‘Children in Families First’ law: Flawed ‘bedrock’ for most vulnerable

Hershey's orphanage

The orphanage established by Milton Hershey, the founder of Hershey’s chocolate, and his wife still serves at-risk kids today. It’s one of very few such large group homes for children at-risk in the US.

A bipartisan group of legislators, including some I generally admire, have introduced to Congress the Children in Families First law. This legislation would realign US foreign policy around the goal of returning children in other countries to their parents, instead of allowing them to be raised in orphanages or children’s homes or even to be adopted internationally.

Some sponsors cite their understanding of Scripture: that the family is the foundation of society. I need them to explain: will US foreign policy then be realigned to support those families? Because here is how “family first” looks as part of domestic social policy.

Are all families safe havens for kids?

When I used to work at a local social services agency, a young teen who was part of our educational program came to a staff member in great distress one day. He’d been doing great in school. He’d regained the ground he’d lost after his father — the only parent in the home — was jailed. He was starting to move forward. He was living in foster care and had managed to extricate himself from the gang he and his father had run with. He had some ideas for his future.

But now his father was being released from jail. The County social services department said he had to go back home. Because the rule of social services here in the US is that it is always best for the biological family to be united.

“I might as well kill myself!” he told our staff member.

It sounds like teen drama, but it was unfortunate reality. If he returned to his father’s home, he could rejoin the gang his father belonged to and kill all the hopes he’d built on his hard work toward a new future. Or he could refuse to rejoin the gang and someone — maybe even his father — would be assigned to kill him.

And yet, the rule of the social services system is that it is always best to reunite the biological family.

That is the rule that the Children in Families First seeks to impose on children around the world. These are children who, like the young boy we served, are living away from their parents because their parents provide inadequate care. Their parents are, perhaps, enslaving them to jobs at an early age or even to criminal “employment.” Being returned to these parents, instead of remaining in an orphanage where they get basic education, is “best” according to this law.

Legitimate target of law: Adoption thieves

Now it is unfortunately true that there is one group of adults from whom this legislation rightly seeks to protect children: international adoption thieves. The number of countries where healthy children have been purchased or stolen from their families is scandalously high, as documented by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, among others.

So let’s stop adoption fraud. But let’s recognize orphanages and children’s homes for what they are: essential nurturing and support for children abandoned by their parents.

Dangerous assumption of law: All parents protect

Likewise in the US. The foster care system is terrible and part of the reason it is terrible is because group homes are often more stable over the long-term for children than nuclear families. The Children in Families First website notes that “Scientists are unanimous in their conviction that a nurturing and stable relationship with a caring adult is an essential element of healthy child development.” Caring adults are found in a great many places. And it’s a big assumption that every parent — especially the ones who have abandoned their kids to orphanages — will offer a child the kind of “nurturing and stable relationship” that promotes healthy growth.

Going back to our young man? The caring adult in our agency was able to negotiate on his behalf with the rule-driven social services system. He was able to stay in foster care and in our educational program until he was ready — as a foster child — to return to public school, in a new neighborhood, free from gang ties.

Nurturing and stable relationships are important to children’s growth. It’s just really important to remember that not every biological tie represents nurture or care. Sometimes, putting a child first means putting a biological family somewhere else. In jail, if need be. And providing the child proper nurture and care. Because, as the Children in Families First website notes:

Children are only 30% of our population but they’re our entire future.

About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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