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May 2020Vol. 21, No. 4How to Fight Loneliness

Written by Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney, Family Advocacy Unit, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Recently, and especially during this time of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been increasing attention paid to the very real threat of loneliness within our families and communities. Loneliness has been linked to catastrophic public health outcomes, including fatality, and may be more harmful to a person's health than smoking or obesity. Despite this, our child welfare system has been slow to respond to, and in many ways creates and exacerbates, the serious threat of loneliness facing our families.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our traditional approach to foster and birth family relationships. Although over the past several years we've begun to move the needle in my own city, the reality for so many parents and children across the country is a pattern of child welfare interventions that separate families and compound the effects of trauma, grief, and isolation by depriving them of the one thing that might help them cope: connection.

The "traditional" approach to family connection in the child welfare system has been to (1) "save" a child from a "problematic" birth parent by separating the family; (2) place the child with a "good" foster family; (3) provide the "problematic" parent limited family time with their child in the most artificial environment possible (i.e., a visiting room at a child welfare agency); (4) discourage, limit, or prohibit contact between birth and foster parents; and (5) in the best case scenario, reunify a child with their birth parents, cutting off any loving bonds that the child has formed with the foster family. Time and again, this story repeats itself in child welfare cases. I would submit that this is a perfect recipe for isolation and suffering for parents, foster parents, and, most of all, the child.

Early in my career, I represented a mother whose experience demonstrated to me the harms of this traditional approach to foster parent and birth parent relationships. My client, Denise, was incarcerated when she gave birth to her daughter, Autumn. Autumn was immediately placed with a foster family, who was promised that this case would move quickly to permanency through adoption. Denise was given minimal visitation and contact with Autumn and was never introduced to the foster family. Denise worked hard to accomplish her goals, and the foster family became upset as the case progressed toward reunification. They appeared at court to fight against reunification, refusing to speak to or even look at Denise. They even hired their own counsel to come to court to argue that Denise could never be a fit mother. At the end of some contentious litigation, Autumn and Denise were reunified.

Understandably, Autumn's foster parents experienced tremendous grief and loss when Autumn went home to her mother. They reached out to Denise and asked if they could visit with Autumn, and Denise asked for my advice. On the one hand, these foster parents had been incredibly hostile to her for months on end and tried to take away forever the most precious thing in her life. On the other hand, Autumn loved them, and Denise didn't want to take any love away from her daughter. In one of the most loving acts of grace and selflessness I've ever witnessed in my career, Denise decided to open the door to contact between Autumn and her foster parents. Years later, I heard from Denise and learned that the foster parents had become family. Autumn visited with them often, and a true and supportive friendship grew between Denise and the foster parents.

Somehow Denise knew what our system too often encourages us to ignore: there is no such thing as too many loving, supportive connections in a child's life. I think a lot about how often we ignore this truth and the costs to our families of doing so.

Although this case had a happy ending, there was so much needless suffering along the way. What if the foster parents had been taught that fostering a child means fostering her family and providing support to make the family whole? What if they had been trained to understand that although Denise was struggling, she loved Autumn every bit as much as they did and that Autumn's well-being was profoundly linked to Denise's success? What if they had hosted Denise in their home for visits, so that she could practice skills like feeding and putting her baby to sleep in a natural environment? What if Denise and the foster parents talked every day about how Autumn was doing and how they could, together, ensure that she was thriving?

There are so many caring professionals in child welfare right now, professionals who are reimagining foster care as a support rather than a substitute for family. These caring professionals are showing us what we would do if we truly prioritized well-being for children: First and foremost, we would radically redefine child well-being to mean not just more services but rather more meaningful connections. We would provide intensive and tailored supports to families to avoid the trauma and grief of family separation. When a child could not stay safely at home, we would look urgently for the "most connected placement" for each child, starting with kinship care. When kinship care is not possible, we would work to build that most connected placement by nurturing connections and collaboration among everyone who loves the child, including her parents, relatives, and foster family. We would understand that as human beings, we all share an essential need to connect to our own families and that caring about the well-being of a child means honoring this need.

This time has shown just how creative we can be in supporting family connections. As we face new and previously unimaginable barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are giving foster and birth parents phones, tablets, and Wi-Fi and asking them to use services like Google Voice and Zoom to keep in touch. My hope for all our families is that we bring this creativity with us as we emerge from this crisis and create a new normal that considers collaboration between foster and birth parents as an essential pillar of child well-being.