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Respect for Foster Parents

October 30, 2014 permalink

The Edmonton Journal publishes an op-ed by foster parent advocate Janet Ryan-Newell, filled with imaginary facts and statistics. In the enclosed copy comments are interspersed in red.



Opinion: Stories of deaths of children 'in care' rarely tell whole story

Foster parents deserve our respect

Jamie Sullivan and Marilyn Koren
In this 2013 photo, Jamie Sullivan and Marilyn Koren on the death of Jamie’s daughter, Delonna, who had been placed in foster care but died six days. Janet Ryan-Newell writes that foster parents “are an increasingly marginalized population who cannot speak out in their own defence.”
Photograph by: Ryan Jackson , Edmonton Journal/file

My family has fostered since 1997.

In 2002, we cared for a two-month-old sick baby who been found on the floor of a crack house who nearly died from whooping cough. Despite being cared for in a neonatal unit with us by his side, had this baby died, the media would have labelled him “another infant (who) died in foster care.”

If the baby had died in foster care in 2002, it is unlikely the press would have found out about it at all. Social services in Alberta has kept information on foster failures tightly bottled up. Only in July 2014 was the record of foster deaths partially opened. As shown by a more recent case, the province is acting quickly to slam the door shut on further disclosures.

My family has shared our lives with many children who had been neglected and abused. We adopted two sisters, ages 9 and 11, and our daughters are now excellent mothers to our four grandchildren.

I am also a psychologist and director of an agency where I am privileged to work with intelligent, loving and qualified foster parents who open themselves up to the joy and heartache of working with hurting children. I am increasingly frustrated by the distortions presented in the media regarding the deaths of children in “care of the system,” simplistically called kids in foster care.

I do not want to minimize the very deep pain for any family who has lost a child. In my experience, families of children in care are moving through serious life circumstances, and overwhelmingly love their children.

A few families, as suggested by the author, are "moving through serious life circumstances". A lot more are not. Social workers snatch children for frivolous reasons and place them in foster care. Bewildered parents are faced with the impossible task of proving that they are not abusive to their own children.

I wish to highlight that foster parents are an increasingly marginalized population who cannot speak out in their own defence. Although foster parents are an absolutely critical resource to the well-being of many of the children in care, they are increasingly demonized by the media.

This complaint is absolutely true. The same laws that muzzle parents also muzzle foster parents. And while parents enjoy some sympathy when they speak out publicly in defiance of confidentiality laws, foster parents get no such leeway.

Data without context is simplistic and harmful.

When a media article or photograph is sensationalized and not contextualized, it is falsely presented as the truth. Our confidentiality directives prevent the release of information that provides context and understanding to each tragedy.

In 17 years of service to more than 4,000 children in care, our agency has had one death: A baby born with health complications succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In Alberta, “undetermined death” is now used for those previously labelled SIDS.

In the resultant investigations, the foster parents were scrutinized for having swaddled the baby (as directed by the doctor) and for bed sharing. Using this term suggests that the child slept with the parents, but the infant actually slept in a cot beside the parents’ bed. When the infant had not woken for her night feedings, the foster mother picked up the infant, who she laid on top of her bed. When we challenged calling this bed sharing, the investigators indicated that use of this term would advance policy development. The footnote defines bed sharing as a sleeping arrangement where an infant shares the same sleeping surface with another person. Co-sleeping refers to an infant sleeping within arm’s reach, but not on the same sleeping surface.

Since this, we have had caregivers directed to lie down on the floor with the baby for night feedings — to avoid bed sharing. These literal interpretations will not prevent a SIDS death.

The loss of this infant devastated a loving, skilled foster family. The impact of any loss is indelible for everyone involved.

What does the data really say?

The mortality rate of children in care is actually lower than those who are not in care. Because the stories of children who weren’t in care are contextualized and birth parents are accorded more respect, these deaths do not make for lurid sensationalism, and are rarely published.

Foster mortality is lower? All research suggests the contrary. Fixcas has found that foster care is ten times as deadly as parental care. If there is any serious basis for the lower foster mortality assertion, fixcas wants to hear about it.

A review of Alberta statistics identifies that 82 per cent of deaths in care were due to pre-existing medical conditions, illness, SIDS and accidents, including vehicle collisions. The term “in care” is often misunderstood, it includes children in a foster home (54 per cent); in their own family home (30 per cent); or in alternate placements (16 per cent — kinship care, secure services, group homes, hospital, or living independently).

The author does not cite a specific research document, so the reply has to be general. When coroners publish reports on child deaths, they typically report only the facts supporting their own conclusions. For example, they attribute baby deaths to co-sleeping with mother. Other reports suggest that normal mothers do not smother their children while sleeping, only mothers on drugs do so. Can we check? No, the coroners do not release information, such as names, that allow for testing of their theories.

Fixcas has tried for years to get accurate information on the proportion of deaths under CAS watch that occur in foster care, but there is nothing better than a well-informed statistical estimate. It would be nice to know the source of the breakdown of Alberta deaths, 54% foster, 30% family and 15% kinship et al.

Each death of a child is a tragedy. But the assumption that all deaths of children in care were the result of neglect or abuse, and weren’t adequately investigated — is wholly incorrect.

Full information matters.

The series of Journal articles on “children who died in care” has caused further demoralization of our current caregivers, and negatively impacts the recruitment of new caregivers.

It is time for foster parents to be acknowledged as an invaluable, essential service. Family-based care is critically important to the attachment and emotional health needs of children. Accordingly, the media must recognize its negative impact on foster families and children in care. Instead of sensationalizing tragedy, efforts could be made to acknowledge the many successful foster families who support children to overcome trauma and to reach for more promising futures.

Source: Edmonton Journal

Contrary to the theme of the article, foster parents are not the prime target of criticism in child protection. Real power is exercised by social workers, and they are the source of most of the problems.