The headline reads, “Brown signs bill to allow children more than two legal parents“. While the bill may have been targeted at same-sex couples, my thoughts immediately went a slightly different direction.
After more than two decades of working in child welfare, I am keenly aware of the internal struggle many children and youth in foster care experience. On the one hand, there may be a devotion to biological parents, despite their care-giving shortcomings. This is especially true when the child is removed from their parent or guardian and placed into foster care after the age of 5 or 6 years (or later for some). By this time, they have had time to bond with the parent(s) and, in some cases, want to maintain that connection. While the desire to remain connected may be there, not all parents are capable of providing 24/7 care and nurturing to their biological children.
Despite the challenges of the foster care system, many children are able to develop healthy, long-lasting relationships with their foster parents. For those who also desire a relationship with their biological parents, this can create a emotional tug-of-war, with no good solution. In order to remain with their foster parents and provide permanency, there is often pressure to severe the ties with the biological parents, thus freeing the child for adoption. An alternative permanency option is Another Planned Permanency Arrangement, or APPLA. This option is often, although not always, identified as long-term foster care. A bill recently proposed by Senator Hatch seeks to further restrict the options available in such situations by eliminating the long-term foster care permanency option. (See “Hatch Child Welfare Bill Proposes Major Reforms of APPLA Option, Congregate Care, and Chafee Education Grants” for a summary of the proposed bill.)
The foster care dilemma goes something like this: Joey and Janet have been in the same foster home for 16 months. They have a good relationship with their foster parents and want to stay in that home. At 12 and 14 years of age, they also care deeply for their biological parents who, after 16 months have shown no signs of resolving their personal challenges to the point that they can adequately parent Joey and Janet. The child welfare system is then left with a few options, none of which are ideal. They can terminate parental rights, thus freeing Joey and Janet for adoption. Or they can attempt to return the children to the care of their biological parents which is likely not a safe or healthy option. The other option is to keep Joey and Janet in long-term foster care, a state of legal limbo which retains the parental rights but fails to provide for permanency of the children. Of course, if the Hatch bill were to be signed into law, the latter option of long-term foster care would be eliminated.
This is where the new California law could offer a new option: more than two parents. If the law could be applied to allow adoption by foster parents without terminating biological parents’ rights (and I don’t know if this is an option with the current law), the children could continue with both sets of parents. Of course, there are several ‘what ifs’ that would need to be resolved. For instance, provisions would need to be made for educational and medical decision-making, physical custody, and other important aspects of the relationship. Over the years, I have seen situations where a joint parenting type of relationship is exactly what the child needed, but this was not an option. For instance, there may be situations when the mental or physical health of the biological parents presents a barrier to parenting, but the emotional bond outweighs the need for legal permanency. While this may be applicable in a relatively small number of situations; for the children involved, it may be the best option to establishing permanency.
So my question is, could more parents equal better care for kids? Could this be a new spin on the ‘open adoption’ option? Maybe the option of more than two parents is worth considering from a child welfare standpoint.