"We won't be taking any more teenagers." is the sad conclusion reached by one foster father who, with his wife and their trust in the goodness of people, had fostered one child too many. In this sad, searching, scathing reportage by writer Chris Beam, the foster care system comes into focus, with all its flaws magnified.
Starting from a basic question--who has the right to keep a child, the biological parent or the parent who actually offers food and shelter?--Beam soon found many more questions and few real answers. Tracing the history of child care and child endangerment, pointing out that beating and even executing children for disobedience used to be legal, it would seem we have come a long way towards protecting our lost kids. But behind the good legislation, rules that control what both parents and foster parents can do, are the bad statistics. Race is still a factor in how the system treats children, with a bias towards white foster parents and white children. Ingrained poverty and crack cocaine are major villains. In many cases, if a foster care match doesn't work out, the "parent" can simply dump the child on the curb at social services, with a bag full of his or her belongings, and drive away. Contrariwise, social services may be so slow and apparently over-cautious about responding to genuine concerns about a fostered child who is, for example, threatening to burn down the house, that foster parents feel punished for trying to do what is right.
Based on a myriad of real cases--children and parents that Beam met, befriended and followed over several years
-- the book recounts rapes, beatings, confinements, runaways, property destruction, drug abuse, until the reader will be lamenting the total brokenness of the system. One couple, Glenn and Mindy, adopted a teenage girl who seemed to be fitting in well; then they heard that she was planning to sabotage their arrangement by accusing Glenn of child abuse, and they had, reluctantly, to give up. From the girl's viewpoint, they were "racist" and wouldn't let her play her music as loud as she liked. The bitter truths are these: many foster parents run their benefit-laden charges like a business, not a family, dropping the hard cases and keeping the malleable one; and foster children, used to being abused and shunted around, may provoke abusive situations in order to maintain a semblance of control over the situation. The agencies in the middle may hedge the parents or the child with regulations that make any sort of "normal family" relationships nearly impossible; burnout is rife among both social services personnel and fosters alike.
This is a book well worth reading for anyone concerned about the issues, discouraging as its messages seem to be. By the end you may find yourself asking, not how to fix a broken system, but how to fix a broken society? Beam concludes that she believes "that everything around us touches child welfare" and avers that she wrote her books to be "more descriptive than prescriptive." Thus it is up to all of us to come up with a better way to take care of the lost children.