This has been an unfortunate, but not an atypical year, for the children in Maine whose lives have intersected with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. In 2021, 25 children died of abuse and neglect or in homes with prior involvement with the child protective system. Four cases not included in that number are currently listed as homicides. At a recent legislative hearing the grandmother of one of those victims told her story to the lawmaker.
Her grandson was removed from his mother’s custody at 3 months of age after a 2-year-old sibling overdosed on methadone. Father and grandmother became his caregivers but when the father was arrested the child was returned to the mother’s custody by a judge despite the pleas of the child’s court-appointed guardian. The child eventually returned to the care of his paternal aunt and father, but when the father was arrested again the then 3-year-old was returned to his mother. Within months he was dead with multiple fractures, including to his spine and with internal and intracranial bleeding (Overton P. Maine’s child welfare system failed a 3-year old who died, grandmother tells lawmakers. 2022 Feb 11. Portland Press Herald).
The grandmother questioned the legislators why a vulnerable child would be returned to the care of a woman with such an extensive history of involvement with the Department of Health and Human Services. While there may have been errors of judgment on the part of department staff, in large part the answer lies in the system’s emphasis on reunification. Like apple pie, motherhood, and more recently fatherhood, have been viewed as something deserving of our unquestioning efforts to preserve.
This is not a recent trend. Some of the most frustrating cases over my 40 years of practice involved the failure of the courts and in some cases social workers to place a child’s welfare in the proper perspective as court schedules and custody decisions were made. Too often the reunification of “the family” seemed to trump the needs of the child. Fortunately, I’m unaware of any of my patients who died as the result of these untimely and poorly made decisions. However, many of my patients lived in unsettled conditions never sure what the next week would bring while the system focused on giving an adult whose life was a mess one more chance to demonstrate his or her ability to parent.
Of course, there are occasions in which child protective workers have been too hasty in pulling a child from his or her parents. But, in my experience those cases pale next to the number of times in which children were exposed to home environments that threatened their psychological health and development. Yes, there are bad foster homes. Many foster homes might do a better job if they were working in a system that put a higher value on the emotional needs and safety of the children in making its custody decisions.
We have a governor here in Maine who has worked hard to do the right thing during the pandemic and has made child health a focus. However, her recent proposed appropriations bill appears to continue the focus on reunification by funneling money into programs such as family reunion training and coaching as well as a parent mentorship program. Certainly, one can’t argue that these kind of programs might be helpful to some families. On the other hand, we can’t let these programs create the impression that an intact family is our primary goal. Not every family is repairable, at least on a time schedule compatible with the emotional and health needs of the children.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of you have experienced a similar frustration when decisions based on an unrealistic goal of family reunification have put your patients at risk.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.