She came into their family as an infant, after spending the first months of her life in a hospital. They nursed her through life-threatening medical conditions and loved her like their own for nearly three years all while knowing that they might not be able to keep her – because that’s what you do when you sign up to be a foster family.
This family, who are my friends, have cared for and returned many other children to their biological families, including a preschooler whose mother overdosed and died soon after regaining custody. Never once had they protested a judge’s decision to reunify a child with their family. Because that’s the goal. Every time they welcomed a child, they knew that they were just filling in until the child’s birth family was stable enough to take them back.
But this child? This child felt different because of her ongoing medical needs. The foster family was concerned about complaints they’d heard of violence in the home, including toward a social worker. And after a recent visit to that home, this child returned to their care with dark circles under her eyes and bruises on her arms and legs that her foster mom had documented by a doctor. Still, the court maintained that this little girl would be better off living with her biological family.
And so this foster family went to court, giving all of the reasons they believed this child would be in danger if returned to her birth family. And, as it had done so many times before, the court delayed its decision – despite that the child’s case has remained unresolved far longer than child-welfare advocates recommend. Because the longer a child lingers in foster care, the worse the outcome, and children don’t understand the laws that complicate their lives. They just want to be safe and cared for and loved.
In the end, a caseworker emailed the foster family: “I will pick up Baby [initial omitted] tomorrow… please have her belongings ready.” Apparently the court had decided. Whether this was a trial or a permanent placement, the family wasn’t told. And so this mom and dad did what they’ve done so many times before. They cried and prayed and packed up a child’s life and said goodbye. Only, this time, they felt sure the court had made a mistake.
Since January 2017, at least 20 Maine children have died after people reported concerns about their safety to state child welfare workers, according to data collected last April by the Bangor Daily News. Thirteen of those deaths were attributed to accidents, including eight involving co-sleeping. Yet despite reforms following the high-profile murders of two children whose welfare was reported, Maine foster care workers are still struggling to determine which children will be safe if left in their homes and which, if removed, would be safe if later reunified with their families, WGME news recently reported. In her 2019 annual report, state child welfare services ombudsman Christine Alberi, whose office reviews child protective cases brought to its attention, disagreed with how the state handled 37 out of 98 cases – or 40 percent, WGME said.
We pride ourselves on being a country that protects the weak and vulnerable. When we don’t, the weak and vulnerable pay the price. We’ve already lost too many children who the foster care system failed to protect. How many more will it take?
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture book The Backward Easter Egg Hunt and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series, celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith. Connect at www.meadowrue.com