Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I Mean, and Don't Mean, When I Say I Support Family Preservation

Note: This post is focused on issues involving foster-care adoption. I'll look at the subject of preserving biological families versus infant adoption another day.

In December, I wrote some posts about family preservation (here and here). An anonymous reader expressed concern about my position, asserting that by adopting a stance in favor of family preservation I had aligned myself with ill-conceived policies keeping kids stuck in foster care. Here's a quote:

Please realize that this trend of promoting family reunification is literally stalling adoptions for YEARS so that half-siblings or step siblings who have never lived in the same home can be placed in entirely NEW homes together. Please realize that when you choose to emphasize heritage and biological ties OVER exiting from fostercare into adoption, you are ... stalling the most common form of American adoption: foster adoption.
In light of this comment, and as someone who adopted from foster care and promotes foster care adoption, I'd like to clarify my position. I do support family preservation (and I'll explain more about what I mean by this further on in this post), but that doesn't necessarily mean that I believe in reunification at all costs. I understand that children are not at all well served by being kept in foster care for long periods of time or by bouncing from home to home within the system. I also understand that the reunification-focused policies of the past were largely unsuccessful. Here's a quote from Adam Pertman's Adoption Nation:
For decades, the defining principle in the child-welfare system had been "family reunification" at almost any cost, a wonderful ideal that entailed putting kids in foster homes while their mothers (and fathers, when they were around) received help to deal with their violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, or other problems. Unfortunately, far too often, the children were shuttled back and forth between foster and biological parents for years. 
Obviously, that didn't work; alternatives were clearly needed. I've said previously on this blog and elsewhere that adoption is a flawed strategy for a flawed world. The same thing can be said of family-preservation policies; it is crucial that we continue to look at such policies critically. But to admit that a particular set of policies was unsuccessful is not the same as tossing out the entire idea of family preservation. We can cast a critical eye on specific practices while simultaneously holding the understanding that, when possible, it is preferable to have some connection to one's biological family than to have none at all.

I write from the point of view of someone who was separated from her biological mother at birth and who lived for 30 years of her life without any connection to her biological family. My personal experience is that the loss of the biological family is no small thing. Does that mean that I value the biological connection over permanency and stability? Not necessarily, but I believe that it must continue to be a factor of consideration. 
When we shift our energies toward adoption as the only possible solution, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

I take a broader view of family preservation than the reader who commented on my blog post. I don't only associate it with reunification but also efforts to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. In fact, if I were queen of the world, this is one place where I would choose to put a larger portion of resources. I'm encouraged when I read about programs such as the Harlem Children's Zone's Family Support Center that are highly effective at strengthening families and thereby keeping kids out of the system, but, unfortunately, programs of this type are few and far between. I believe there is a need for addiction programs that help parents, or prospective parents, get the help they need sooner rather than later, and that address the complexities of addiction, including the association with trauma. And while there are children in the foster care who have a legitimate reason for being there, such as abuse, there are others who have parents who are willing and able to care for them but reside in another country, and I believe such children should be reunited with their parents. 

Biology is not the only factor, but I believe strongly that it must always continue to be a factor. And I am of the opinion that it should continue to be a consideration even in situations that do end up resulting in adoptions. Erica and I sometimes refer to our open adoption as "post-adoption reunification." This, too, is a form of family preservation ... one that is not in conflict with the child's need for permanency. Here's a quote from a post I wrote in July:

My own daughter is legally adopted but currently has relatively frequent visitation with her biological mother, and this works well for our family. I believe that both parts of the equation contribute to her well being. The adoption gives her permanency, something she desperately needed -- she was not thriving as a foster child bouncing from home to home within the system. Adoption is a legal agreement, but it is also a ceremonial contract between the parent and the child. To my daughter, it means that we will stick with her, even when the going gets tough. It means, 'no take backs.' But the connection to her biological family, and especially to her mother, nurtures her as well.
People often think of "open adoption" and "foster adoption" as things that don't go together. I understand that every situation is different; not everyone will find themselves in the circumstances that allow for the kind of open relationship that Erica and I have created. But I also agree with many of the points raised by the blogger SocialWrkr24/7 in her post Family Is Family (which I included in a recent "Five For Friday" post), including the following:
Children who were adopted from Foster Care deserve to maintain connections with their biological families. Many of these children lived with their biological parents for some amount of time and already have attachments (however disrupted) to these parents. They have memories of relatives and family friends. 
Obviously, there are situations involving abuse in which it would not be beneficial for the child to have continued contact with the parent, but there are many other cases in which the parent was simply unable to care for the child, as a result of lack of skills, resources, or stability but not lack of love or desire to parent. In such situations, I encourage foster-adoptive parents to keep the doors open, so long as it is safe to do so.


  1. As Abraham Maslow said "If you only have a hammer you'll see everything as a nail."

  2. I can not thank you enought for this post - and not just because of my shout out. ;)

    Too often foster parents assume that because a parent could not keep their child safe, it is unsafe to continue contact with that parent after adoption. In my 7+ years and nearly 100 children's cases, I have only known about 5 parents who would pose any physical threat to the foster family or child. I have known a few more where the child was too traumatized, or suffered from such a serious attachment disorder, to maintain in person contact with their biological parents. Some of those children could handle letter or phone contact, some couldn't. But in all but those most extreme 5 cases, I would highly encourage foster/adoptive parents to continue to maintain the relationship on the child's behalf until a time when the child wants and is capable of handling the interaction with their biological family again. A child will not be a child forever. A child will not always be at this point in their healing. Someday they may need that link to their past to move forward and grow to be a confident, self-aware adult. Thank you for writing this from the perspective of a parent living it daily.

  3. Your level headed thought processes that acknowledge a flawed world is refreshing. So often I see people trying to prove that their way is the only 'right' way and that it can apply to every situation. But we are people, and people are messy and complicated.

    Everyone should be so committed to approaching situations as unique and the solution for each child's most successful future just as unique.

    My heart has become so broken for the children of foster care and the extra hurdles that they must overcome. And I cheer for advocates like you who make us all re-think our positions on families and who 'deserves' to be part of a child's life.

    There needs to be a million more people in this world like you Rebecca.

  4. Thanks you so much for this comment!!!! Do you mind if I quote a portion of it?

  5. Thank you so much, Lisa, for your kindness and support, and for really seeing my intentions. :-)

  6. Balanced, as always. Thanks, Rebecca!

  7. Absolutely! Go right ahead!

  8. Thanks, Lynn, for your comments today, here and elsewhere. And I am so glad I can count on your vote when I run for Queen of the World! :-)


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