But the court ordered Joe back home just before his second birthday. Shortly after that return, the father abandoned the toddler in the back seat of a car late at night as he was fleeing police. Within months, the little boy was back at Hannum's house--a changed child. "Nine months later, I didn't even know him," Hannum says. "He'd sleep outside my door, he'd crawl in bed with me, he was up eight times a night. He's very insecure. Even tonight--he comes to the door and says to me, 'When are you coming home? Is this a short meeting? Is this a long meeting? Are you coming home?' Like I'm going to leave him."
Running through these women's stories is bafflement and amazement toward the chaotic lives and drug-induced disinterest of the mothers who lose their children to the system.
"When I first started, I thought children were taken [from their families] too readily. Now I feel exactly the opposite," says Karen Guidarelli, a foster parent for five years. "You don't see caring parents as much as you'd like to."
"You'd like to see a parent, even in court," interjects Hannum.
"You'd like to see anybody who cares about the kids like crazy," adds Guidarelli.
"You'd like to hear someone say: 'What do I have to do to get this kid back? I'll do anything,' " Polk says. "And then go do it."
Do we blame the parents? Or the forces of poverty that shape their bleak, drug-ridden lives? Those two questions paralyze today's reformers, breaking policy-makers into opposing camps.
If you're Patrick Murphy, Cook County's raw-talking public guardian, a man who attacks family-preservation programs with the same vigor he once embraced them, you point fingers at the homes that produce these children. Murphy grabs attention for his cause by reaching for the stories that he knows will set his listener's hair on end: the child returned to abusive parents only to be thrown up against a wall and killed; the 15-year-old "father" who locked himself in a closet with his two infant children so he could perform oral sex on them.
"Just because two people [have sex] and nine months later a baby is born, that doesn't make it a family," Murphy says. "And it doesn't make those kids a mom and dad either. . . . In some cases you should cut that parent's tie the minute the kids walk in the door, and we don't. If some case comes in here where the father or paramour has screwed the kid and the mom has looked the other way, why are we playing around? What are we doing talking about rehabilitation?"
If you're Thomas Wells, a lead reformer of the District of Columbia's system, you point fingers at inept government programs that leave troubled parents in the lurch. "It's easy to hate these families," says Wells, executive director of the district's Consortium for Child Welfare.. "But as soon as you do, all the laws will be based on taking their kids away from them."
Both sides of this political debate miss the point. Most of the children pouring into the system suffer from severe neglect, not abuse. And you don't have to "hate" these parents to recognize that, in many cases, there is no chance of rehabilitation; recent history suggests that no amount of government spending is going to solve that. Even in cases where the parents can't be saved, their children can.
Here's where to start:
\o7 * Sexual abusers and physical tormentors don't deserve a second chance. Less abusive and neglectful parents do, but that second should be finite.\f7
If pressed, courts could immediately terminate parental rights in thousands of cases of severe abuse and neglect without coming near the ones that aren't so clear-cut, where some hope remains that a parent will rehabilitate. In these gray cases, more of the legal burden should shift from social workers trying to meet the "reasonable efforts" standard to parents, who should demonstrate that they can rear their children without harming them.
Within hours after a child is removed from a home, family support services need to be offered. As veterans in the field note, this mind-clearing loss provides a short window of opportunity for rehabilitation that may not come around again. The chances of reunification fade the longer a parent and child are separated.
\o7 * Put babies on a fast track\f7 .
The first priority of the system should be to move out the infants and toddlers pouring in, thousands of whom have been abandoned. If the system's defenders insist that their children are too old and too broken to be adopted, they should start by looking for homes for the little ones--for whom there is strong demand--without regard to race. The child welfare lobby worries that this would be unfair to older children in the system. But fairness is a steep price to pay for the lives of tens of thousands of kids who could otherwise be saved.
\o7 * The same sense of urgency that brings a child into the system should guide plans for his departure.\f7