Family separations at our southwest border reveal the pain when children are forcibly seized by state or federal government agencies. We see the fear and anger, and expect frustration, loss of trust, helplessness and likely lifelong trauma for children, parents and other relatives.
In American’s foster care system, an invisible epidemic of taken children delivers the same pain and fear. In 2016, about 687,000 children were forcibly taken from their families and placed with strangers or in group settings where they were more likely to be abused, assaulted, over-medicated or sexually trafficked than if they had not been taken. Experts say 85% of the time that children are removed, the state rationale for placement in foster care has no objective evidence. The driver of these numbers is money, lots of it.
Federal payments – our tax dollars – go to states to support the entire foster care and group home system. Payments begin the moment a child is taken with bonuses for “special needs” such as medication, then more bonuses to state agencies for Termination of Parental Rights or adoption of children even if parents are still fighting for custody in Family Court. I accept the estimate that foster care in America is a $50 billion per year industry.
The outcomes for taken children are not good. Children who have spent time in foster care are more likely to become depressed, suicidal, pregnant at an early age, incarcerated or homeless than non-fostered children. Studies have found that fostered children have twice the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress than Iraqi war veterans. The resting heart rate of children in foster care is higher than non-fostered peers; they are always on the lookout for danger and stay in “flight or fight” mode. At least 60% (and perhaps as much as 80%) of sexually trafficked children spent time in foster care or state-sponsored group homes.
Poverty and race play a role in family separations. About 75% of children in foster care are “neglect” cases that far too often confuse neglect and poverty. Children in very poor families are 22 times more likely to be removed than even children in low income families.
African American, Hispanic and Native American children go into foster care disproportionately more often than white peers. As political and environmental activist Tatianna Moragne reminds us, state and federal agencies have torn African American and Native American children from their families for hundreds of years. States have long acted out the racism of our justice and political systems.
Well-known, family lawyer Connie Reguli, founder of Family Forward Project, makes three points about forced separations and the conflicts of interest in the foster care industry:
- Defendants in criminal courts have more rights than parents in Family Court. Children – even nursing newborns -- are taken without evidence, warrants, or the ability of parents to face and challenge the accuser in court.
- Federal payments to states begin when the child is taken into state custody. States can demand child support from parents even while they fight to regain custody. Medicare provides funds for medicating taken children, including with psychotropic drugs.
- Reguli insists we re-affirm and protect family integrity from government interference. Law suits are moving toward the Supreme Court to argue the constitutional rights separated children and families.
The forced separation of children and families has both a small, visible component at our southwest border and an enormous, invisible component throughout all of America.
As a parent, a psychologist and a Congressional candidate, I call for the conversation about forced family separations to expand and include foster care and family court. Our tax dollars fund government agencies that unethically, illegally and unconstitutionally separate hundreds of thousands of children and families every year often without any evidence of abuse or true neglect. It’s time to keep all families together and put children and families first.