How would you define “family?” People who are related by blood or marriage is the typical first definition. But we all know that being biologically related may never lead to being in a true family relationship. How many distant relatives can you imagine currently having whom you have never met? How many of us have discovered “new” relatives after sending a genetic sample to an online DNA registry? There is an adage that states, “You can’t choose your family.” Today, I hope to challenge that notion.
Fears, Hopes, and DreamsImagine being a child who cannot safely stay in their biological family. What are the fears, hopes, and dreams of that child, as they move through the system that was created to protect them? Will the legal plan include adoption? Who will be charged with finding an adoptive family for the child?
What if the child truly had a voice in choosing their forever family? We hear adoptive parents tell their children, “I chose you–you are special.” What if the conversation were flipped, and we heard more children saying, “I chose you to be my family, you chose me as your child, and this is our family!” What if this were how more children felt when they completed their arduous journey through the child welfare system?
A child enters foster care because of the actions and/or failures of adults. Some adults are biological relatives, and some of the adults were intervenors in the child’s life, brought in to help a struggling family and/or protect the safety and welfare of the child. Children who continue to linger in foster care have often been failed by a multitude of people charged with protecting their safety and ensuring their wellbeing: relatives, kin, caseworkers, lawyers, judges, guardians, foster parents, therapists, doctors, teachers … many of these people have been paid by the state and given the assignment of ensuring the best interests of the child are met. Each person who touches that child’s life bears some responsibility for the child’s suffering, as well as the ultimate outcome of the child’s life.
What about older children, who have literally “been through it?” Abuse, neglect, foster care, residential treatment, group homes, court systems, medical systems, educational systems, therapeutic systems …. how do we empower these children to find and use their voices? And are we listening to them?
Every “how to” book about children stresses the importance of connecting with the child and helping the child feel safe and connected. Yet, from the child-eye-level, our “systems” often work to discourage connections, and being safe is very different from feeling safe. Many children experience a conveyor belt of caseworkers; each new caseworker makes a brief pause in the child’s life, never to be seen again. Frequently, attorneys give their child clients a cursory call before a hearing, never learning anything of significance about the child. Too many judges are uncomfortable talking to the children or believe, “That’s someone else’s responsibility.” Teachers who do not understand the child’s history and current reality of trauma may react to the child’s behaviors with punitive “discipline.”
Whether you are the child’s attorney, CASA volunteer, teacher, therapist, or judge, the child needs to hear that you care about them. Here is my short list of ways we can all be better advocates for each child:
- Be in the moment with this child–not thinking about the next appointment, how late you are for the next case, or what you are needing to pick up from the store on your way home. This is the most important moment in this child’s day. We owe it to the child to be focused on them–they are certainly focused on you and this moment.
- Attorneys, it will require more than one virtual meeting or phone call with your child client the day before court, to build rapport, hear their story, gain their trust, and build their case. This is your job. Do it well or go into another area of practice. Your advocacy can set this child’s trajectory for success.
- Judges, you are the final arbiter, the unbiased determiner of what is in the best interests of these children. Please make time in your day for these children. You can meet virtually or in person, but meet with the children, listen to their hearts and minds–at a time that fits the children’s daily needs. Do not interrupt their school day if you can “meet” before school, after school, or at another time that will allow the children to know they are important and that their time is just as important as yours.
- Teachers, foster parents, guardians, therapists, and attorneys, read and follow the work of Dr. Bruce Perry. He admonishes us to ask, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” (“What Happened to You” by Bruce D. Perry, M.D. PhD and Oprah Winfrey, 1st Ed April, 2021).
- Caseworkers (and attorneys), think outside the parameters of “the system” and consider whether the system is working for your client. Ask yourself, “With what I know about this system, this child, and this child’s family situation, will the current (or usual) plan meet the needs of this child, ensuring this child’s ability to connect to a brighter future?”
There are no easy answers. The systems were put in place with noble intentions: to offer safety to children and consistency for professionals working with children. But sometimes, the system seems to be managing the people instead of the people working effectively within a beneficial system. We must continue to ask whether a particular system is working for a particular client. The system will continue on, certain to survive, even if your child client breaks free of it. Although many children may survive the system, consider whether there is more we can be doing to ensure that children in our care do more than survive. To survive is not enough; help them to thrive!
— Heidi Bruegel Cox is Executive Vice President & General Counsel for The Gladney Center for Adoption and is a AAAA Fellow practicing adoption law in Texas. Read more in The Gladney Blog