I entered the field of counseling in the mid-1970s. The first five years I worked primarily with children and adolescents in inpatient mental health treatment. The following six years I worked in a community mental health center, some of the time as head of the children's program.
It was heart-wrenching work, as I often witnessed some of the most devastating effects of abuse and neglect on the part of parents. I also witnessed many stories of redemption, parents working very hard to become the parent their child needed them to be.
I am so glad the Star Tribune is reporting on this issue ("In harm's way," Nov. 3 and thereafter). It deserves all the attention possible.
What was in place years ago was a system of inpatient treatment that gave abused and neglected children safety, consistent caregivers and a team of people devoted to their well-being. There were wonderful results. Many children thrived and stabilized; some were able to return to parents who also had stabilized.
Unfortunately, some parents cannot find a way to that stability. Some people cannot maintain constancy because they are adults who were terribly mistreated themselves as children. Or they are addicts, or they are poor, overwhelmed and terrified, or they have neurological issues such as fetal alcohol syndrome that makes it impossible to stabilize. There are so many variables operating in these situations. Sometimes all of these issues exist in one person, compounded by other family members also struggling with some of the same issues.
Somewhere in the 1990s, the state changed course and decided the priority was to return children to their families. I understand that sentiment, but obviously it was not only naive but grossly underfunded.
There are many possible ways to proceed. The future does not require an either/or choice, such as foster care vs. inpatient residential treatment. There could be hybrid solutions such as a version of an "orphanage/residential" model where parents can be active participants in their children's lives but not relied upon to provide ongoing day-to-day care. There could be families who are "permanent" foster families where kids are primarily with them but also have more visitation with their biological parents.
Returning kids to families that are obviously high risk has got to stop. Kids ending up in many, many different foster homes has got to stop. We cannot allow our children to be "experiments." They need grounded adults making grounded decisions.
On a final note: We have to pay social workers more money. I read recently that 43% of all social workers leave the field before they are licensed. They state their low wages make it impossible to stay in the field. This also contributes to a destabilized experience for kids as the turnover of their caregivers is extremely disruptive.
We need to do a version of the Manhattan Project with this issue. I moved to Minnesota in 1976 and stayed because I was so impressed with the quality of social services. We have lost our way and our children are suffering.
The mortality rate for children being returned to parents out of foster care in Minnesota is twice the national average. This is a wake-up call to do things very differently, to create a whole new system that puts the needs of children first. There are no excuses; we have to do better. Our children are counting on us.
Carol F. Wichers, of Minneapolis, is a retired psychotherapist.