Friday, September 22, 2023

The Demons of rural foster care

A ten year-old getting high on pills. Foolish children. This is what we're meant to say: Look at their choices, leading to a life of ruin. But lives are getting lived right now, this hour, down in the dirty cracks between the toothbrushed nighty-nights and the full grocery carts, where those words dont pertain. Children, choices. Ruin, that was the labor and materials we were given to work with. An older boy that never felt safe, trying to make us feel safe. We had the moon in the window to smile on us for a minute and tell us the world was ours. Because all the adults had gone off somewhere and left everything in our hands. (Demon Copperhead, p.76-77)

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Demon Copperhead, follows the fictional Damon Copperfield—a.k.a. Demon Copperhead—as he retells his rural Appalachian upbringing.

Damon parents his single mother, up until her drug relapse lands him in foster care. Kingsolver does not mince words as a harrowing depiction of the rural foster experience unfolds; instances of child labor, neglect, abuse, malnourishment, and everything in between are rife throughout Damon’s story.

In the introductory quote, Damon is an emergency foster placement on a farm that is the Department of Social Service’s absolute last resort (a blog post on the limits of rural foster placements can be found here.)

The children pop a random assortment of pills during their “pharm party,” courtesy of the eldest foster youth known as "Fast Forward." Admittedly, it’s hard to fault them as Damon reckons some children are abandoned by those meant to care for them, and they are left behind without support or basic necessities.

Damon’s struggles are the reality of many rural children. The U.S. Department of Health and Services found that several factors strongly linked to child maltreatment are prevalent in rural communities—poverty, lower education levels, unemployment, substance use, and addiction. This puts rural children at risk and heightens the need for adequate child welfare services in rural communities.

But child welfare services are strained in these areas: rural communities pose specific challenges that make providing and accessing these services extremely difficult. A thread of posts starting here discusses this issue in more detail. 

As a result, generalized child welfare reforms do not address the rural, whose social services, communities, and children continue to lack critical aid.

Current federal efforts, like the Family First Prevention Services Act ("FFPSA")
, are an example of reforms that don’t tailor efforts to rural communities. Instead, preventive efforts are subsidized while traditional foster care spaces are scaled back, having detrimental effects across the U.S.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs has on record a 1975 initiative titled Project Children which aimed at “inform[ing] and involv[ing] the community in child abuse and neglect treatment and prevention” specifically in rural areas.

In "Establishing a Rural Child Abuse/Neglect Treatment Program," Thomas Sefcik and Nancy Ormsby detail Project Children, as it spanned an area of five counties in southcentral Indiana labeled “61.6% rural.”

Its framework began with a simple but effective recognition: “[outsiders] are not always readily accepted by small-town citizens, and particularly a[n] [outsider] whose job may necessitate exposing faults within local agencies.”

Appointing an anonymous government official to point out the cracks in the local child welfare system, and still having that official leverage community support was a tough sell.

For that reason, the local Departments of Public Welfare (“DPW”) were directly involved in selecting the project’s coordinator, and were engaged with throughout the project.

The coordinator was to “1) develop a service network in which the various agencies’ roles and relationships were clear, and 2) to provide the best system for helping families by avoiding overlapping functions and ensuring that essential services are available in the community.”

Spreading out from the coordinator was a Hospital Prevention Team, a Parent Aide Program, and Community Education and Prevention efforts; each of these leveraging, developing, and informing existing community members in child welfare services.

With social services generally scarce in rural communities, the goal appears to be enhancing the social service structures already there.

In "The Paradox of Child Poverty and Welfare," Tirna Purkait acknowledges that communities can help bridge this gap between implementing child welfare programs and the local regions.

Bolstering the services that are there and directing efforts at the community level may be a step towards improving rural child welfare services.

Project Children took rural realities head on and intertwined them with rural-specific reforms; it serves as an example that not only are targeted child welfare reforms available, but they have been carried out before.

Similar efforts are worth consideration if we hope to bring a brighter future to rural foster youth.


Sophie R Radford said...

I think this is a really important and confronting issue that deserves more attention. Thank you for speaking about it Chris. I find it heartbreaking to think that rural children are already placed in a position of disadvantage purely based on where they live, and then there's an additional layer of concern on top of that. Well done for addressing this.

Thalia Taylor said...

This is a really difficult issue. The Indian Child Welfare Act prioritizes keeping children in their communities and with family. Child welfare advocates have said that ICWA is the gold standard that should be pursued for all children. I wonder if that kind of change in child welfare wouldn't also help government agencies working in those communities. Over time, they might be seen less as people who come and interfere, and more as people who help maintain balance and keep everyone safe.