Taste of welfare system
by Diane Redleaf
Editorial from the Chicago Tribune
July 13, 2006
Just as Hurricane Katrina gave middle-class Americans a view of poverty they were not accustomed to seeing, the recent case of the six-year old boy left by his mother gives happy-go-lucky Taste of Chicago goers a small taste for the fundamental failures of our state’s child welfare system. That system continues to fail to address homelessness, abuse, and the basic needs of children for stability in their care. It failed the boy’s mother by placing her in an abusive adoptive home. It has failed to do more than put bandages over the underlying problems of poverty and neglect that leave single-parent families and especially parents raised by the child welfare system itself– at high risk for permanently unstable lives. Now the State s immediate solution prosecuting the mother for child endangerment and potentially locking her for a good while in a jail cell promises to turn a heartbreaking story into another longer-term child welfare system failure.
The Illinois child welfare system exploded in 1993 in response to the Joseph Wallace case, when parents who ran to the grocery store and left children alone for ten minutes were seen as potential murderers who could never get their children back. Then in 1995, the system contracted radically by cutting out relative placements from its burgeoning caseloads and by instituting under-the-table custody arrangements called safety plans that require no judicial review. Under the politically brilliant leadership of Jess McDonald, DCFS privatized child welfare services and Illinois reached record high adoption levels. Illinois still-dismal record of placement stability started look like beacon of hope for system that is a national disgrace. Poverty and homelessness remained, however, not the child welfare system s problem. And abuse remains a problem that is generally recognized only when it is parents are the abusers, and more rarely seen when a favored foster parent or adoptive parent is the alleged perpetrator.
While the six-year-old boy s case is news today, his mother s case wasn t news when substitute parents the State of Illinois provided to her raised her. Her case wasn t news on the day she became homeless either, just before she left her son behind at the Taste. Her story, like that of a thousands of state wards who are not saved by the system but broken by it, resounds with poverty, homelessness and unstable relationships not the kinds of problems that make the nightly news. To any mother who has been at wits end when a young one vanishes from sight, outrage against a mother who vanishes herself, without a thought for her young son, is natural. But to break the cycle of harm the child welfare system perpetrates, anger at an irresponsible mother will not work; punishment is counterproductive.
Parents cannot be punished into becoming capable of providing stability they never knew themselves. To solve the problems the child welfare system generates, we cannot turn our backs on mothers whose sons love them despite everything wrong they do.
A new model for foster care one that supports (and houses) mothers and children together–is urgently needed. We should stop punishing mothers for the failures that the child welfare system itself has caused. If the six-year-old boy is to achieve success in life instead of what the foster care system too often promises, he needs to be supported in loving the parents he was born to, outrageous though their behavior may be. And his parents mother and father alike–need to be helped to be able to support him too.
* Diane Redleaf is a Chicago lawyer who has litigated numerous precedent-setting cases against DCFS. She is also the Executive Director of a new not-for-profit organization, the Family Defense Center, which advocates family-centered child welfare policies and practices as consistent with children s best interests. Diane L. Redleaf, The Redleaf Law Firm & The Family Defense Center Chicago