When you grow up in foster care and have a child, your greatest hope is that you’ll get to be your child’s Mommy. Your greatest fear is that you’ll fail, and your child will feel the same pain you felt. When you lose your mother, you feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself.
Too often, our fears come true. Few child welfare systems nationwide track removals of children from mothers who have been in foster care, but according to New York City Children’s Services, nearly one out of three babies (29 percent) born to mothers in foster care in New York City from 2006-2012 was placed in foster care.
To understand what child welfare systems can do to better support the mothers they helped raise, we interviewed Susan Notkin, associate director at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in New York; Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation in California; and Amelia Franck Meyer, CEO of Anu Family Services in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Q: Why do moms who grew up in foster care lose their kids at such high rates? What responsibility does the child welfare system have to do better by these moms?
Notkin: Many moms have experienced an awful lot of loss and pain, which can trigger painful, confusing feelings when they become parents. They also may not have much support and can find themselves raising their children alone while still trying to grow up themselves. At the same time, moms in care are under scrutiny by foster parents and staff, and by mandated reporters at public agencies after they leave care, which means they are often being watched and judged more than other parents.
Lemley: When a system removes children from parents, that system takes full legal responsibility for those children. It’s unacceptable for it to then stand by while those children have poor outcomes as parents.
One of the first things systems should do is address unintended pregnancies. We see that 1 out of 3 teen girls in foster care has a child by 19, but 2 out of 3 say they didn’t mean to get pregnant. Sexuality is complex for everyone, but especially for people who have been abused and neglected. With help, young people can understand what sex and intimacy mean to them, and make choices. But in California, like most states, there are no formal policies on pregnancy prevention for youth in care.
When a young woman does decide to have a baby, too often nothing is done to help her prepare until after the baby is born. Some child welfare systems have begun using maternity specialists to help pregnant girls plan: What will this baby mean for my housing and education? Do I have enough support? If I have issues, like anger, depression, or drug use, how can I begin to address them? More systems should be doing that. Birth shouldn’t feel like a crisis.
Franck Meyer: In Minnesota and Wisconsin, child welfare systems hire us to work with young mothers as individual coaches. Our goal is to help moms understand that when they lose control, or get so stressed they tune their kids out, their responses are normal given the trauma they’ve experienced. At those times, they’re in survival brain, but with healing and practice they can get back into thinking brain. Teaching mothers this takes them from feeling like they keep messing up and it’s hopeless, to thinking it’s a pattern they can predict and begin to change.
Mothers in care are often afraid that admitting to problems may lead to a call to child protective services. Because we’re seen as outside the system, moms are more willing to talk to us. Still, trust takes time. When mothers say they don’t want us to come for the next session, we say: ‘OK, when can I come?’ But moms in care have also often been forced into services they don’t want, so we try to give them control. We acknowledge that they are the most important person in their child’s life, not us.
As mandated reporters, we have to ensure safety. If a mother is not attending to her baby’s cries, that baby might look safe but it’s only physically safe. Our goal is to teach moms how to keep their child safe in all ways. At the same time, we are incredibly clear that we are only going to make a report if the safety concerns are very serious. Otherwise, we bring support to increase safety.
Having your child removed when you’ve been in care means the worst thing that happened to you is now happening again. It can take superhuman strength to recover from that. When moms don’t get the support they need to heal, what makes us think we won’t be in the same spot when that child becomes a parent? We know more than ever how to break that cycle. We just have to start doing it.
Notkin: The Center for the Study of Social Policy is working with child welfare systems around the country to improve services for pregnant and parenting youth in foster care. Right now most systems don’t even count the number pregnant and parenting youth in their care. We think they should.
We also think systems ought to provide evidence-based services for mothers, their babies, and mothers and babies together, and help mothers build a support system, with at least one person mothers know they can count on through thick and thin. Mothers in care—like all of us—need support.
Lastly, systems need to get much smarter about when they make reports. When there are safety issues, there needs to be a response. But mothers in care shouldn’t live in fear that the first response to any concern will be a call to child protection.