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January 2021Vol. 22, No. 1Securing and Restoring the Family Is in the Child's Best Interests

Written by Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel, Legal Services of New Jersey, Edison, NJ  

The child welfare system needs to commit to the basic and simple principle that securing and supporting families and avoiding removal of children in all cases, except for egregious circumstances, is in the child's best interests. I have a case now where a mom named Anne is struggling with drug addiction and housing instability. She has a 17-year-old son, Jon, who has Down syndrome. During the day, they move from park to park, while in the evenings, they seek help from friends and family for a place to sleep. Jon has been with his mother his whole life. He only knows life with his mother, and although they are living in extreme poverty, he has been able to attend school in person or virtually with her. They have been able to get food and other forms of assistance from friends, family, and food stamps. Jon calls his mom his best friend and refuses to let go of her hand in front of strangers. The agency has been seeking to remove Jon from his mother instead of paying for a shelter or a hotel for them to stay in together. If he were to be removed, the agency would find it difficult to place him in a long-term foster placement. He either would move from foster home to foster home or be placed in a residential treatment center out of state where it would be difficult to have visitation with his mother and kin. He would then age out of the system. The alternative to the agency plan is to support Anne and Jon as a family unit, place them in a shelter or hotel together, assist with housing and welfare benefits, and provide the entire family with treatment services. Living in poverty and struggling with locating housing and appropriate treatments has definitely been difficult for Jon and Anne. However, the alternative—the removal and separation of Jon from his mother—will likely be much more devastating and traumatic for both of them. Besides losing her son to the system, Anne will lose access to family services and entitlements as she will now be considered as a single adult instead of a mother-and-child unit. There will be limited options for care and support for Jon as a young disabled adult who has aged out of the system. How will Jon be able to support himself?  

Data and research show that taking a child from their parents is perhaps the most traumatic intervention we can impose on children and should be avoided when possible. We also know from the experiences of children who were removed and reunited with their parents that the actual separation, stranger foster placements, and time away from their parents were the most difficult periods in their lives. Created in the spring of 2020, Legal Services of New Jersey's Reunified Youth Foster Forum gives youth formerly in foster care an opportunity to share their unique perspective on the needs of youth while in foster care, in particular what they believe families need to prevent unnecessary removals and expedite reunifications. These youth successfully reunified with their families after traumatic removals, after spending years in different stranger foster placements and experiencing limited visits with their parents and siblings while in foster care. They emphasize the importance of keeping families together and working toward swift reunifications in cases of removal.

One youth, Indira, who entered foster care when she was 13, said the following on the importance of family reunification: "Reunification is what I wished for during my time in foster care. It was painful being separated from my siblings and my mother, and it hurt me trying to hold on to that hope that I had of being reunified with my family." Indira stressed that her mother was not supported by the agency and was shamed for her depression by the court system and caseworkers. She also identified how not having the "perfect house" delayed reunification and that the agency would not financially assist her mother to locate a home for her and her siblings. Why can't state agencies provide direct funding for concrete services to assist in reunification? In New Jersey, statutes provide and fully empower the agency to assist with housing for parents and other needs to expedite reunification. However, this does not occur in practice because there is no shift to make securing the entire family a priority. To remove a child first, and only later assist the parent and child separately, fails the entire family.

In the last few years, there has been an effort for more prevention and support and less removal from homes and entry into foster care. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 aims to push funding in that direction. We know that in cases where there are no safety concerns, children are far better off staying with their families than entering foster care. Studies show that children in foster care who age out face extreme hardships, including homelessness, mental health concerns, and addiction, among many other issues.

Post-foster care life is in dire need of solutions to better assist youth who have aged out. One of our reunified youths, Titus, explained he would like "the system to understand what they put children through when they separate them from their families. They need to understand what it is like to separate kids from their parents without providing communication or telling children what is happening." He also believes he should never have been taken and that it took too long to return home.

After removal, children and parents continue to be apart physically for most of the time of the case. Parents and children have different case plans and are on distinct and separate service tracks. For example, in most places, stranger foster parents never meet the birth parents never meet nor assist with visitation or family time. After removal, parents are not typically included in their children's medical appointments while they are in foster care, nor are they involved in their children's school meetings. Parents are not included in the child's daily activities nor involved in any decision-making. The parent's input is not considered nor deemed relevant to their children while they are in foster care. The current system is engineered to separate, not unify and support, families.

In making a shift, we must transition from a surveillance agency narrative to a secure and restore narrative for both parents and children. Children should not be removed from their homes, families, and communities because they are poor nor should they remain separated while the parent is expected to resolve their multigenerational impoverished situation on their own. Yet the current agency surveillance system often lacks the tools to address the root causes of poverty and instead treats those causes with the label of neglect that deepens families' inability to escape from poverty because agency findings can limit employment opportunities. The current system needs to help treat conditions of poverty with individualized services and benefits and eliminate the risk of separation that poor children and families currently face simply because they are poor. Agencies have an affirmative duty to secure families with concrete services that can assist with housing instability and access to mental health and substance use programs without resorting to removal first and then address poverty issues for purposes of reunification. We must transition our child protection agency to an actual family well-being agency and require agencies to provide access to basic needs like housing and medical access.