Children are too often treated as disposable.
This has been the case throughout history and across the globe, and there are many evidences of this tragic reality in our current American culture, ranging from the rampant predatory child pornography industry, to the refusal of the judicial system to protect children from abusive parents and extended families. This last issue is our focus here, and the focus of a proposal for a piece of legislation, the PARK Act, that we wish to bring to your attention.
But first, we feel it necessary to set the scene for those readers unfamiliar with the foster care system and the children whose lives are affected.
The rights of parents to raise their children and the rights of children to be protected from abuse should not be at odds with each other. It is perhaps the deepest and darkest brokenness when they are. And sadly, although it is a world that many of our readers cannot identify with, there are many thousands of situations in which the rights of parents and the rights of their children are in conflict with one another.
At its most basic role, government exists to protect the weak from being assaulted by the strong. It appears that since children cannot vote or pursue lawsuits, or even always articulate their thoughts, their rights as American citizens to be protected from abuse are treated as trivial when compared to the rights of parents to maintain relationship with their children.
So how many bones should a parent be able to break in an infant and still maintain control over their child? How many days or weeks should a toddler be left alone and uncared for while a parent is blacked out, drunk or high? How many times should a three year girl be sexually assaulted at the hands of her parents and their friends? These, we are so sad to say are not the most extreme examples of abuse that we see in the lives of the children we are serving. They are common. Let that sink in.
The abusive and negligent parents of whom we speak have almost universally had difficult lives. They have usually been abused or neglected themselves. They often have little to no support system. The desire for compassion towards these adults is righteous. And we are not referring here to parents who, after a string of terrible decisions, lose custody of their children and then redirect to become safe and protective parents. Reunification in those cases is a beautiful redemption and worth pursuing. We are, however, seeking to point out that parental “love” that does not protect and provide is inadequate. Love is a verb. Love compels life-giving action. Love restrains harmful action. And children are not meant to be toys, accessories, or emotional support animals to parents who will not protect and provide for them.
Termination of parental rights is an awful reality. When parents abandon their children, or beat them, or consistently allow harm to come to them, they put their own rights at odds with the rights of their children.
It’s a tragedy; it’s a disaster.
It’s a reality.
And in this reality, the party who needs the most mercy from the Alabama Judicial System isn’t the perpetrator of abuse but the victim.
To that end, we commend to you the PARK Act. This proposal for legislation seeks to solidify the rights of vulnerable children in Alabama, specifically by quickly providing permanence for children in foster care. Lives are lost and ruined when children are denied permanency. (Societies are as well.) We will be attaching a link to the PARK Act for you to read and research in full, but we would like to highlight three proposed changes from the current law, that we believe further the cause of justice for the vulnerable children in the Alabama foster care system.
First, Foster parents or related caregivers would become automatic parties to the case after three months. Pretty quickly into a fostering situation, attentive foster parents are going to be experts on the foster child. They know the facts of the case better than most because they learn both the history of the child and the current needs of the child. There is tremendous turnover inside of DHR, and a foster child will often have multiple, even many, social workers along the way. This leads to an obvious breakdown in communication and a muddled understanding of the history of events. Particularly over time, a foster parent is an excellent resource of information that the courts are unwise to neglect. Alabama lags behind other states in requiring the courts to hear testimony from foster parents, and to make them a legal party to the case. Foster parents should also be allowed legal counsel, without fear of reprisal from DHR. Courts who are interested in hearing all the available facts would do well to treat foster families as the wealth of information that they typically are. When foster families are parties to the case, and asked by the courts to provide testimony, judges receive crucial information, and foster children are safer.
The second improvement suggested in the PARK Act affects the timeline of how quickly children are moved to permanence. We don’t mind restating that lives of children are lost and ruined when they are denied a permanent family. The PARK Act places responsibility on the biological parents and extended family, to quickly identify family member resources, or lose the right to be considered. Blood relationships are important, but not preeminent. Family members who wait for months or years during a time when a child is in crisis, are showing apathy for the child. The PARK Act provides two months for parents to identify family resources (parents, siblings, aunts, ect.) and four months for those extended family members to come forward and make serious strides towards providing a safe home. It would release the courts from considering blood family members from being considered if they wait longer than twelve months to identify themselves as a resource. Once again, this is because mercy towards a child cannot be thrown out the window in deference to rights of blood. We commend to you for additional study attached research on bonding, and the trauma of breaking strong bonds in childhood. Many, many foster children have strong bonds of love and affection with non-family caregivers, but not always with biological family members, when the biological family members have treated them with apathy.
The final proposal we would like to highlight also pertains to permanence. While the former proposal seeks to hold biological families responsible for timely care of a foster child, this proposal seeks to hold DHR responsible for the same. Under current law, DHR has twelve months to provide permanency for a foster child, whether by reunification with a rehabilitated parent, permanent placement with a biological family member, or pursuit of an adoptive family. This is very rarely obeyed. The rights of the foster child are routinely disregarded here. It is important to point out that the department may sometimes note extenuating circumstances (perhaps a mother has been the victim of trafficking and abuse herself, and the rehab process is stretching longer than 12 months), but in these cases, DHR must seek and receive permission from the court to delay giving foster children their rights under the law. If DHR fails to follow the law as it pertains to permanency, the PARK Act allows for the court to remove custody of the child from DHR and grant custody to current caregivers, certainly to include foster parents or related caregivers.
So what can you do? This is a lot of heavy information, but we ask you, Alabama voters with power to protect vulnerable children, to intervene. You can call your local representatives and tell them that you want them to support the PARK Act. That takes ten minutes. You can talk to your friends about it or post about it on social media to help spread awareness. If you have greater interest, you can read the PARK Act in full, the research on bonding and attachment, and the legislation from other states who are setting the pace in effective care for foster children.
The PARK Act will not fix the complicated and far-reaching problems of brokenness in families, nor save all the children endangered in that brokenness, but it may, and we believe it will, ensure a safer, gentler path for one child, and another, and another in Alabama.
Click Here to Read the Park Act
Click here to read more on bonding and attachment