Because I Stole a Cupcake…

Because I Stole a Cupcake…

April 18, 2013 | Karen Martin

kmartin

I had just finished a coaching session in California when a child protection social worker, whom I will call Michelle, struck up a conversation with me. She recently transferred to a program called permanent placement, where she works with children and youth in long-term foster care. These children have been abused or neglected by their parents and will not be reunified with them, but the children are not yet adopted or in legal guardianship.

I had just finished a coaching session in California when a child protection social worker, whom I will call Michelle, struck up a conversation with me. She recently transferred to a program called permanent placement, where she works with children and youth in long-term foster care. These children have been abused or neglected by their parents and will not be reunified with them, but the children are not yet adopted or in legal guardianship.

Some consider the permanent placement unit to be a less demanding position in child welfare services. Michelle said to me, “I have to tell you, Karen, this is turning out to be the toughest job I have had yet.”

She said, “My heart is breaking. I have a little 7½-year-old boy on my caseload. Last week, we were talking, and during our conversation, I asked him if he knew why he was in foster care. He looked right at me, and without hesitating, he said, ‘Because I stole a cupcake.’

“This boy has been in foster care since he was 5. For two and a half years, he has been carrying the guilt that he and his four siblings are in foster care because he stole a cupcake. So two days later, I met with his siblings in their foster home and I asked them why they are in foster care. Without hesitating, they also said, ‘Because my brother stole a cupcake.’ And these kids are mad at their brother. Some won’t even visit him.”

I asked Michelle how she responded to this situation. She said that she reviewed the case file. The little boy and his siblings were removed because of problems in the home. She couldn’t tell if the cupcake incident happened on the same day that they came into protective custody, because there was no mention of it in the case file. But she said, “I went back to visit him the next week, and I sat down on the same level with him and I looked him right in his eyes, and I told him, ‘You are NOT in foster care because of the cupcake. You are a child, and you are not responsible for the problems in your family. You are in foster care because your parents were having problems safely taking care of you.’”

Then Michelle told me another story. Two siblings, an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, were in long-term foster care when their foster father had a heart attack and suddenly died. Michelle took the kids to a new foster home that night. When Michelle arrived, the girl looked at her and in a way that conveyed complete defeat, said, “I can’t keep moving.”

When Michelle and the children arrived at the temporary foster home, Michelle noticed that the 8-year-old boy froze when they were standing in the entryway of the new foster home. Michelle was sharp enough to notice the boy’s body language and took him out to her car to talk. With fear in his voice, he said, “I don’t even know these people.”

Sadly, the stories of these three children are all too common. April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and this is a time when we can all pause and focus on the real-life pain of these three children and on that of the social worker assigned to help these children through the system to a safe, loving, forever home.

When child protection systems serve children, there are three outcomes we strive for:

  1. The children feel safe and are safe;
  2. Child well-being is improved; and
  3. All children attain legal and relational permanency.

All three of these outcomes are critical. One cannot and should not supersede the others. Permanency without safety is not acceptable. Safety at the expense of well-being or permanency is not acceptable. Too often, children enter the foster care system and not enough attention is paid to their well-being or to ensuring that they achieve permanency.

In addition, better care for children requires moving beyond the federal standards themselves. It is enough that we believe children are safe if they don’t feel safe themselves? Is it enough if children are adopted if they don’t feel the emotional connection and the relationship security that should come with having a family?

The boy who is wracked with guilt over the cupcake, the girl who can’t take one more move, and her brother who froze in fear are examples of children who, in the process of the intervention that was designed to keep them safe, are not having their well-being and permanency needs met. Their mental health is at stake.

To preserve their mental health, these children need social workers to take an urgent and relentless approach to helping them achieve permanency and well-being. Permanency work is a specialty in the field of child welfare, and there are several tools available to help children achieve sustainable permanency. In the NCCD Children’s Research Center’s (CRC) developing work with agencies and jurisdictions, some emergent ideas are as follows.

  • Learning about the family. Create a genogram, or a family tree, with the children to discover any family members who might be able to strengthen the children’s connections to safe family members and kin.
  • Identifying other caring adults. Eco-maps are another tool designed to uncover friends and safe adults from school, church, and the child’s neighborhood. Often, digging through the child’s files for evidence of any adult who has ever cared about him or her can offer good ideas.
  • Promoting youth connections. Kevin Campbell, a professional in the child welfare system, developed a groundbreaking six-step process called family finding that is used to help achieve permanency, safety, and well-being for youth and to promote connections for youth.
  • Incorporating the safety network to keep children in their homes and help them return home. CRC’s Structured Decision Making® system guides social workers to assess a child and family’s support networks through the safety assessment, the family strengths and needs assessment, and the reunification assessment.

Despite all the tools that are available, the job of achieving sustainable safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes remains challenging and urgent. It does, in fact, take a village to raise a child. National Child Abuse Awareness Month is a good time to reflect on how we can all pitch in to make the village a little stronger, a little safer, and a little more permanent for our children.