All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1990

Fostering the System

Ann Rogers, an attorney, and Michael Rogers, a physics professor, live in Ormond Beach, Florida.

The problem with foster child Alan is that he isn’t a statistic. His mother was a drug addict, but she didn’t beat him. If Alan had been beaten, then he might be more willing to allow the state to help him.

When John and Lois applied to become foster parents with the state of California, they didn’t plan on getting Alan. Unlike most applicants, they didn’t want an infant, but they already had a particular foster child in mind. They were doing a favor for friends who were having difficulty with their own foster family. These friends, Tom and Carol, had taken in a foster child, Joann, who had fallen in love with their natural son. Tom and Carol thought John and Lois would be perfect for Joann, and that began their relationship with, what Lois now bitterly calls, “the system.”

To be precise, what Lois says is, “The system stinks.” It’s the system she blames, not Alan, for how badly things worked out. But what makes her particularly angry is that it’s Alan who is suffering.

Alan never wanted to be in the system. It was his teenaged half-sister who reported their mother to the state, which then came and took Alan and his sister away. His mother, a drug addict, could have faced the charges and tried to get her children back, but she chose instead to vanish. So, at 9 years old, Alan became part of the state foster child care system.

A year had gone by and he had been through two other foster families when John and Lois got him. (His half- sister had been placed separately from him, though they had scheduled, monthly, supervised meetings.) John and Lois were forewarned that he was a problem child. He didn’t make friends and he didn’t interact with other children except to fight with them. They were also told he wet his bed.

John and Lois had meanwhile been through their own bureaucratic ordeal in becoming Alan’s foster parents. The lengthy process began in December when John and Lois attended the Foster Parent Training Program given at their neighborhood community college. In March, their home was inspected by the licensing division of the county’s Public Social Services Agency. Completing the paperwork required that they both be fingerprinted for a criminal records clearance, have a Child Abuse Index Check, be tested for tuberculosis and have a Health Screening Report filled out by a physician. Since, before these requirements could be concluded, Tom and Carol had made other arrangements for Joann, John and Lois were free to accept any foster child. On the first of April, they accepted Alan.

Like many foster families, John and Lois wanted to provide Alan with the family life of which they felt he had been deprived. But Alan was resentful from the start. Tom and Carol had encountered similarly resentful children and, if the child’s attitude didn’t improve, they would return him to the agency. But Lois was determined to make it work with Alan. After all, wasn’t he just a child who really needed help? She fully planned to raise him to adulthood along with her own two children. And she continued to talk this way even after learning the extent of his problems.

John and Lois had been warned that he wet his bed at night. But they hadn’t been told that he also wet his pants in the daytime or that he habitually defecated in his pants. John characterized him as not being toilet trained.

To keep tabs on their progress as well as to assist them, a state psychologist, Howard, was assigned to visit them weekly. He would come to the house, talking first privately to Lois, and then taking Alan aside (or sometimes out for a Coke) to talk to him. There were also regular monthly visits from a state social worker. Howard’s advice on toilet training Alan was to have him hand scrub all his soiled underpants.

Thus began a wearying, daily ordeal. Lois would set aside Alan’s soiled underpants. She’d wait until after supper and after Alan had relaxed a little before telling him it was time to wash them. But he was never ready or willing to do it. He whined. He didn’t want to wash them and why was she always picking on him. It was because he was a foster child, wasn’t it? He screamed. He wouldn’t do it. Lois always stood there, persisting, patiently and calmly, until Alan finally relented and washed his underwear.

Sometimes Alan tossed out his dirty underpants and told Lois he didn’t wear any. Then Lots had to rummage through the garbage to find them. It seemed as though Alan tried everything he could to get out of the washing, except to use the toilet.

Yet Alan’s failure to use the toilet was just the more conspicuous aspect of a bigger, more general behavior problem. From what he had told Lois and from what they could surmise about him, he had been a neglected child. He pointed out a hotel to Lois that he said his mother had left him in for three days. He was totally undisciplined. He didn’t know how to behave in a house or with a family. He’d open the front door and not shut it. He’d turn the water faucet on and not turn it off. He never washed his hands. And when he was told to shut the door or turn the water off or wash his hands, he would argue and fight. “Why do I have to?” Or, “I don’t want to.” And whenever John wasn’t home, Alan would throw fits with Logs. He’d scream at her, right in her face.

Life with Alan

Family life with Alan became something quite different from what family life had been before. John and Lois planned a family night out to see the new Star Trek movie at a drive-in. Though Alan seemed excited too, when they were ready to leave, he wet his pants. Then instead of giving Lois the wet underwear, he told her he hadn’t worn any. Lois found them in a waste basket. And as though his pre-movie antics weren’t enough, Alan spent the movie telling them how much better his previous foster family had been.

Another weekend they drove to Las Vegas to visit friends who had just moved there from Kentucky. Lois was particularly excited since she hadn’t seen these friends in over a year. While staying there, though, Alan threw a terrifying fit, screaming at the top of his lungs, ranting and raving. Their friends were horrified. John and Lois were upset. They had ideas about how they should be raising Alan, about things they could be doing that might help him, but they were obligated to follow Howard’s suggestions.

Howard had told them that when Alan misbehaved, Lois (who was doing all the disciplining) could do one of several things. She could put him in his bedroom; she could ban him from playing the computer, which he loved; or she could put him in a corner with his nose touching the wall. These were “constructive alternative methods of discipline,” which John and Lois were required, by the Foster Parent Agreement they had signed, to exercise. They were prohibited by the agreement from using “corporal punishment, punishment in the presence of others, deprivation of meals, monetary allowances, visits from parents, home visits, threat of removal or any type of degrading or humiliating punishment.” But despite Lois rigorously using these constructive alternatives, Alan’s behavior was going downhill. They were losing control over him, and it was getting closer to the point where Alan would simply refuse to listen to them. If he wouldn’t stand in the corner, or wouldn’t go to his bedroom, then what could they do?

Meanwhile, Tom and Carol were giving them different advice. They had been foster parents for over ten years and they had raised their foster children much as they had raised their own children, spanking included. They reassured John and Lois that once Alan felt some attachment to them, they would be able to spank him too. But John and Lois were hesitant. They were sure Alan would report them.

Nonetheless, one day John did spank Alan. He took him into the bedroom, told him what he had done wrong (defecating in his pants and talking back to Lois), and then spanked him half a dozen times. Alan had already been warned the previous day that John—not Lois—would be disciplining him the next time he committed either of those two infractions. John said Alan seemed bewildered by the spanking, as though it had been a new experience for him, and, for two months afterwards, he did not soil his underwear once.

A Warning

Alan did eventually tell Howard about his spanking, however, and Howard warned John not to do it again. And when Alan’s good behavior declined after two months, John didn’t spank him again, though he was certain a spanking was what Alan needed. There was too much to lose to risk an entanglement with the state. John and Lois owned real estate; they had their two children. Foster parents might have child abuse charges filed against them as well, and then their own children could become foster children.

Alan, though, just kept getting worse. He plugged a toilet at school and screamed at a bus driver who was threatening not to let hun on the bus again. Perhaps Alan was angry because Lois had started working full-time and now had less time for him. Lois had gotten a full-time office job, because John was thinking about leaving his ranch job, which meant losing their rent-free, company-owned, three-bedroom house. In southern California, that was no small economic loss, certainly not compensated by the $360 they got monthly for Alan. But whatever his reason, Alan was now out of their control.

In late October, seven months after they had gotten him, John and Lois returned Alan to State Social Services. He cried when he got in the car, and John and Lois were upset too. But they felt they had no other choice. Alan was now 11 years old, and he would be going to live in a group home with other hard-to-place children.

This real-life example isn’t clear-cut or uncontroversial. Alan’s home life with his drug-addict mother was hardly ideal. On the other hand, lie wasn’t being physically abused. He was neglected. He wasn’t fed regularly or taught anything. Yet, he had survived under his mother’s care, through infancy and early childhood, until he was 9 years old. And his mother never had abandoned him. Though she left him in seedy hotels, she always came back. Further, Alan never wanted to leave his mother. Lois expressed the fear that if they encountered his mother somewhere, he would take off after her.

Lois also worried about Alan’s constant use of the “f” word. As far as Alan viewed it, he never got a fair shake on anything because he was a “foster” child. With his own mother, he hadn’t been one. His mother also had never rejected him. Under the California foster child care system, though, whole families have rejected him. He had experienced stability with his mother; he is being shuttled from family to family with the state foster care system. Under the state system, he is being labeled a problem child. Under the state, he is living in a group home, which has disturbed children and other juvenile misfits in it. Has the state, in fact, made Alan’s situation worse?

What Is the Proper Role of the State?

The pragmatic argument for state intervention is that the state is doing good for Alan. Here’s a child who, without state intervention, would grow up to be a drug addict like his mother, or perhaps worse. The state believes its care of Alan does less harm than his mother’s care does. But it requires omniscience to know that Alan would benefit more in the state’s foster system than in his mother’s care. First, it requires that the state know how Alan would have turned out under his mother’s care. Second, it requires that the state know how Alan will turn out under its system. Finally, it requires knowing which outcome is morally superior. No one, not even the state, has this wisdom.

Assuming that Alan is, in fact, worse off now than before; state officials would then like to believe, or perhaps do believe, that Alan is an exception—that, on the average, the state still does more good than harm. Tom and Carol certainly met children who adjusted to their new family life. Most children will manage to adjust, but it doesn’t mean that they are happier with or benefit more from their foster families than they would have with their own families.

The belief that the foster family, which is a state-controlled relationship, is going to benefit foster children is a dangerous assumption. Look at what happened to Alan, who was taken in by good people with the best intentions. Every foster child is unique, yet the state allows only one rigid, limited approach to raising these children. Instead of allowing all actions to be legal with the exclusion of criminal acts (for example, assault, killing, or fraud), the state specifies only certain acts as legal, thereby making illegal every other (unmentioned) act. This controlling, restrictive nature of the state impedes individual initiative and progress.

John, for example, may have been wrong that ‘spanking Alan would have been beneficial. Alan might have responded the same way to being spanked as he had to Howard’s constructive alternative methods. With Alan, it may have had nothing to do with how he was being raised, but who was raising him. Nonetheless, the state, by forbidding spanking, by making only one narrow approach to child rearing legal and everything else illegal, inhibits creativity. The process of raising children becomes stagnant rather than dynamic; it remains one- dimensional rather than innovative. So, while spanking may not be productive in a specific case, the freedom to spank, in general, is productive.

The financial cost to the taxpayers of Alan’s taking is also considerable. The government hires psychologists, social workers, custodians, and a network of foster families. In addition, it purchases real estate. In Alan% case, three foster families received payment, a state psychologist and social worker are employed, and a group home and staff are financed. All these people are employed to benefit Alan more, or harm him less, than his mother. Yet, no matter how much money is spent, the state cannot know for sure what will benefit Alan.

Not knowing who or what will benefit Alan constitutes the problem of child-rearing. The state can’t know and, therefore, it has no right to take a child from its mother unless it has met the burden of proving the child is being physically injured. Although it may be true that Alan was being emotionally, not physically, injured at home with his mother, the state wasn’t able to stop the emotional injury. The state’s actions, in fact, very likely increased the emotional injury and made Alan’s childhood more miserable than it was.

Several weeks after relinquishing Alan, Lois received a phone call from a social worker about taking in another foster child. The social worker assured Lois that not all foster children are as bad as Alan. That’s when Lois realized that Alan was being blamed for being bad, not the system. The state, evidently, assumes it is right. So, while the state, most likely, wrongfully took Alan from his mother, harmed him by doing it, and wasted loads of money, it can blame its failure on the victim.