The following is a guest editorial I wrote for the current edition of Folio Weekly. Consider it one in a series of occasional rants.
My daughter spent the first nine months of her life in a bassinet in a Latin American orphanage.
I don’t mean that she slept in the bassinet. I mean that she lived there. She spent perhaps an hour each day being held for a few minutes, getting a quick bath, getting her diaper changed — then it was back to the bassinet. At feeding time, the orphanage nannies propped a bottle up next to her head where she could reach it.
So instinctive was her need for some type of stimulation that she repeatedly rubbed her head back and forth against the sheets until a cyst rose on the back of her skull. It developed into a staph infection when the orphanage doctor spliced it open.
But you know, it could have been worse. She could have been born into Florida’s foster care system.
News broke late last month that a Canadian couple, Andrew Dolan and Suzanne Tyler, has filed suit against Family Support Services, the private nonprofit responsible for caring for those Northeast Florida children taken from their families due to neglect or abuse. The couple adopted two children out of Florida’s foster care system through Family Support Services. After the adoption was finalized, the couple says, the children began to reveal terrible stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse from their time in foster care.
The children, a boy and girl now 6 and 8 years old, were taken from their birth mother in 2005. Over the next four years, they lived in no fewer than five homes. At one point, they were adopted by a West Virginia family — but the family returned them five months later, presumably because their history had made them too difficult to parent.
To their credit, Dolan and Tyler do not want to give up their family. They want additional financial assistance (beyond their current $900 monthly stipend) to help with the years of therapy the kids will require, and compensation for the treatment their children received at the hands of the state of Florida.
Though there is much yet to be discovered in the case, it seems probable that some abuse occurred. The very first home the kids lived in was shut down after the foster mother was convicted of child abuse. And the children’s current behavior, which includes bouts of violence, suggests they endured significant trauma.
But let’s assume — for cynicism’s sake — that the abuse didn’t occur. Let’s take only what we know: that during the first few years of these siblings’ lives, they were neglected by their birth mother, taken from her forever, given a series of temporary foster mothers, and then adopted by parents who decided to give them back. This sequence of events isn’t unusual; in Florida, foster children spend an average of two years in state custody, and nearly 40 percent of them reside in at least three different homes during that time.
Such statistics are hard to swallow when read in the abstract. That’s why we tend to keep them there. But common decency demands that we look at it more realistically.
So picture your own child. Or your nephew, or grandchild. Imagine that child, say, neglected or molested so often that the police took her away from the only family she knew. The child goes to live with a foster mother, who beats her with a belt. So she goes to live with another foster mother who can’t keep her very long. So she goes to live with another, who has 10 other children in the home. So she goes to live with another, who can’t tolerate the behavior she’s developed over the past few years. This all happens before the child can write her own name.
Abuse and neglect, by traditional definitions, are bad enough. But our failure to give these children any kind of stability in the wake of their trauma also constitutes abuse and neglect. The damage done to the psyche of a child who grows up without parental love is monumental and can be irreparable.
Nearly 30,000 children reside in Florida’s foster care system right now. Many of them are being loved and supported through their rough patches. Many more are not. And the grim reality is about to get a lot worse.
Gov. Rick Scott’s budget strips nearly $200 million from the state Department of Children and Families. Asked how an agency with scant resources and a history of kids falling through the cracks can absorb that kind of financial body blow, Scott offers only his signature nothing: He has “confidence” that DCF officials will figure something out.
Andrew Dolan has said that had they known of the children’s history, they would never have adopted them.
He’s been criticized for that, and for seeking monetary damages.
But as an adoptive parent, I know what he means. The fact that they’re keeping the kids is paramount; it’s the best shot these children have at some degree of normalcy and happiness. And the financial aspect? I’m guessing he looks into the tortured faces of his children every day and imagines what the state of Florida did to cause them so much pain. “Somebody,” he thinks, “somebody’s got to pay for that. Somebody besides these kids.”