Photo by: US Nessie

Failed adoption is an unsettling reality that is too often hidden from the public eye. Adoption can be a wonderful thing for the right child at the right time. There are many adoptive parents who are heroic and inspiring. However, since the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, adoption has too often been as presented as—if not a panacea—then at least the preferred permanency option, by public child welfare authorities.

The term “permanency” is used inaccurately, sometimes almost cynically. In the context of public child welfare, the term can be closer in meaning to “permanently out of our system,” no longer an expense, a risk, or a liability.

As Rachel Blustain’s recent series documents, adoption often falls short even of this sardonic definition. Adoptees re-enter the child welfare system regularly. We do not know exactly how regularly, because we do not track adoptees systematically. Nor do we know how many enter homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, or prisons. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that the prevailing definition of permanency may be wrong; that a still-pervasive child protective strategy of forcibly removing children from flawed families and placing them with what are perceived as better families may not be working, may be no more theoretically sound or advanced than were the Orphan Trains of the 19th Century.

If that sounds jarring and extreme, that is because, at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), we view these issues from a perspective that runs counter to the mainstream.

CWOP is a self-help and advocacy organization of parents affected by the public child welfare system. Most of our staff and board of directors are parents who have had children involuntarily placed in foster care. Many have faced the threat of Termination of Parental Rights, which we call “the death penalty of child welfare.”

Most of our membership is drawn from the low-income communities of color that account for the majority of the youth in foster care: Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and the North Shore of Staten Island. (Black children, in particular, are over-represented in the foster care system.)

Spend time with parents and youth at CWOP, and one of the themes that keeps resurfacing is the strength and persistence of blood relationships. You will find grandmothers successfully raising the children of daughters to whom their own rights were terminated years ago, teens rejecting surrogate parents and group-care settings to return to the families from which they were removed, mothers in recovery renewing relationships with children who have been adopted by kin in other states, young adults who maintain loving and supportive relationships with parents who continue to struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Much of this happens under the radar, invisible to the judges and case planners who believe they have the power to permanently dissolve blood ties by legal means.

Time and again, family ties prove more enduring than court orders and Uniform Case Record Permanency Planning Goals. The bonds between parents and children often transcend the most difficult circumstances: poverty, illness, homelessness. Why would this be surprising in light of the lineage of most of the families known to the system? These are families that have maintained cohesion and identity despite multi-generational histories of slavery, colonization and genocide.

A more just, effective and reality-based child-welfare system could be grounded in joining with and building upon the enormous strengths of families in our communities. This is not as difficult or idealistic as it might sound. Enfranchising families and communities in public efforts to protect children begins simply with listening to parents and youth. And there is also a growing body of evidence that listening to and valuing family voices can lead to improved outcomes for children. In close to 20 years of listening to parents and youth at CWOP, some recurring ideas and models of service have emerged:

  • Parent Advocates who have had history with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) can effectively engage their peers in service, and show them how to preserve or reunite their families based on their own experience and example.
  • Use of life-experienced parents as child welfare staff trainers “…could fundamentally alter the way caseworkers engage with parents,” according to a report from Children’s Rights, which added: “This, in turn, might reduce entries into foster care, lead to more reunification over a shorter time period and over time decrease the number of long stayers in foster care.”
  • Parent and youth interviews can become a formal part of the evaluation process for all Preventive Service and Foster Care providers and can be given significant weight in contract award and renewal decisions. Public funds should not be entrusted to any service provider who rejects direct accountability to the families they exist to serve.

    But perhaps the best way to avoid broken adoptions is to prevent children from unnecessarily entering foster care in the first place. In general, CWOP has an organizational commitment to models of Preventive Services that are community-driven. CWOP was a founding member of the Highbridge Partnership for Family Supports and Justice, also known as the Bridge Builders.

    At the Bridge Builders’ inception, the Highbridge community in the South Bronx had the highest rates of reports to State Central Register and of foster care placement in New York City. Through a coalition of funders, service providers and public agencies including ACS—and co-led by community residents—the Bridge Builders stationed family support workers in local public schools, provided pre-court legal services to families at the first point of contact with ACS, gave small grants for both emergencies and for innovative community self-improvement projects and trained dozens of local parents as peer advocates.

    The Chapin Hall Center of the University of Chicago was retained to study and evaluate the impact of this coordinated approach; 2008, the year when the Bridge Builders was last fully funded, was marked by a 28 percent decline in foster care placements during a period of time when the Bronx as a whole showed a 2 percent decline and the city as a whole showed a slight increase.

    It was New York State that led the nation in creating a dedicated funding stream for Preventive Services, and the models of service that have proved sustainable and have consistently garnered national acclaim have been home-grown, rooted in their own communities of origin and led by persons with a deep understanding of the needs of their own communities and families.

    It is time again for New York City to lead, not follow, national trends. We would spend far less time trying to quantify and fix broken adoptions if we invested more time and public resources in partnering with families and communities in their efforts to protect and nurture their own children, from day one.