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August 19, 2020

"Normal" is Not Enough, Senior Fellow Meghan Bishop tells Youth Today

By Meghan Bishop Senior Fellow for Innovation and Technology

Published August 19, 2020 in Youth Today

The child welfare system is destroying families and leaving children to languish in foster care. The problem is rampant nationwide. In Missouri, Jesse Lake is fighting an uphill battle to keep her children against the head of the agency trying to sever her legal relationship to them so that she may adopt them herself. 

In Arizona, Donald Williams fought five  years for the custody of his daughter after his rights were terminated. Eventually they were reunited, and the case was dismissed in May. As society longs to move back toward normalcy, we must remember that “normal,” for the child welfare system, is not the goal we should be striving toward.  

“Normal” removed children for issues often related to poverty or lack of access to sound legal counsel. In many cases, parents without adequate housing and/or drug addiction or mental health issues who had their children removed and placed into foster care were denied. Or they were never offered the legally required services available to help them improve their circumstances to meet the requirements for reunification in a timely manner. 

Normal determined the strength of parental “bond” (or lack thereof) between a parent and children based on one hour of in-person, supervised, visitation per week in a small room at a child welfare office. In such an artificial, clinical setting, a parent might be scrutinized for bringing their child’s favorite snack from McDonald’s on the purely subjective basis that it may not be “healthy enough,” thus rendering the parent unfit for further interaction. A father in Oregon was faulted for not preemptively removing scissors from a visitation room that were left by the previous occupants. Judges are routinely asked to determine if a parent’s efforts toward reunification are sufficient to merit increased interaction with their children based on the notes of such arbitrary interactions. 

Normal dictated that a parent take time away from either searching for or sustaining gainful employment to fulfill the requirements of treatment, visitation and court appearances during typical working hours. Should a parent miss a treatment session or visitation, even for the job they are required to keep as part of their court mandated obligations, they could face accusations of failing to prioritize their children or the case plan. 

However, should they lose their means of income or employment, their reliability could also fall into question. And should they be unable to afford suitable housing as a result, the state’s justification for separation is made stronger. 

Normal compelled judges to make life-altering decisions in perfunctory hearings during a time span of sometimes less than 30 minutes based solely on minimally sourced reports provided by the child welfare agency. The Constitution does not entitle all American parents to an attorney during child welfare proceedings. 

NORMAL IS DYSFUNCTIONAL

Therefore, while it is mandatory for parents in Washington state to have legal counsel to help them navigate the complicated judicial waters of family court, a parent in Delaware may not enjoy that same privilege. Sadly, even if a parent is appointed an attorney, there is no guarantee that attorney will be competent to handle the case. As is the case with so many court-appointed attorneys, large caseloads and low salaries are not typically enticing recruitment incentives for the offices of public defenders. 

Normal is rampant racial bias at all stages of the parental termination and adoption process. The over-representation of families of color at all stages of the family court process is endemic and African American and Native American families are particularly susceptible. Studies have shown that poverty and racial bias are the primary causes of this over-representation, and efforts to stem this bias through awareness and sensitivity training are rare. Culturally competent services are even more rare. 

COVID has laid bare the dysfunctionality of the child welfare system. During the lockdowns, most agencies stopped in-person visitation between children and parents, and services were either terminated, postponed or moved online, relying on phone calls and video conferencing to serve in the place of in-person interaction. For parents, this added additional barriers to reunification besides that of physical distances as many parents lacked the technology to participate in court-mandated obligations. 

Agencies missed a critical opportunity to proactively try to make the system more accessible during this time. Sadly, more often than not, instead of finding creative solutions they squandered the precious time that children could have spent with their parents. Instead, they wasted the last three months by sitting on their hands, allowing families to remain separated and causing further harm to children. 

Normal was unfair. Normal was morally wrong. Normal should not be the standard we should return to. In the coming months, we need to focus on a new normal. A better normal. A normal that takes advantage of Family First Prevention Act funding to provide services before removal; a normal that takes a holistic approach to healing; a normal that seeks to undo the harm the system has inflicted on families for decades; a normal that holds the promise of a brighter future for our nation’s children. 


Meghan Bishop is an associate fellow for innovation and technology for the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. A juvenile defense attorney for 10 years, she now focuses on how technology can help improve the lives of children and families involved in the justice system.

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