New Study: Adverse Family Experiences Among Children in Nonparental Care

On May 7, 2014, the results of a new study were relased by The U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. The report explains that children who are raised by both biological Mom and Dad are more likely to have a safe, happy childhood.

According to the study, the worst outcomes for experiencing traumatic events comes from children in foster care, with no biological parental involvement. Following that category, those raised by one biological parent, and those raised by relatives other than parents come in ranking only behind children who are raised by both parents.

Seventy percent of children raised by their biological parents had no adverse family experiences, compared to only 21.7 percent of those raised by one biological parent, and 18.7 percent of those raised by neither of their biological parents. The study found that as the involvement of biological parents decreased, the likelihood of a child experiencing multiple traumatic events increased.

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While it is easy to become mired in the numbers when reviewing such reports, some crystal clear trends emerge from this one:

When examining the prevalence of children with no adverse experiences versus any adverse experiences, the difference between children in nonparental care and children living with one biological parent was quite small. However, as the number of cumulative experiences compared increased, the differences between children in nonparental care and children living with one biological parent grew. Children in nonparental care were about twice as likely as children living with one biological parent to have experienced four or more adverse events.

FOSTER CHILDREN

The study’s results are of particular concern given the high emphasis placed on child removal and foster care placement as the intervention of choice for many families. The report explains:

Children in foster care were particularly likely to have had multiple types of adverse experiences; almost one-half of them had had four or more. More than one-half of children in foster care had ever experienced caregiver violence or caregiver incarceration and almost two-thirds had lived with someone who had an alcohol or drug problem.

A few words of caution are in order. The study explains: “It is likely that some children in nonparental care find themselves in that situation because they had experienced certain adverse family circumstances that necessitated the removal of the child from the birth family – that is, the adverse experience preceded and perhaps even contributed to the nonparental care status rather than being merely associated with it. For example, more than one-half of children entering foster care in 2007 had experienced severe parental neglect and nearly 30% had experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse as contributing reasons for entering foster care.”

CHILD ‘NEGLECT’

A few words about “parental neglect” are in order before proceeding. Neglect is a broad-sweeping accusation that may encompass anything from taking your eyes off of a child for a few moments, to accumulating excessive absences from school, to shouting at your child from your driveway, to providing an insufficient home environment.

Douglas J. Besharov and Jacob W. Dembosky describe “definitional creep,” the phenomenon of ever-expanding definitions of abuse, neglect, and children “in danger of being harmed according to the views of community professionals or child-protective service agencies.”

The Florida Supreme Court grappled with this issue as long ago as 1977. When the state’s neglect statute was challenged, the Court ruled that “without some statutory standards or guidelines, the Legislature has effectively set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and has left to the courts the power to say who should be detained and who should be set at large. Such a statute is dangerous and does not provide due process of law.” As the ruling in State v. Winters, 346 So.2d 991 (Fla.1977) explained:

A palacial mansion that is clean and spacious could fail to qualify as “necessary shelter,” if it had no heat. A small, overcrowded log cabin may, on the other hand, meet the test. Depending upon the standard adopted, any given shelter, whether in the suburbs or the ghetto, could be found to fall short of “necessary shelter.” Similarly, each person must ask just how much and what quality of food, clothing, shelter and medical treatment he must provide to avoid jeopardy. Nothing in the statute gives us the answer. There are no guidelines.

The state’s legislators rewrote the offending statute, in an effort to effect a constitutional cure. However, in State v. Ayers, 665 So.2d 296 (Fla. 2d DCA 1995) the statutes were still found wanting for lack of clarity. Florida’s child savers went back to work, this time adding “willfully or by culpable negligence” language to the child neglect statute. Hovever, Arnold v. State, 755 So.2d 796 (2000) still found it hard to digest the broad, sweeping mandates that constituted the legislative definition of “child neglect.”

The terms “alcohol or drug abuse” are almost-always added to the mix to justify child removals. The reality is that we are not finding junkies having babies in back alleys while shooting up with dirty needles – but that is precisely the impression that the child protection industry wants to convey.

iAlexandria Hill was rescued from parents who smoked marijuana as she slept.

Far more typical is the tragic story of Alexandra Hill, who was removed from her home by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services in November 2012 on a claim of “neglectful supervision.”

Alexandria’s dad, Joshua, readily admits they were smoking pot when their daughter was asleep.

“We never hurt our daughter. She was never sick, she was never in the hospital, and she never had any issues until she went into state care,” he said to reporters at KVUE TV.

Nevertheless, that was apparently neglectful enough of a situation for Alexandria to wind up in foster care. Presumably her removal and subsequent placement were sanctified by a judge, at some point in time.

Her outcome was the worst imaginable. Two-year-old Alexandria was rushed to Scott and White Children’s Emergency Hospital and immediately placed on life support. After an investigation, the foster mother’s charges were upgraded to capital murder. Texas MENTOR, the private agency that oversaw the foster home in which she was placed, had a long history of violations.

Bearing in mind that the majority of child removals involve neglect – and certainly do not involve anything resembling what most people would consider as “abuse” – we return once again to the study on hand. The research found that:

Nearly one-half of children in foster care (48.3%) had had four or more adverse experiences, compared with 25%–30% of children in each of the other three caregiver subgroups. Among those other nonparental care subgroups, differences were smaller and mostly nonsignificant.

This is consistent with some other studies of recent vintage regarding outcomes.

According to a California Senate Office of Research study reported on in December 2011, a state survey found that of 2,564 adult prisoners in the state, 14 percent said that they had been in foster care at some point in their lives. The study also found that: “Of the surveyed inmates who had been in foster care, 52 percent of the males and 45 percent of the females said they had resided in group homes. Thirty-one percent of the male inmates and 35 percent of the females lived with a foster family.”

Over one half of the males and nearly half of the females in this population graduated from group home settings.

A British study of children in care or custody released in December 2012 by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate explains: “the overall outcomes and future life chances for these children and young people are extremely poor. The fact that they were away from their home areas and were moved frequently militated against their chances of rehabilitation. The fact of being looked after could escalate a child into the criminal justice system.”

The British study continues on to explain: “In the overwhelming majority of the cases that we inspected, the outcomes for the children and young people were poor. Children and young people were not always protected. Some had been assaulted or sexually exploited; some had themselves assaulted or exploited other children and young people. They had often been criminalised while in care for offences that would probably not have gone to court if they had been living at home. A significant number had gone missing at some point, some a substantial number of times. Their education had suffered and few were well prepared or supported for transition to adulthood.”

The most recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics mentions parental incarceration as among the difficulties faced by foster children. But this raises the question of which is the proverbial chicken, and which is the proverbial egg? There are many disturbing outcomes resulting from child removal and foster care placement that are as yet incompletely understood.

A 2004 study published by the Vera Institute for Justice examined the chronology of arrest, incarceration, and child placement. Researchers noted that: “Many observers worry that the war on drugs and harsher punishments for minor crimes has resulted in more children entering foster care. The data suggest that the opposite is true.”

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that: “The vast majority (90 percent) of maternal incarcerations that overlapped child placement started after child placement, as did 85 percent of the arrests that led to those incarcerations. Child removal appears to accelerate criminal activity among the study group’s mothers.”

From Fiscal Year 1997 (the year of removal) to FY 1999, the study group mothers averaged 2.6 convictions each, “a rate far higher than in the pre-removal years.” The researchers came to a startling conclusion — one that is certainly not mentioned with favor among those in the child protection industry. That is that: “family preservation efforts may function as a crime reduction tool. Successful efforts to avert placement not only keep families together and children out of foster care, but can also prevent the increase in maternal criminal activity that can take place following a child’s removal.”

Marilyn C. Moses, a Social Science Analyst at the National Institute of Justice, reported the results of a follow-up study that arrived at much the same conclusion. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Chicago focused on mothers who were incarcerated in Illinois State prisons and the Cook County area, finding that more than one-fourth (27 percent) of the mothers who had been incarcerated also had a child who had been placed in foster care at some point during the child’s life.

“But surprisingly, researchers found, the mother’s incarceration was not the reason the child was placed in foster care,” Moses explained. While the results appeared to be counter-intuitive, they were nevertheless consistent with those of the earlier Vera Institute study:

In fact, in almost three-quarters of the cases, children were placed in foster care prior to the mother’s first period of incarceration. And in more than 40 percent of those cases, the children entered foster care as many as 3 years before their mothers went to jail.

This finding contradicts a widely held assumption that children are placed in foster care as a direct result of their parents’ incarceration. The early findings indicate that a child’s foster care status is rarely a direct result of a mother’s arrest and imprisonment.

Researchers often appear to be perplexed by such results, perhaps in part because they cling to the perspective that state “intervention” into family life is ipso facto beneficial. Indeed, identifying the “risks” associated with foster care, incarceration, probation, and other interventions frequently becomes an end in and of itself, with researchers paving the way for further inquiry into the devising of appropriate additional interventions to undo the damage done by the original ones.

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