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There is certainly plenty to be outraged by in reading the Miami Herald's recent investigation into  the death of 477 children who had already been on the state's radar when they died of abuse or neglect. In too many cases, the Department of Children and Families sided with parents, despite every indication of impending tragedy. While reading story after story in which the system clearly failed the children they exist to protect, it's easy to assume that it can only be blamed on negligence and/or incompetence, but there's also an established culture built around the philosophy of “family preservation” that must be examined.

My family began taking in foster children when I was a teenager. Some stayed for brief stints, others for years on end. Three of them were adopted into our family and have become additional siblings to me and my sisters. To this day, it is impossible to imagine our family without their presence. On more than one occasion, we had to endure a child leaving our home to return to what could clearly be seen as a less than safe environment with their biological parent(s). In at least two instances, tragedy ensued. Surely there were more that we never learned of. 

While being a foster family can offer a profoundly rewarding experience, it can also be one of the most frustrating endeavors imaginable. Too many times, I watched my parents throw their hands up in the air, sometimes while screaming at the top of their lungs because they felt like they were being forced to standby while two large trains carrying people they cared deeply about were set on an intersecting course. I remember my sister leaving our states' child welfare services after banging her head against the wall as a case worker for too long.

Another sister has followed in my parent's footsteps and describes similar frustrations in experiences with “the system” in still another state. What all of the stories tend to have in common is a notion that efforts to keep the family intact should be of paramount concern. While this seems laudable enough in theory, it is clear that all too often, the philosophy ends up trumping even the most elementary form of common sense.

While no one would argue that a society in which as many children as humanly possible end up raised by one or both of their biological parents in a healthy and safe home shouldn't be viewed as the ideal, the all-too-clear reality is that an approach which supposes that such an outcome is so widely achievable is not only unrealistic, but dangerously irresponsible.

A society that prizes individual liberty to the extent that ours does, is understandably skeptical of endowing the state with broad powers to remove something as seminal to human existence as custodial rights to our offspring. The family unit is at the core of our sense of self. Indeed, many of the societies and ideologies we have been most loathsome of have sought to render the family nucleus less prominent in order to promote devotion to the controlling elements of the state. So again, it is understandable that we bring that family preservation philosophy forward as the foundation for our approach to dealing with protecting children who may be at risk in their own home. 

However, even the best intentions can be thwarted, and it is tragically clear that our current practices are not worthy of the innocent victims they are intended to protect. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but once a mother or father has proven themselves capable of making potentially-fatal choices, the state has every reason to maintain a very high bar and act quickly and decisively if it is not met. If a DCF investigation, or having your children temporarily removed from your custody is not a profound enough wake-up call that an immediate conversion takes place, it seems logical to assume that nothing will be.

As unfortunate as it is, or counterintuitive as it seems, not everyone is cut out to be a parent. If simply having a child fails to inspire even the slightest degree of taking adequate parental responsibility, as seems to be the case in some instances, simply providing education as to how to do that doesn't seem likely to change the outcome. If the parent struggles with addiction, as was the case in well over half of the 477 deaths cited in the investigation, that seems even more cut and dry. The very concept of addiction, implies that the person is helpless in the face of their compulsion. Yet a policy that required little more than a promise to “get clean” was fatally applied to many of the cases.

But what if it's not just about a genuine belied that “family preservation” is always best and a misguided effort to produce that outcome? As the investigation noted, Florida began aggressively moving toward taking less children into state custody when DCF had a backlog of more than 30,000 cases. Then the state continuously cut funding, despite warnings from consultants of red flags. Believing that just because less kids are being put into foster care, less resources will be needed to protect those who are vulnerable would seem to ignore the vast amount of resources you would need to ensure that children at risk remained safe in their home environment.

Alas, that's the circular failure which seems to have led to a system in which so many horror stories could exist – where parents with dozens of drug arrests and dozens of suspected abuse reports were able to maintain custody of infants and toddlers (70 percent of deaths in the investigation were of children 2 or younger); where an inebriated mother could suffocate a child after passing out while breast feeding; where a 10-month old could starve to death after being nearly eaten alive by cockroaches; where admitted junkies could keep a 12-foot python unsecured in their home until it attacked and killed their daughter as she lie asleep in her crib – all cases where DCF had been involved and allowed the children to remain in the parents' homes.

Putting more children into foster homes brings along its own set of challenges and they extend far beyond the significant cost. It seems somewhat obvious that more extreme measures like moving toward a system in which parental rights can be more aggressively revoked and adoption to well-vetted families facilitated earlier in the process need to be debated. It may not coincide with our society's basic premise of individual freedoms, however, our current policies do not even come close to the standards we profess to aspire to in terms of protecting our most vulnerable and unrepresented citizens.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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