The nation's foster care system has given rise to an unnoticed and deeply troubling reality: not only has it accepted the inevitability of legions of abused and neglected children, but it has made them into an integral part of the inner-city economy. For every child put into foster care, the foster family—which may be complete strangers or only a slightly different configuration of the child's birth family—gets a subsidy two to three times larger than what ordinary welfare pays. Whole communities of grandmothers are living on the money they receive for their abused or neglected grandchildren. Welfare advocates treat foster care payments as just another routine way to pump government money into troubled neighborhoods.
Two vast, obdurate realities fuel this foster care economy. First is drugs. One recent study of foster care in New York City found that about three-quarters of the birth mothers abused drugs. Some 24 percent of children in foster care in the city are born with drugs in their system, a number likely to grow if the national trend of increasing births to crack-addicted, impoverished mothers continues. Mothers waiting for their cases to be heard in family court sometimes nod off or disappear from the courthouse to score.
The other overwhelming fact of the foster care economy is the explosion of the traditional two-parent home into a dizzying array of intersecting family fragments. Family court is where the worst problems of our post-marriage era reach their nadir. Any single-mother household in the system most likely has several different biological fathers attached to it, and each of those fathers probably has children across the city with several different mothers. The mantra of the foster care functionaries is "family preservation"—maintaining children with their abusive or neglectful parents whenever possible. Yet to speak of "family preservation" in this context is fanciful; which combination of fathers and mothers and half-siblings should we demarcate as the family unit? Though married couples are not absent from family court, they are not common; a 1989 British study found that coming from a single-parent home was the most significant risk factor for a child's admission to foster care.
Rather than working to ameliorate these hard realities, the foster care system runs a great risk of enabling them. It allows families to accommodate, and even profit from, their dysfunctions. Self-appointed children's advocates further normalize the culture of single parenting by refusing to make it an issue in children's welfare. The following stories from Manhattan's Family Court illustrate how entrenched foster care has become in certain communities (in Central Harlem, for example, one out of ten children is in care), how rational the calculations of people benefiting from the system can be, and how far the system is from securing the welfare of the children it supposedly exists to save.
"What else would you want them for?" snorts Lucille Murray, in response to the question whether she thinks grandmothers seek foster custody of their grandchildren for the foster care payments. The petite Murray, sporting white tennis shoes and a black straw bowler with a bow, has just emerged from Family Court, seeking to wrest custody of two of her grandchildren (along with the attendant foster care payments) away from their maternal grandmother, with whom they are now living. The mother of these two children, Marla Wish, is "one of those street girls," according to Murray—an appellation that embraces a host of possible wrongdoing, from drug use and child abandonment to prostitution and theft.
Wrongdoing seems evident enough when Murray's son Robert and Marla enter the courtroom in handcuffs, roughly shoved along by prison guards. Robert has been in Rikers since 1996, on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. During the hearing, Marla, razor-thin and wiry, sat mute, her chin tucked low into her gray Guess sweatshirt, her eyes raised warily toward the judge. Next to her sat her mother, who, all told, has four of Marla's children in her care. Robert has another child himself, by another woman.
The case, like virtually all in the Family Court, is impossibly complicated, defying the ability even of the judge to disentangle. The parties present a welter of contradictory petitions to, and custody rulings from, courts in three boroughs, applying to an array of children by various fathers and mothers. Merely trying to figure out where Robert and Marla's two children have been over the years is taxing; the maternal and paternal grandmothers both claim that they have been caring for them. The judge adjourns the hearing without a resolution (like most Family Court hearings), and the case reenters Family Court limbo.
Outside the courtroom, Murray, barely articulate in court, comments on her opponents. "Her daughter and her cooked this up," she sniffs. "They never done anything for [the children], but they're using them for this welfare thing." Murray claims she found burn marks on the children after they were in their other grandmother's care. How do you know that their motivation is financial? I ask. "How could she live without it?" Murray replies. She laughs. "My friends are having a ball with that money and their grandchildren; they're going all over the world. They want that money! If you get the foster children, you get big bucks, you can buy nice clothes. They get the opportunity to go places they never went. They all get food stamps," she adds.
A caseworker at a large foster agency confirms Murray's economic analysis. "For people on public assistance, $500 a month [a typical per-child foster care payment] is a lot of money," she says. "They're not using it totally on the kids. If Section 8 pays for housing, and you're getting public assistance—which is not taxed—you can't spend $500 a month on food. They don't pay for the children's clothing or their medical needs, and we reimburse transportation." If the children are disabled or emotionally disturbed, monthly payments can reach $800 a month. The caseworker recalls a grandmother with five grandchildren who collected $3,000 a month for three years, while living in a "disgusting apartment in a scary building." Thereafter, she bought a beautiful town house, cash down. Another caseworker tells of foster parents under her supervision who have never had a job but who have a Jeep Cherokee and a house in the South. "It's an industry for quite poor people," she concludes.
The Murrays and the Wishes (pseudonyms, like all the names of aid recipients in this story) demonstrate how easily kinship foster care, a humane idea, can produce serious unintended consequences. Kinship care—which child-welfare authorities must try to arrange before finding unrelated foster parents, if at all possible—is meant to decrease the trauma for a child removed from his mother, and undoubtedly it often does so. But it has also become a major financial support system, perversely turning the production of neglected children into a family business. (Relatives receive the same foster care payments as unrelated foster parents.) Children remain in kinship foster care much longer and are less likely to be adopted than children placed with unrelated families, suggesting a possible perverse incentive structure. Poverty advocates well understand the economic role of kinship care in underwriting poor communities. Any sign of flagging kinship-placement rates produces cries of alarm; advocates managed to exempt kinship foster care from the time limits in a recent federal foster care reform bill, thus preserving it as an open-ended entitlement.
By no means do all families see kinship care as a financial opportunity. I spoke with many families in Manhattan's Family Court whose all-consuming goal was to get a troubled relative and her children out of "the system" and into their unsubsidized care as soon as possible. But enough families treat foster care as a subsidy that policy makers had better start paying attention.
Olivia Darwin views foster care as an entitlement. "I haven't been this pissed off in a long time," she fumes, as we go swooping toward the courthouse elevator banks. A strongly built, forceful woman of 50 with short-cropped hair, Darwin is angry because the city won't put her youngest grandchild, aged three, "on the system." She already gets foster care payments for her 11- and 12-year-old grandchildren, whom she has had all their lives. She is in the process of adopting those two children but admits she may not be doing her part: "They [the city] want medicals so often, it's nonsense." (Foster care workers complain bitterly about the difficulty of getting relatives to comply with foster care requirements, especially medical exams.) Darwin's daughter has two other children who have been placed outside the family. But the three-year-old, with Darwin since she was six months old, is in a legal no-man's-land, since the city did not officially place her with Darwin.
Now Darwin faces a dilemma. Though she once worked briefly in construction in order to qualify for a HUD-subsidized house, she now gets home relief, the welfare program for childless adults, and food stamps (in addition to the foster care payments), and in return the city wants her to do workfare. She is refusing, on the grounds that she has her three-year-old grandchild at home and should be exempt. As Darwin tells it, the city says that if she puts the child on AFDC—Aid to families with dependent children—she would be exempted from workfare, but she is holding out for the far higher foster care payments. She has been to eight disciplinary hearings in the past three months over her failure to do workfare.
Her daughter is "on the street" but not out of touch. Does Darwin see her? "Of course I see her!" Darwin shoots back, incredulous at so foolish a question. Such maternal visits almost certainly violate the foster care agreement that put the two older children in Darwin's care. Darwin won't be seeing her daughter for a few months, however, since the daughter just got sentenced to a year. For what? "Whatever she does to support her habit." In the meantime, Darwin won't be accelerating the adoption process; she knows of too many people, she says, who stopped receiving payments once they adopted.
Darwin's open-door policy toward her drug-addicted daughter is typical in kin cases. Caseworkers despair of keeping the mother, who may still be dangerously abusive, away from her children when they are placed with relatives. Sometimes the living arrangements make contact inevitable. A lanky, heartbreakingly passive 19-year-old, sitting listlessly on the ninth floor of the courthouse, has been in foster care with his grandmother, along with his brother, since he was one. He has apparently fallen through the system's cracks, for at his age, unless he is in college or a training program, he should no longer be in foster care. Still in the tenth grade, the boy sports a sapphire stud in his ear and a beeper. His two cousins also live with his grandmother, who apparently has a propensity for raising troubled children. His mother visits every day, since she lives "next door, just around the hall," he says; his aunt—the mother of the two cousins he lives with—also visits regularly. "It don't matter who you live with, your mother or your grandmother," he says, summing up the de facto policy in many kin cases.
The prize for efficient and profitable use of the porous boundaries in kin cases surely belongs to the Rodriguez family: Ann Rodriguez, in her mid-forties; her three daughters, Janet (26), Marisol (19), and Pia (16); and three illegitimate grandchildren, including Marisol's 18-month-old daughter. Ann and Marisol are in court for Marisol's yearly extension-of-placement hearing. For the past six years, the outgoing Marisol, her baby, and her younger sister have officially been in the kinship foster care of the older sister, Janet. But while Janet has been collecting $1,400 a month in foster care payments, along with federal Section 8 housing vouchers for a three-bedroom, $1,200-a-month duplex apartment big enough to house herself, the two girls, and the baby, the girls have actually been living in their mother's East New York studio apartment, along with the baby. Janet, seizing the opportunity, has been renting out the room supposed to be Marisol's. The family splits up the foster care money according to an elaborate system of internal payments that also draws on a diverse pool of additional welfare benefits, from AIDS money to food coupons for infants.
However orderly its current internal trading system, the family has a highly troubled, taxpayer-subsidized history. Ann, the matriarch, has used drugs since she was 12 and is now on methadone. Small, high-strung, and good-natured, with two sandy braids down to her waist, Ann has lost most of her teeth to the addict's life, which has also left her with HIV and hepatitis C. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, she recalls, her husband—now dead—"was shooting heroin like a bandit," as was she. Nevertheless, she was working for the Transit Authority while illegally collecting $500 a month in welfare and food stamps.
Around 1990, the family lost its apartment and ended up traveling from shelter to shelter. Ann's husband ran away but returned; the city rewarded the newly reunited couple with a five-bedroom subsidized apartment in Harlem. The husband was getting Supplemental Security Income payments for AIDS, while Ann was still collecting welfare. "I told him: _When your money comes, we can party; when my money comes, that goes into the house,_" Ann recalls. The family rented out rooms in their subsidized apartment to drug dealers for $50 a week. She maintains that she and her husband shot up and smoked crack only when the children were in school or in bed—unlikely but, even if true, hardly adequate to protect the children.
Ann kept going to jail on shoplifting charges and thought she had an understanding with the oldest daughter, Janet, about child care while she was gone. "I would tell her before I went in," she says, "to take the kids and put them on AFDC"—for which Janet would have been eligible as the girls' non-foster caretaker. In this way, Ann hoped to avoid charges of abandonment and potential loss of parental rights. She undoubtedly didn't grasp the financial superiority of kinship foster care over AFDC at that point.
Ann believes that Janet betrayed her. She claims that during one of her prison stints six years ago, Janet reported her to the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) as a drug addict, so that she could get foster care payments for the girls. "Janet knows the advantages of foster care," Marisol breaks in; "she involved ACS because of the money." Ann and Marisol were adamant that Janet not know that they had spoken to me, so I have not confirmed their tale.
For a while after Janet gained foster custody of the girls, Ann, back on the streets, lost contact with all three. Then, about three years ago, Ann's husband died, and Marisol, shaken by the loss of her father, started drinking, stopped going to school, and tried to commit suicide. She entered Payne Whitney psychiatric institute, was put on Prozac, and was discharged to a group home rather than to her sister's. "The group home wasn't bad," she recalls. "They had a closer leash on me—they made sure I made and kept appointments, because these were foster parents, not my family." But Marisol grew homesick, and besides, she says, people at the group home were stealing from her. She went AWOL and returned to her sister. "No one came looking for me," she laughs, with her customary broad smile. "I called my foster care worker and said: ‘I'm not at the group home, you know.’"
The agency, a Jewish foster care organization, never investigated when Marisol's younger sister, Pia, dropped out of high school, either. Janet's supervision of Pia was almost equally lax. Pia began selling drugs. Her mother blames Janet's poor oversight: "Janet would ask her to do errands, instead of going to school, and she would do drugs." Is she using drugs now that she's back with you? I ask. "Nah," Ann responds, then qualifies her answer. "If she is, it's not like before, when she wouldn't look me in the eye."
In January 1995, Ann, still shooting heroin, got arrested again and learned she had HIV. The good news: she became eligible for the city's Division of AIDS Services' (DAS) welfare programs. DAS found her a series of apartments, rent-free, including her current $553-a-month studio; it also provides her with $120 a month in food stamps and almost $300 a month in cash.
A year or so thereafter, Janet started demanding that Marisol cook and clean for Janet's six-year-old daughter. "'I'm not going for this,' I said," Marisol explains. She moved in with her mother. Pia eventually came, too. The arrangement is highly illegal; besides the fraud of Janet's taking foster care payments for sisters no longer in her care, the girls are not even supposed to visit their mother without agency supervision. Now Pia wants to move back in with Janet, but Janet says she has no space because of her paying lodger. "She's on that system good," marvels Ann. "But she's not a criminal. If she was criminal-minded, she could really make out." It's hard to imagine what further advantage of the foster care system she could take, however.
With the girls at Ann's, the family has developed its own internal economy. Janet gives Marisol and Pia $350 a month each—half of the foster care payments—out of which they give their mother $20 a week for baby-sitting and $40 a month for the phone and food. Janet also gives Ann $40 a month for baby-sitting her six-year-old daughter.
Ann was baby-sitting her three granddaughters—by Janet, Marisol, and a 30-year-old son—when I visited her one October Sunday in her studio. Janet was at her job as a restaurant manager; Marisol and Pia at their jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The apartment building sits on a wide East New York avenue, next to a high school with a verdant lawn. The entry door is broken; a liquor bottle litters the stairway.
Ann, in shorts and a striped tank top, is making frozen waffles and bacon for her grandchildren in a toaster oven on a card table by the entrance. The children bounce on the two big beds while the TV blares. When the girls become too rambunctious, Ann shouts: "Don't disrespect me, please!" The apartment, though cluttered, appears clean. Boxes and folded comforters are piled up against the walls; a tall, mirrored chest of drawers draped with a Puerto Rican flag separates the two beds, near which hangs a framed and decorated poem: "Before love blooms/ It gets its start/ deep within a mother's heart."
While Ann serves the children at a brightly colored plastic baby table, she explains her most important role in the family economy: as a gofer for federal entitlements. She does the footwork for recertifying Janet for Section 8, providing the necessary documentation proving the (fictitious) continued presence of the three girls with Janet. Ann also takes Marisol's baby in for lead testing, so as to qualify her for the federal Women's, Infant, and Children (WIC) supplemental food program. Marisol is "too lazy" to take her, Ann gripes. Ann made Marisol sign up for WIC, she explains, because "we can't afford milk"—in spite of the household's monthly cash income of $1,120.
Marisol's infant bites Janet's daughter on the eye, and Ann starts in on Marisol's other failings toward her daughter. She has procrastinated about having her daughter's eyes checked, Ann says, and now she has misplaced her Medicaid card, so she can't get an appointment. Ann also blames her for sleeping through her baby's crying. "One morning the baby had a mouthful of cat food," she recalls. Now, Ann might not seem like the right person to cast the first stone regarding child rearing, but the family has a penchant for recriminations, especially regarding their foster care entitlements. Marisol blames Janet for ignoring her and Pia's medical rights: "[As foster children,] we have medical requirements, such as eye exams, and my sister is supposed to get braces. But Janet doesn't follow up." Ann blames Janet for buying the girls cheap and shoddy clothes with the foster care clothing allowance.
But despite the sniping, the family seems to have achieved some measure of stability. In the courthouse for Marisol's 12-month extension-of-placement hearing, Ann and her daughter conspiratorially mock the counseling sessions they are required to attend before Ann can officially get her daughters back. "We're not therapy people," Marisol says, rolling her eyes. When Ann throws a fit after learning that their case has been put off for the next day—an all-too-frequent affront to families in the system—Marisol maternally tries to calm her down. "They're watching you, Mommy; you're not helping your case," she says, adding to me, "They say she's argumentative." Ann keeps screaming in a high-pitched voice that the system is not meeting her needs.
Even so, the family is in no hurry to get out of it. "I'm dependent on money from my sister; my sister is dependent on that money, too," Marisol explains. If Marisol were to leave foster care and go on AFDC, she would get $220 in cash a month, less than she is now making on the system. Their city overseers are in no hurry, either. There is a winking acknowledgment among them of the illegal living arrangements, according to Marisol. Marisol's government-funded law guardian has told her: "_You want to live with your mother, right, so why not sign this 12-month extension and not rock the boat?_" Marisol has answered the phone twice when her social worker called her mother's house; the worker told her to go back to Janet's but has not followed up on the order.
Ann never made it to the rescheduled placement hearing the day after their case had been adjourned. "When I go through stress, my body hurts," she explains several weeks later, "so I couldn't get up. I said to myself, _Let me go to the [methadone] program first._" By the time she got to court, she had missed the hearing. It has been rescheduled yet again—along with hundreds of other hearings for which the parties never show.
Now, as dysfunctional families go, there are undoubtedly worse ones in the foster care system than this one. I heard no evidence that the parents had physically or sexually abused the girls. And to varying degrees, the girls seem to have landed on their feet more than would have been expected. Nevertheless, as I left Ann's apartment, I saw a troubling sign that the cycle may be repeating itself. Janet's six-year-old daughter, who had been quietly drawing, gave me a poem she had written and cut out in a diamond shape:
my mom is like witch
my granma is glad
my mom is scary
I loue [sic] granma and my mom
This family's rigorous calculations are typical; people on welfare, including foster care, are as painstaking as anyone else in weighing their options. Nor is the family's current defrauding of the foster care system unique; overworked or indifferent social workers regularly turn a blind eye to major rule violations in kinship and non-kinship cases. But the kinship system is especially difficult to police, given the blood ties between the birth parent and the foster parent. While thousands of upright kin foster parents are saving their relatives' lives, policy makers must more seriously balance the risks of placing children with their relatives against the advantages. As University of Pennsylvania child-abuse expert Richard Gelles explains, kinship care requires a suspension of academic knowledge regarding the intergenerational transfer of dysfunctionality.
Here in Family Court, the parents of a toddler now in non-kinship foster care illustrate the difficulties of reconstructing family in the post-marriage era—difficulties the foster care system does nothing to address. The mother is in the stairwell of the court, cursing, furiously smoking (despite the NO SMOKING signs), and stomping back and forth, while a sweet-faced caseworker tries to quiet her. "I'm going to get some reefer," the woman threatens. She is small, thin, and toothless; her short hair is tightly waved. She produces a photo of her toddler son; her seven other children, she says, with considerable poetic license, are dead—meaning, in foster care or adopted.
Moments earlier, the judge had been about to grant her visitation rights to this latest son, when she flew into a rage in court. Wholly taken aback, the judge withdrew her order and instead required the woman's attendance at an outpatient drug program and anger-management classes for six months. She also slapped an order of protection against her for the father of her son.
The father, John, is in court, too. He is a walking compendium of excuses not to marry. Tall and gentle mannered, with a diamond stud in his tooth, he shakes his head at his previous lover's behavior. She once brought a four-foot snake with her to an agency-supervised visit with her son, he recalls, scaring everyone—her son included. Do you intend to marry her? I ask. "Oh, no-o-o!" he laughs, tickled by the preposterousness of the idea. He had been trying to meet her girlfriend at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, he recounts, but ended up twice having sexual intercourse with her instead. "When I met her," he explains ruefully, "she was not on drugs, and she had teeth." Besides, he has three other kids already, by another two women. The mother of his 17-year-old daughter is dead of asthma, and "it's too late" to marry the mother of his other two sons, he assures me. "We knew each other from high school, and we've gone our own way. Now she's stable with who she's got—although her sons don't like him. But it's not up to them," he adds philosophically, echoing the self-justifications of divorced and remarried parents.
Though two of John's children are in foster care, he still considers himself a good father. "At all times I have had a connection with my children," he boasts. His daughter had been placed in foster care first with her half-sister (by another father); now she is in a non-kin foster home. To his disappointment, she refused to visit him in prison, where he spent several years of his early thirties. Now 37, he has been out for two years and clean for three, he says. He thinks he has patched everything together: "The proudest day of my life was my birthday party; all my children came, and my daughter accepted my sons."
John is presently living at a new girlfriend's apartment but assumes this current relationship is not permanent: "We could have a fight," he says, matter-of-factly. With any luck, that relationship will not produce a fifth child. He expects the city to get him an apartment for himself, so he can get custody of his youngest son, the toddler at issue in today's Family Court proceeding.
Perhaps John, currently working as a mechanic, will prove a responsible father, if granted custody. His effort to retain contact with his children is, sadly, unusual. But he lives in a world where expectations for fatherhood are abysmally low, where the marriage norm is nonexistent, and, as a consequence, where having a few children of assorted parentages in foster care is not particularly unusual. By contrast, if John had settled down and gotten married to his first paramour, the chances that half his progeny would be in foster care would be eight times less, according to a study in the British Journal of Social Work.
Child-welfare advocates are almost universally unconcerned about the marriage meltdown's impact on children. Ask if the two-parent family is important to child welfare, and they'll give you a breathtaking collection of excuses and evasions. Equivocates Nilofer Ahsan of the Family Resource Coalition in Chicago, for instance: "It's very important for parents to have the support they need when raising a baby. Having two parents of course makes that easier, but it is not the only solution to a set of problems." Equivocates Betsy Rosenbaum of the American Public Human Services Association: "There's a general issue in child welfare that kids do better in families, rather than raised by the state, but what a family is, is open to a lot of interpretation." Equivocates influential New York City child-welfare advocate John Courtney: "I think marriage needs to be looked at in terms of modern society; it's not the legal and religious fact it once was. That does not mean I advocate having no regard for the relations and people present in the home that can care for children. . . . The idealized concept of the two-parent family is not happening today."
Given these pervasive apologetics for social breakdown, a recent federal foster care reform act faces an uphill battle. The law aims to shorten the length of time children spend in foster care, and to eliminate the worst abuses of "family preservation." Yet even if the law achieves its goals, the foster care economy will be dented, not dismantled. As long as drug use and out-of-wedlock childbearing remain high, children will continue to need out-of-home care. But foster care, whether kin or not, often merely moves children from one troubled home and community to another.
The new federal bill rightly promotes adoption to end the foster care musical-chair game. But not all children can be successfully adopted. Nationally, nearly 25 percent of at-risk adoptions are terminated, according to the Child Welfare League of America. In her 1997 book, The Limits of Hope, Ann Kimble Loux gives a sorrowful account of adopting two very young, seriously abused sisters. Despite the loving midwestern family she offered them, the girls sank into delinquency, school failure, pregnancy, drug abuse, and prostitution. Loux concludes that, for disturbed children, a home is not necessarily the ideal salve; a boarding school or group home that does not make emotional demands that the children are unable to fulfill may be the one environment where they can thrive.
Minnesota has recognized this unwelcome truth and has begun to create stable, academically rigorous boarding academies for children from dysfunctional families. The tuition and board, estimated at $18,000 to $20,000 annually, will be paid with money already allocated for a child's public school, foster care, or other social services. New York should emulate this idea quickly.
The advocates will loudly object that, instead of building "orphanages," we should keep the money in the foster care economy. New York's leaders should respond: no government parenting or early-childhood intervention program has ever been shown to make a lasting difference in inner-city children's lives, even when those children do not have parents that abuse and neglect them. The notion that more parental services will solve the problems of the city's most unfortunate children is nothing but politics. For example, even if the city were to beef up its drug treatment services—a major demand of parent advocates—no one knows if many more mothers with kids in foster care would use them: currently, 68 percent of such mothers provided with drug treatment fail to cooperate. Rigorous and well-managed boarding schools, by contrast, could give the children of these mothers a fighting chance of success.
For babies born with drugs in their systems, the government's response should be much more child protective. Currently, New York City may not initiate a case for child neglect or abuse if a child is born with positive toxicity but must send the child home with its addict mother. This policy, mandated by a court ruling and a Cuomo-era regulation, is breathtakingly foolish. It sends the message to drug addicts that the state considers them—not their children—helpless victims, unable to avoid either pregnancy or drug abuse while pregnant. And by sending babies home with their coke-addicted mothers, the state is guaranteeing their further developmental impairment. A woman who gives birth to a positive-toxicity or fetal-alcohol-syndrome baby should be presumed unfit, or at least deemed to have abused her child for purposes of foster care placement. If her parental rights are not immediately terminated, she should be allowed to regain custody of her child only if she can immediately go clean and stay clean for six months; any subsequent relapse should terminate her parental rights. Too much is riding on the child's first years to hold him hostage to his mother's habit.
Like so many of the pathologies of child welfare, the foster care economy needs inspired moral example and suasion to change it, and that requires a real change in our national culture. Community leaders can help future parents understand their obligations, so that they come to parenthood with a deep desire to do right by their children. But while we await that cultural renewal, we need to make sure that the foster care system is not unwittingly perpetuating the very conditions that put children at severe risk.