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bartholet.jpg (26400 bytes)Professor Elizabeth Bartholet '65
Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative
Beacon Press, 1999

Bulletin: In Family Bonds, you argued that society’s "biological bias" pressures people to produce children at any cost and pushes the infertile away from adoption. Don’t you also address this bias in your new book, Nobody’s Children, in the context of abuse and neglect cases?  Elizabeth Bartholet: Both books critique the way biological bias shapes the concept of family in our society, but they take on quite different issues. Family Bonds looks at how our policies shape choices for prospective parents as they consider infertility treatment on the one hand and adoption on the other. Nobody’s Children looks at how our policies affect children victimized by abuse and neglect. My claim is that undue biological bias is responsible for our failure to do enough to protect kids in the biological home, our tendency to use foster care as the permanent solution when we do remove children, and our extreme reluctance to use adoption. We give biological parents near-absolute rights to hold onto the children they produce, and generally refuse to terminate parental rights even in cases where it is clear children will not and should not be raised by their parents of origin.

Who are "nobody’s children"? The children growing up in biological or foster homes where there is no home in the true sense of the word. These kids have effectively been abandoned not only by their parents but also by the larger society. My argument is that the entire community needs to take responsibility for the kids now seen as "nobody’s."

What is most wrong with the current system’s handling of the child abuse and neglect problem? First, we don’t do enough to support families early on, before they get into deep trouble. I argue for a massive expansion of our country’s current experiment with intensive home visitation (HV) programs during pregnancy and early childhood. Child maltreatment is highly associated with young single parents living in poverty. Intensive HV programs help teach such parents essential skills, and help them to get employed, to avoid other pregnancies, and generally to escape the pressures that lead to abuse and neglect.

Second, when families do fall apart, our child welfare system doesn’t do enough to protect children. The system places undue emphasis on parent rights, as compared to children’s interests. The overwhelming goal is "family preservation," with adoption considered only as a last last resort. We should of course make an effort to preserve families in which meaningful family relationships exist to preserve. But we need to move promptly to get children out of homes where they have no real chance for nurturing, and into permanent adoptive homes.

When is termination of parental rights (TPR) appropriate? There is no simple calculus, but examples help. A stark one is torture. When parents have deliberately burned their children or beaten them viciously and repeatedly, it’s extremely unlikely that they will ever be fit parents however many parenting skills courses they take. We should not be holding children in foster care while such parents are given endless chances to get "rehabilitated." We should move the kids immediately into pre-adoptive homes, and take prompt action to terminate parental rights.

How do you propose handling substance abuse cases? These represent a huge piece of the problem: 70 to 80 percent of maltreating parents abuse illicit drugs and/or alcohol in ways that destroy parenting capacity. Our system’s reluctance to remove kids and terminate parental rights in these cases risks sacrificing the next generation. Children denied a nurturing environment go on to lives characterized by homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, and maltreatment of their own children. We need to confront the substance abuse problem, and insist that maltreating parents get into treatment and off of drugs and alcohol. And if the parents can’t stick with their treatment regimen, we have to be prepared to say, "That’s it," and move to TPR, freeing the kids for adoption.

Both your books talk about the system’s bias in favor of keeping children in their family of origin and their racial community of origin. Is the system changing? Recently there have been numerous signs of popular protest against these related biases of the system. Congress has passed two very important laws in just the last few years, limiting family preservation and knocking down racial and other barriers to adoption — the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). There’s widespread sympathy for the idea that children deserve at least one person capable of parenting them, regardless of that person’s bloodlines or racial make-up. But the social welfare world remains powerfully committed to the notion that kids "belong" with their roots, and in their kinship and their racial groups of origin.

Nobody’s Children, like Family Bonds, talks about the stigma attached to adoption. How much has this changed? Adoption never has been a significant option in this country. The question today is whether we are finally ready to make it one.

What about the argument that there are simply not enough parents willing to adopt children from foster care? For decades, the child welfare system has driven potential adopters away. It has told the overwhelming majority of eager adoptive parents that they are not eligible for the majority of kids in foster care because they are the wrong race. It has recruited for adoptive parents only on a narrow same-race basis, and only within a limited geographic area and limited socioeconomic group.

Many claim that we wouldn’t be able to find enough adoptive homes because the kids in foster care tend to be older and have a range of disabilities. My response: When the system recruits for special-needs kids, it comes up with many parents who are interested in adopting kids with even very serious disabilities. Besides, the real problem — and the real crime — is that our system refuses to free kids up for adoption until they have spent years in limbo, often bouncing back and forth between abusive homes and inadequate foster care. We shouldn’t be waiting to free kids for adoption until they’re older, and have suffered serious damage from multiple years of abuse and neglect. If we freed children early we would have no problem finding adoptive homes, and the kids would have a decent chance at life.

Interview by Julia Collins

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