Ten years ago, my organization released a report on Kansas child welfare. We noted that the state was taking children from their families at a rate far above the national average, even when rates of child poverty were factored in.
Kansas took away children at double and triple the rates of states in which independent court-appointed monitors found that reforms emphasizing family preservation had improved child safety.
We argued that the widespread needless removal of children was doing those children terrible harm. It also overloaded caseworkers, leaving them less time to find children in real danger. Kansas’ take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare made all children less safe.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Kansas remains an extreme outlier when it comes to child removal. But now, Phyllis Gilmore, who, fortunately, has announced her retirement as secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, has effectively admitted that Kansas takes away many children unnecessarily.
Having been forced to admit that four foster children had been missing for 45 days and she never knew about it, Gilmore needed to reassure people that children running away from foster care isn’t always so bad. So, according to The Star:
“(Gilmore) said that in many cases, children have left to go back to their biological families or other people with whom they have a relationship in order to try to not be in foster care. … ‘So it isn’t always a tragedy but some certainly can be and that’s why we have to take it all very seriously,’ Gilmore said.”
But wait a minute. DCF says children are taken away only when they have been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm — harm so severe it can’t possibly be prevented without resorting to foster care. And, of course, children are not supposed to be returned as long as those harmful conditions exist.
So how can it not be a tragedy when children go running straight back to these supposedly horrible parents who are such a danger to them?
Unless, of course, many of those parents are not actually a danger — and Gilmore knows it.
The typical cases that dominate the caseloads of child welfare workers are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”
Other cases fall between the extremes, so it’s no wonder two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.
That’s true even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.
None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents, but foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. Year after year, Kansas prescribes mega-doses of foster care.
Of course, some parents really are horrible, and sometimes a child returning to such a home is indeed a tragedy. But other times, the children are trying to tell us something when they vote with their feet. Perhaps Gilmore’s successor will listen.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.