State foster care system desperately seeking Solomon

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

It is easy to cite problems in the state's foster care system. Finding solutions, however, is not easy. Being devised and facilitated by humans, the system is, understandably, fraught with imperfection. But since the lives of so many people are affected by foster care and the decisions of involved family members, state agencies, courts and administrators, it is essential that a viable, compassionate solution be found.

The issues are emotionally heated, with all sides claiming to be putting the best interest of the child first. So why all the controversy?

In perhaps the first recorded incident of a dispute over a child, the Old Testament tells the story, in the first chapter of Kings, of King Solomon, whose means of settling a dispute over a baby led to his name becoming synonomous with wisdom.

When two women approached him claiming to be the mother of the same young boy, Solomon offered to split the baby in two with his sword and give half to each mother. Out of compassion for her child, the real mother begged the king to spare the child and give it to the other woman. Only then was it clear to Solomon who the true mother was, and he returned the child to her.

Where do we look for such wisdom today?

The current system is rife with problems, and the very children it claims to protect -- those with the most at stake but the least to say about their fate -- are caught in the middle. The state Division of Family and Youth Services, which is most directly responsible for handling the foster care system, is an easy target in the search for solutions. Too easy. DFYS administrators face a vast and unenviable array of cases, and decisions made often leave one party or another aggrieved.

How do DFYS and the courts determine the best situation when they're confronted with the needs and wishes of the immediate family, extended family, foster parents, state regulations, federal laws and the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children? Where is the Solomonic wisdom needed to navigate the labyrinth of bureaucracy?

It can't be easy, but surely there are improvements that can be made that don't catch kids.

Not shipping them to out-of-state foster care, as is presently the case with 133 Alaska children, when legitimate and loving in-state relatives are willing to step in, seems like an exceedingly reasonable fix in some of these cases. This is a practice that should be ended now. Making grandparents or aunts and uncles jump through hoop after frustrating hoop while their loved one is placed in the relative sterility of out-of-state foster care is ludicrous.

There are reports of some families having to go on welfare in order to comply with all the counseling, evaluations and other requirements of DFYS to get their children back. The protection of children should always be the highest priority, but should decent, working families have to face this kind of disruption?

Lost in all the finger-pointing, as it has been with frightening regularity in these increasingly litigious times, is the notion of accountability and personal responsibility. If all people were responsible to begin with, there would be no need for DFYS -- or countless other government agencies, for that matter.

We hold reproductive rights to be sacrosanct in this county. But it doesn't take the wisdom of Solomon to see that those rights come with a heavy responsibility -- and potentially dire consequences for the innocent children split in two by the double-edged sword of parental indifference and negligence when those rights are abrogated.

The problem is crying for a solution. Trouble is, we've lost sight of Solomon.

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