Naomi Schaefer Riley vs. Kinship Care

December 18, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


In this article, Naomi Schaefer Riley goes to bat against kinship care as an alternative to foster care (Quillette, 12/12/20).  At best, it’s a quixotic adventure; at worst, it’s gravely misleading.

For decades now, experts have been arguing that placing abused or neglected kids with relatives is better for them than placing them with strangers.  The evidence for that is both overwhelming and a matter of common sense.  Removal from parents – even those who are pretty deficient, even those who are somewhat abusive – is traumatic for children.  For better or worse, those kids have formed with those parents the most basic and indelible of all human bonds – the biochemical connection between offspring and their parents.  Break that bond and you do serious harm.  Yes, sometimes that bond needs to be broken and the harm done because not doing so is the more injurious alternative.  But in all cases, the trauma of removal from a parent must be weighed in the balance with the trauma of not doing so.

Kinship care, i.e. moving the child out of his/her parents’ care and into that of a close relative, is usually the next best thing to good parental care because the relative is known to the child, his/her home is familiar and there is likely to be familial love there.  All that of course is absent in a foster placement, however well-motivated the foster carer may be.  Again, this is all well enough known and, to their credit, state child welfare agencies have begun shifting their focus toward kinship care when they conclude a child is at risk of abuse or neglect.  It’s a healthy trend, but Riley is on the warpath against it.

Weirdly, she begins her piece by pointing out that, pursuant to a consent decree arising out of a federal lawsuit, the State of New Jersey has seen the number of foster care placements plummet in recent years.  The state says that’s because it’s placing more and more kids in kinship care, but Riley says the numbers don’t add up.

It’s true that the state has reduced the number of kids in foster care by two-thirds since 2003, from 13,000 to 4,000. But there are only about 1,700 kids who are being officially removed from their homes and cared for by relatives now (compared to 2,000 in non-relative homes). In other words, according to the state’s numbers, state-sanctioned kinship care can hardly be the real reason for this dramatic drop. What happened to the other 7,300 kids who would have been in foster care?

It’s a remarkable question.  It assumes that those 7,300 kids “would have been in foster care,” but, for some sinister reason, aren’t.  But what if those kids didn’t need to be in care?  What if state officials had been doing what state child welfare workers so often do – “erring on the side of caution,” that in reality means taking kids from families when they’re not in danger?  Does Riley even notice that that was one of the main reasons the lawsuit was filed against the state in the first place?  That’s why the consent decree requires the state to force fewer kids into foster care.  Previously the agency was overreaching.  Plus, the very term “consent decree” means that the state agreed to change its ways, a fact that at least suggests an awareness that previous practices needed to change.  And of course the fact that the state signed off on the consent decree means it was aware that the plaintiffs had assembled enough evidence to win their case. 

In short, it seems a lot of those 7,300 kids never needed to be in foster care in the first place, but the obvious conclusion eludes Riley.  For her, if those 7,300 kids were ever in foster care, then they belonged there.  Period.  The evidence produced by the plaintiffs, the state’s agreement and a federal judge’s signature be damned.

But Riley’s just getting started.  I’ll say more about that next time.

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