A policy mandating that children coming into foster care may not be held in offices for more than eight hours certainly seems reasonable. These children are scared, confused, and reeling from the process of being removed from their caregivers. We want them to get settled into a comfortable home quickly—someplace where there are adults to feed, bathe, and comfort them.
We do not want them sitting in an office waiting room or shuffled from one office to the next. We don’t want them to visit the nearest McDonalds for a Happy Meal after seven hours and fifty-nine minutes only to start the clock running again when they return thirty minutes later.
However, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, this is what caseworkers have resorted to when they have been unable to locate foster homes for children — particularly for infants and older teenagers, who are among the most difficult to place. The Department of Children and Family Services contends that only a small number of children have spent extended time in their offices awaiting more stable placement.
If the alleged events have happened to even one child, there’s a problem. In these situations, there is a tendency to try to affix blame, which only detracts from finding solutions. Caseworkers who have to meet a deadline for removing children from holding areas may feel as if they have no choice but to find clever ways of meeting the letter of the law when they have no chance of meeting the spirit of the law. What are they to do with children who have no place to go when they have no place to send them?
An abundance, or at least a reasonable supply, of foster homes, could solve the problem. But increasing the number of foster homes requires time and money, both of which are in short supply in the child welfare system, even in the best of times. As the country’s economic woes are increasingly felt at the state level, we are likely to see more and more imaginative approaches to insoluble problems.
It is difficult to legislate truly creative solutions. Laws and rules rarely include the feedback loops necessary to address unintended consequences. Innovative and imaginative solutions arise from discussions that recognize that everyone at the child welfare table is well-intentioned with different and valuable ideas and multiple and conflicting constraints. Unless we can begin more open and vigorous conversations, we may find ourselves looking back on running out the clock at McDonald’s as a very benign way of managing an impossible situation. In the meantime, maybe the realities facing caseworkers dictate that there should, at the very least, be warm blankets and healthy snacks available when there simply is no safe alternative to an overnight in an office waiting room.
Please visit ahomewithin.org to learn about how A Home Within helps foster youth to build relationships and meet their seemingly-impossible challenges.
By Toni Heineman