’s protection and the family’s treatment”. 

However, a vast majority of the interventions at the state level focus exclusively on the parents not on the safety of the children and the stability of their living situation. Conversely, licensed resource (foster) families must undergo rigorous financial, medical, psychological, safety, and socioemotional evaluations to prove their ability to care for a child in need. The priority of children to be safe crosses all gender, racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural lines. It is time that New Jersey lawmakers begin to look squarely at the policies they’ve put into place and evaluate why there are such high rates of re-entry (i.e., abuse following reunification and re-entry into the foster care system) and intergenerational foster care involvement. 

Current policies only prioritizing biological parents and biological relatives are not addressing either of these. Additionally, a lack of permanency and healthy attachment are not remedied by policies that do not ensure that children are in fact safe, even at the hands of their own parents. Children are abused and killed primarily at the hands of their biological relatives. Our current policies also do not address this. 

“Most resource parents fully support reunification provided it is safe for the child and takes place within the timelines prescribed in the Federal Adoption and Safe Family Act (ASFA), with some exceptions for extensions. ASFA (N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15) and NJ law (N.J.A.C. 3A:21-2.1), require that termination of parental rights (TPR) be initiated when a child has been in out-of-home placement for 15 of the last 22 months unless an exception to filing is documented (N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.3). However, foster children, especially young children, often stay with the kinship or foster caregiver for longer than this, with some placements going on for years, causing a strong bond to develop between the child and caregiver and the caregiver’s family. About 1 out of 5 children in NJ’s foster care system have remained in placement for more than 36 months (2020). The laws reflect that children will become bonded to their caregivers by setting this deadline for TPR. The deadline is not arbitrary. Interrupting bonded relationships takes a heavy toll on human health and well-being. The younger the child and deeper the bond, the more devastating can be the result. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) can occur from removal of a child from their caregiver, no matter whether that caregiver is related by blood or not.” said Maria Connolly, Assistant Director of Advocacy, of CAANJ.

However, the blame for outcomes is most often wrongly placed on a foster (resource) family who is helpless in protecting children from their abusers, specifically the child welfare system itself, and those who mistreated them in the first place. There are certainly racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic disparities in the long and unsettling history of child welfare in our country. According to a recent journal article, “The landscape of foster care changed drastically during the recent study investigating the child welfare system.”

There are plenty of voices trying to eliminate child welfare systems altogether, citing the injustices of these systems as racially motivated removals that target people. Another recent article discussed this. We can agree that the system of child welfare itself causes harm; however, national and statewide data would also indicate that the biological relatives of children are the perpetrators of their abuse and neglect. An unwillingness to address and put practices into place that keep children safe is just as racist as unlawful removals.

It’s time New Jersey leaders say the tough things and begin to hold parents accountable to ensure the safety of their children and to put a stop to the intergenerational involvement in foster care. It’s time to insist on permanency programs that prioritize the safety of children. Why place children in families that have been proven safe and stable only to return them to the biological families to face the same abuse as before. Both national and statewide data align. Foster parents present a low risk of harm to the children in their care.  

With New Jersey being the 15th highest re-entry rate in the nation, it is unclear exactly why our governor and lawmakers aren’t asking more questions? It is time for common-sense approaches that promote children’s rights to be safe as equal to their parents’ rights. Prioritizing a child’s connection to their biological family can be promoted through open adoptions, foster care providers, and kinship-legal guardianship with non-relative caregivers. Sarah Font’s recent article concludes that “On the whole, evidence points to both some degree of over-investigation for comparatively low-risk cases and substantial levels of under-intervention in response to high-risk cases.” Anecdotally, dozens of licensed resource families, educators, pastors, and providers would agree. The idea that we are over investigating and under-reporting – it is clear that we have a lot of work to do.

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