Guest Opinion: Author writes of foster care system in new memoir

  • by Mark Daley
  • Wednesday January 17, 2024
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Author Mark Daley. Photo: Courtesy Atria Books
Author Mark Daley. Photo: Courtesy Atria Books

A few nights earlier, I'd gone down a research rabbit hole. What began with one question — was there one singular risk factor that could forecast child abuse or neglect? — quickly budded into dozens more. If a parent had a drug addiction, was that the equivalent of drawing the Monopoly card reading, "Go directly to foster care. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200?" My fingers typed queries as fast as they could move, while my elbow rested slightly on Roxy, who had cuddled in beside me on the sofa.

I quickly discovered a report, put out by the federal agency that oversees foster care, that included a list of the different bases for which children are removed from their caretakers and their prevalence. I began scrolling, reading the percentages assigned to each reason — neglect, 61%; parental drug abuse, 32%; abandonment, 5%; physical abuse, 13%; disability of a child, 2%; death of a parent, 1%. The list went on. The percentages totaled 170, which meant they were not mutually exclusive. Neglect was often the by-product of a concomitant challenge. I wanted to know which struggles needed to be present in a home to make the environment ripe for abuse.

What role does mental health play in foster care detentions? What about social isolation? Homelessness? I waded into pages upon pages of academic studies. It was all so insightful, but none of it directly answered my initial question about whether or not there was a single factor whose presence could provide the clairvoyance to predict abuse or neglect, probably because there was no answer. As far as I could tell, there's no clear line of cause and effect, no one component that makes or breaks a parent's ability to protect their children. Risk is cumulative and uncertain. The more factors at play, the greater the probability, but risk alone is not an inevitability. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about the ins and outs of foster care.

Taking away someone's child is a colossal decision, one that in practice has disproportionately impacted Black and Native American children, who, I learned, are overrepresented nationally in foster care at rates that are one and a half and two times their proportion of the general population, respectively.

Our nation's unwillingness to engage in difficult conversations and put in the work needed to repair the damage caused by our shameful history of slavery and segregation has allowed structural, institutional, and systemic racism to go unchecked. The criminal justice system has been used to overpolice Black people. As a result, Black men account for 35% of those incarcerated, while representing just 13% of the overall male population. How many Black women, earning just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men, are left to raise children alone because of this practice? Even more, discrimination in lending, the tax code, and employment has systematically denied generations of Black families access to wealth-building pathways, leaving them with a fraction of the financial safety net of the average white family. Lack of access to quality health care and bias within the medical community are among the factors contributing to the horrific fact that Black women are three and a half times as likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. Pervasive systemic injustices, rooted squarely in racism, are contributing factors to the inflated numbers of Black children in foster care. The numbers are also inflated for Native American families. As recently as 50 years ago, three in 10 Native American children had been removed from their homes and placed in adoptive homes, foster homes, or institutions.

For over a century, Indigenous children were systematically separated from their families by the U.S. government, the Catholic Church, and other religious organizations. Tens of thousands of children were sent to more than four hundred government-run or supported boarding schools, where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse ran rampant. The schools were designed to force tribal children to assimilate to white culture, thereby decimating the future of tribes.

Most of the children removed would never see their biological families again, never hear their Native languages spoken, never participate in another tribal ceremony. They lost all connections to their families, their culture, their traditions, and too many lost their lives. Indigenous children are still overrepresented in the foster system, accounting for less than 1% of the country's total population but 2 percent of its foster care population.

"Safe" will be published later this month.  

Two peoples, one whose land was stolen, the other stolen and brought to this land, united by the unconscionable acts of the past, still echoing in the policies and systems surveilling families today. These communities share a bond of oppression and a well-justified distrust of government and the child welfare system. Many in these communities face challenges passed on to them like a torch handed from one generation to the next, the result of intergenerational trauma and society's limited understanding of the sustained impact of racism and cultural genocide.

Hispanic families face a different set of challenges. As of 2017, one in three children living in the United States was Hispanic. On the surface this community is underrepresented in the foster care population nationally, accounting for 21% of all youth; however, there are great disparities among states. Hispanic children are overrepresented in foster care in a handful of states and significantly underrepresented in roughly seventeen states. If a lack of cultural understanding and the inability to effectively communicate with Spanish-speaking families are seen as explanations for the overrepresentation of Latino youth in some states, the same challenges may also explain the underrepresentation in other states. Families with undocumented loved ones may shy away from public services because they don't believe they are eligible or they are concerned about potential repercussions resulting from their immigration status. While 94% of Latino children were born in the U.S., a quarter of them had a parent who lacked the required legal status to lawfully reside there. This puts the unimaginable stress of having a parent deported on an estimated four million Latino youth. One menacing characteristic that appeared time and time again in my search for answers was the oversized role of poverty in child welfare cases. One study found infants born in California's poorest neighborhoods were reported to Child Protective Services at seven times the rate of infants born in the wealthiest areas. This does not suggest parents who struggle financially are incapable of caring for their children or keeping them safe. Rather, it demonstrates the stress of economic hardship felt by parents and the difficult decisions it forces them to make — groceries or rent, diapers or gas money. It also speaks to the way systems police poverty and how they determine what good enough parenting looks like. It seems that poverty, whether or not it's accompanied by maltreatment, is a lightning rod for intervention. And not always for the better.

There are so many ingredients that could be combined to cook up a foster care detention, but simply mixing them together does not guarantee a child will experience harm. Foretelling neglect or abuse is impossible.

If life were a sport, we could place bets on future success. Factors like poverty, in utero drug exposure, parents' education level, and marital status would all weigh into the over/under. The probability of graduating from high school or college, serving time in prison, or teenage pregnancy could be measured and predicted.

We begin life on an uneven playing field, like two NFL teams waiting for the coin toss on opening day. One team stacked with Pro Bowlers and the other trying to rebuild a franchise. But what happens if the star quarterback gets injured? A crushing blow sidelines him, possibly ending his career. The season in jeopardy, his replacement is young and untested, the 199th draft pick overall. A once-bright outlook, now dimming. Anxiety takes hold of morale, choking it in the locker room. The crowd thins, optimism wanes. One loss, one event, triggering a series. Suddenly the line shifts. The bettors who predicted a great season begin counting their losses before the next play is even called.

When the pillars bracing our lives begin crumbling upon us, are we prepared with the insight and the fortitude to look up? Do our feet move to prevent us from being flattened by the crashing beams? Can we dig through the debris to find something, anything, an iota of meaning, that makes perseverance worthwhile? In the chaos, do we lose what it means to be ourselves, or find the strength to emerge from the wreckage and begin again?

Mark Daley, a gay man, is a social activist, entrepreneur, and foster-turned-adoptive father with over two decades of experience in message development, communication strategy, and public policy, including as a communications director and spokesperson for then-senator Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. He is the founder of One Iowa, the state's largest LGBTQ+ equality organization, and The, a national platform to connect interested families with foster organizations. Copyright @2024 by Mark Daley. From the forthcoming book "Safe" by Mark Daley to be published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.

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