Children belong with their families. Who could object to this idea? But when it comes to placing children who have been abused or neglected into other homes, there is good reason to wonder whether extended family is the best option.
Maura and Don (names changed to protect their children’s privacy) welcomed their first foster child to their home in Arizona five years ago. They knew that there was a particular need for people willing to take in older children. The seven-year-old girl placed with them had been raised by her mother’s boyfriend since she was age one, but she was removed after allegations of severe abuse were substantiated. Maura was told by the child’s guardian ad litem that they were the worst allegations he had seen in his work.
Shortly thereafter, they were asked to take in the mother’s new baby. A few months later, the seven-year-old was removed from their care after it was learned that she was “plotting to kill” herself, her parents, and her baby brother. Before the baby turned one, the mother had another baby, who was also placed with Maura and Don.
When the babies were 14 months and two months old, the state’s child protective service agency announced that their biological father’s great aunt was interested in taking the children. The guardian ad litem strongly opposed the idea for a litany of reasons. The aunt had not met them and prior to that point had expressed no interest in raising either one. She had also been aware of the abuse perpetrated against the oldest daughter and did nothing to stop it or even report it to the authorities. And finally, the great aunt had acted as a foster parent to the girl’s stepfather—his extremely abusive actions toward the oldest daughter suggest that something may have gone awry in his own upbringing.
But child protective services told Maura and Don that its policy was to find a kinship placement, and so the kids would go to live with the aunt. During court proceedings, the attorney for the mother and father of the babies (who wanted the babies placed with the aunt, presumably, so they could have continued access to them) asked Don: “How could you possibly know how to raise black children when you are white?”
And so, when the children were 17 months and 5 months old, they went to live with their great aunt. Maura and Don had 24 hours to pack them up and hand them over to a relative the children did not know.
Sadly, not much about this story is uncommon. Indeed, it encapsulates many of the typical issues around kinship placement. First, it is the default option—really more of an ideological commitment—for child protective services, which often means that social workers are willing to place children with kin even if it defies common sense and much of what we know about child development.
Second, it is not uncommon for children to be placed with relatives they’ve never met before and/or relatives from other parts of the country. Third, it is not uncommon for this kind of thing to happen when children are young and have spent months or years bonding with a foster family. Finally, it is not uncommon for kids to be placed with kin who have expressed no interest in taking them up until the foster family expresses a willingness to adopt.
But if you want to really understand the origins of kinship care and why it has become embraced by the child welfare establishment, the question that Don was asked in court is a good start. The idea that children belong with people of their own race was most famously articulated by the National Association of Black Social Workers in the 1970s, but there was plenty of pushback against it at the time and afterward. The Multiethnic Placement Act subsequently barred states from considering race when determining placement for a foster child. But the racialist sentiment among child welfare workers was only pushed below the surface. And the preference for kinship placement became a more acceptable way for people to express such ideas.
All of which is to say that there are plenty of circumstances under which a relative is the best option for placing a child. But the pendulum has swung too far in this direction. And now it seems that bureaucrats are making such decisions for nefarious (perhaps even racial) reasons and without considering the potential damage to children caused by placing them with strangers in strange places who may or may not be capable of caring for them. Blood ties are not the only ties that bind.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Read Naomi's in-depth exploration of this issue, "Reconsidering Kinship Care," at National Affairs.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.