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February 16, 2020

ABA Family integrity policy in action: Foster care

The American Bar Association believes that children and parents have legal rights to family integrity and family unity and adopted policy in 2019 to support it.

At the association’s Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, the ABA Center on Children and the Law sponsored a program on Feb. 14 as part of the Defending Liberty Pursuing Justice Summit titled “What Do Eddie Murphy, Marilyn Monroe and Steve Jobs Have in Common? The U.S. Foster Care System,” which focused on ways to help the legal profession implement the ABA’s family integrity policy.

The ABA policy grew out of three recent developments in the field. First, federal litigation challenging family separation of immigrants at the U.S. border brought increased focus on applying child welfare laws in federal litigation across the country.

Second, the 2018 “Family First Preservation Services Act” changed child welfare funding structures and emphasized the overall importance of children’s connections to family, including birth parents, kin, siblings and foster families. 

And third, the federal government updated the Child Welfare Policy Manual of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allow states to use federal funding to pay part of the cost of providing children and parents with legal counsel in child welfare and dependency cases.

All three of these developments have led to a greater promotion of maintaining family integrity. The ABA policy sets forth several principles to address a child’s rights as they pertain to family unity and integrity. These include:

  • Children and parents have rights to family integrity and family unity. 
  • Children’s separation from parents and primary caregivers can produce trauma.
  •  Prevention services, including legal services, can ensure children’s safety without removing them from their families.
  •  Government may interfere with children and parents’ rights to family integrity when necessary for the child’s health, safety and well-being.
  • • Decisions to separate a child from a parent to protect health, safety and well-being are subject to state and tribal authorities.
  • When children are in foster care, family connections should be safely maintained and supported with parents, kin and siblings throughout the duration of the case.

The panel, moderated by Prudence Beidler Carr, director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, explored the purpose of the foster care system and the protections that children are entitled to have. Carr emphasized that foster care is always supposed to act as a temporary bridge to the ultimate goal of family reunification. She said that occurs in 50% of cases.

Carr also summarized the very different foster care experiences of the three people in the title of the program. Steve Jobs’ parents were unwed graduate students in 1955 who put him up for adoption. He spent a short time in foster care before his adoptive parents took him in. Later in life, Jobs was reunited with a younger biological sister.

Eddie Murphy and his older brother Charlie were placed together in foster care for a year after their mother became ill and could not care for them. They were later both reunited with their mother.

Marilyn Monroe had a mother with mental illness and went from foster home to foster home, some with relatives and some not, throughout her childhood. She eventually aged out of the system.

The three stories highlight the different experiences that children go through in the foster system. As Michael Dsida of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services pointed out, the size of the system is enormous with almost half a million children in it at any time and hundreds of thousands of kids cycling in and out of it each year.

Dsida stressed the importance of being aware of the trauma experienced by children when separated from their family. There are real medical implications and a disruption of development. It was pointed out that in some cases, removal is warranted and necessary, but the real, long-term trauma associated with separation should always be weighed against any dangers with keeping the child in place.

Dafna Gozani of National Center for Youth Law went through the various stakeholders in the system (child, parent, caregiver) and the rights each have. She stressed that it is important to always consider the rights of the child in the process.

Conditions such as poverty need to be looked at differently in removal proceedings. Is the reason for action based on parenting or poverty? In many cases, it is more expensive to remove the child then to provide some financial assistance to the family.

Brenda Robinson of the Children’s Law Center of California said that if government is to intervene in a case, three questions should be asked: Why is government intervention necessary? Is there a need for removal from the parents? Are there any relatives available who can take the child?

There should be no rush to remove a child from their parents if there is not a pressing need.

The trauma caused by child removal was stressed by the panel as was the positive results of stability for the child. Staying in their own community, or their own school, especially if there is a relative available to help should always be the goal. Keeping siblings together, as the Murphy brothers were, is also a goal.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case despite a federal law that requires all child welfare agencies seek to place siblings together. Consistent contact with family members, whether it is family time visits with parents or placement with siblings is strongly associated with the outcome of family reunion.

The child welfare system is large and, unfortunately necessary in today’s society. A study by researchers at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, revealed that 37% of U.S. children prior to their 18th birthday is the subject of an investigated child neglect and abuse report. For black children, the number is 53%.

That is a large number of children and families. Considering the possible trauma caused by separation, it is imperative that every effort to maintain family integrity and unity is attempted.