Author Archives: drmcalarney

It’s Complicated

When I started working in foster care, I was assigned a case with a birth mother who has a bit of a reputation around my office. (I’ll call her “Jade.”) She has antagonized my supervisor on a number of occasions, has gotten into yelling matches with both foster mothers to her children, and frequently threatens to sue her case workers. She is also very erratic; she will show up to every supervised visit she has for weeks at a time, and then miss three in a row with no explanation. She can get very defensive of her children, which is a natural (and positive) quality for any parent to have, but if you are on the receiving end of it, it can be quite explosive.


In my second week as a case planner, Jade yelled at my supervisor, in front of me, because she insisted that I was the best case worker she had ever had, and told my supervisor not to move me off her case under any circumstances. She said that I “got her” in a way that other workers have not.


On a personal level, I’m fond of Jade. She has a lot of energy, she clearly really loves her kids, and she’s always making me laugh. But I’m not always sure what, exactly, constitutes me “getting” her. Mostly, I have just tried to address things that, to me, are part of the bare minimum of me doing my job. When I have concerns about her supervised visits, I try to explain to her how she can address them, and when she needs referrals to services, I send them to her. But most importantly, when I need to have difficult conversations with her, I have them.


Jade has three children in foster care, all of whom are on my caseload. Her two and three year old were placed into foster care less than a year ago, but her six year old, Claire (who’s name I have also changed) has been in care since she was eighteen months old, and has bounced around between a number of different foster homes in that time. Per the encouragement of my supervisor, I had the ASFA talk with Jade that day.


ASFA (the Adoption and Safe Families Act) refers to a piece of legislation passed in the Clinton administration stating that any child who has been in foster care for 15 of 22 consecutive months should be considered for a goal change from “return to parent” to “adoption” by the foster care agency. This rule seems quite reasonable on paper, but it’s one thing to approve of those numbers in theory, and it’s another thing to have a serious discussion about what that would look like with a family who you see multiple times a week and have gotten to know pretty well.

It’s a third thing to talk about that rule when you realize it hasn’t been spoken about or implemented by the previous workers on the case. I know that Claire should have been considered for a goal change a while ago, and I know that if I do my job correctly, she will be considered for a goal change very soon. Doing my job correctly may have the effect of permanently keeping this child away from her birth mother. I don’t know how to feel about that. Claire’s happy in her foster home, and her foster mother has expressed an interest in adopting her, but I like Claire’s mom quite a lot, and I can see that her mom is really trying, even if she isn’t always successful. My fondness for her is part of what enables me to be honest with her and give her every chance I can to succeed.


I explain to Jade what ASFA is and that, given the amount of time Claire has been in the system, we may need to look into a goal change soon. I explain to her as well that I want to be able to advocate for her, because I do, but that I can only advocate for her based on the services she has actually been attending. I sent her referrals for two different mental health providers, and she hasn’t gone to either. Meanwhile, she stopped showing up to her last set of parenting classes halfway through to completion and never gave an explanation as to why. I tell her that her attendance at visits is also important. She’s quick to give reasons when I point out how many she’s missed, and I tell her that I understand things come up, but that I have to be honest about her attendance when I’m asked in court, and that the lower it is, the less chance I have to push for her.


She’s currently homeless as she waits to move into the house she purchased in Jersey, and she explains to me that she needs a parenting class provider in the city, preferably either near where she attends school or near where she attends visits with the children. She previously had told me she wanted parenting classes in Jersey, but I consent to find her parenting classes in New York.


She also informs me that she hasn’t gone to the other mental health referrals because she’s still waiting to hear back from the one she attended intake at two months ago, which I hadn’t realized was still on the table. She tells me that they still have yet to assign her a therapist, even though she attended her first appointment months previously, and that she’s hoping to continue treatment there if it’s possible. I know I’m going to have to check with them to confirm her story, but as she tells me this, I can tell she’s not lying. I promise that I’ll update my court report to reflect this information once I confirm with the mental health provider. She thanks me for agreeing to speak up for her.


As I leave, I think about her chances of getting her kids back. I really want her to be able to do it, and I don’t think it’s impossible, but I also don’t know how likely it is, and it’s certainly not impossible that they’ll get adopted, either. It’s really difficult to have that thought about someone you like, and it’s difficult to have that thought about someone who clearly loves their children.

We have this common misconception that birth parents in the foster care system are all heartless criminals, dead-beat drug addicts, or psychotic to the point of total incoherence. I have come across parents who are totally uninterested in reunification, I have come across parents who have no interest in trying to turn their life around, and I have come across parents who, through no fault of their own, have issues so severe that they cannot reasonably be entrusted with the care of children. But I have mostly come across parents who are people – people with issues, for sure, but people that I like talking to, people who are confused by an imperfect and often arbitrary system, and people who really, really want their children back.


Much as I like Jade, I don’t feel as bad as I could about the prospect of her children getting adopted. I know that because I have had this talk with Jade and tried to work with her as best I can, that I’ve done all I can do. My job is to give her the best chance I can at succeeding; it’s not to give her success, because I can’t.

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