The recent family-separation drama at the U.S.-Mexican border has been heart-wrenching to watch, but some observers argue that the American foster-care system does the same thing—removing children from their biological parents and placing them with strangers. Few note, though, how often the trauma moves in the other direction: hundreds, if not thousands, of children each year are taken away from stable, loving foster families and returned to their dysfunctional biological families, or to the care of relatives incapable of caring for them, and whom they may not even know.

Some foster families care for children for years, only to have them removed when a distant relative surfaces. Consider the case of “Mia” (names changed in all but final example), who came to live with Susan and her husband in a suburb of Maricopa County, Arizona, when she was 14 months old. She weighed only 11 pounds. Born prematurely to a drug-addicted mother, Mia was originally taken in by an aunt, but more than a year after leaving the hospital, she still needed supplemental oxygen and a gastrointestinal tube for feeding. She had a large cyst on her head with an opening directly to her brain. She needed eye surgery urgently. But the aunt could not keep up with her medical needs. Child protective services removed the child from her aunt’s care after doctors reported her condition to authorities.

Susan, a former social worker who has been fostering “medically involved” children for more than 30 years, understood what she was getting into when she took Mia in. She has cared for dozens of children in fragile health and adopted seven of them. In the 500 days since she took Mia into her home, the girl has made impressive strides. She doesn’t need an oxygen tube any more, she can speak several words, and she has become part of Susan’s family. Her biological family has not expressed much concern for her; the aunt who is caring for Mia’s three older siblings has visited once.

So imagine Susan’s surprise when Mia’s caseworker at Arizona’s Department of Child Safety told her several weeks ago that she had located a distant cousin who wanted to adopt the child. The cousin, who had no previous contact with the girl and had expressed no interest in taking her in before, was preferable in the eyes of child-welfare workers because she was “kin.” Placing a child with extended family no matter what has become an article of faith among social workers. Indeed, kinship preference has become so important to child-welfare bureaucrats that they seem to have thrown everything we know about early-childhood bonding—not to mention common sense—out the window.

Amelia Franck Meyer, founder and CEO of the child-welfare nonprofit Alia, told me that family members have a biological impulse to care for one another, even if they’ve never met or are related only remotely. “We’re driven from a sociological basis to protect and prolong our gene pool,” Meyer says, expressing views that seem fairly representative of social workers.

There is little evidence that such impulses extend to second cousins. A social worker herself, Susan says that she understands the desire to keep kids with their biological families, but breaking early bonds between foster parents and young children seems crazy to her. At 56, she was not looking to take in more children permanently. Now she says that her “mama bear” is coming out. Mia “knows nothing but us.”

Mia’s case, sadly, is not unusual. In August 2016, Elizabeth and her husband, who live in Northern Arizona, took in 11-day-old baby Melissa, whose mother was addicted to drugs. She would not submit to treatment, and the state severed her rights last year. Elizabeth expressed interest in permanently adopting the baby, but two months ago the state announced that it had found a relative in the Midwest and another on the east coast willing to take her in. Melissa has never met these people; they had expressed no interest in taking her until now.

Such cases are surprisingly common. Rachel and David Schneiter of Buffalo are in court fighting to adopt their three-year-old daughter, whom they have fostered since she was only two months old, because the New York Department of Social Services thought that it would be better for the girl to be with two older brothers whom she barely knows (and who have severe behavioral problems), rather than to stay with the only caregivers she has ever known.

Fortunately for Elizabeth and Susan (and their daughters), the law in Arizona is now on their side. Governor Doug Ducey has signed legislation giving foster families the same legal standing as blood relatives when it comes to adopting kids under age three. Given the importance of the first three years for babies’ emotional and intellectual development, it’s hard to understand how child-welfare workers can justify their family policies. It’s time to follow Arizona’s lead in recognizing that children need care more than kinship.

Photo by Tim Boyles/Getty Images


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