Every child deserves a family. I know this as well as anyone. Had the Rackaways not adopted me as a baby, I might never have known what it means to be part of a family. Throughout my life, as an adoptee and now as an adoptive parent of two beautiful children, I have been able to see that what makes a family is not necessarily biology, but love and care. When a biological family cannot provide adequate care for a child, having others willing to foster or adopt kids is often the ticket to a productive and happy life.
As of fiscal year 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (www.acf.hhs.gov), there were more than 400,000 children in foster care systems in the United States, 6,441 of them in Kansas. Six thousand human lives in limbo. For prospective foster parents, the foster system itself is a maze of complicated regulations, strict behavioral barriers, extensive training and scrutiny. I lived the life of a foster-parent-in-waiting before we opted for adoption through other means in 2009 and 2010. Foster care is not something entered into lightly. And the thousands of children in the system speak to a limited supply of foster families relative to the demand of children in the system.
When a policy-drenched topic such as foster care comes up, there is a natural opportunity for legislatures to step in and hopefully make improvements for the benefit of kids in need, as well as the families that make them part of their own -- even if only temporarily. Enter Altoona Republican Forrest Knox, who knows a bit about foster care having fostered-to-adopt four boys with his wife. Rather than finding a way to expand the pool of foster families, Knox has decided that what the Kansas foster system really needs is more restrictions on foster families.
Knox introduced Senate Bill 158 on Feb. 5, which would create a new tier of foster care families known as CARE. Foster families who are deemed to qualify for CARE and its higher state subsidy must: 1) be married for seven years, 2) have no alcohol or tobacco in their home, 3) have never been a drug user in life, 4) have both parents possessing high school diplomas, 5) attend church or equivalent organization weekly, 6) provide evidence neither of the parents ever had an extramarital affair and 7) must have at least one parent who does not work outside the home.
Knox said when social workers would visit his home, they were struck by its normalcy. The social workers would tell Knox and his wife horror stories of other foster households. With a 2-inch, three-ring binder of regulations for all foster houses, how those horror stories made state review satisfactorily is mind-boggling.
If this were 1970, then Knox's idea of an ideal family would be fairly easy to recruit into the system. A family like the Brady Bunch would easily fit into Knox's archetype for the CARE foster family. One parent does not work outside the home, a long-term stable marriage is present, no sinful beverages are strewn about their sprawling split-level home, and presumably the Bradys were good church-going parents.
Of course, behind the scenes, we know Brady family patriarch Robert Reed was a tormented gay man stuck in the closet for life. Florence Henderson created the Carol Brady character as a manifestation of an ideal mother she never had in her own life after being abandoned by her own mother early in life. Sexual tension abounded between Henderson and the actor who played her on-screen son, as well as between the actors who played the Brady children. Henderson herself admitted in her 2010 autobiography to having affairs during her married life.
So the very image of the "perfect" family that would fit in the CARE system would actually have failed to meet more than half of the standards Knox's bill establishes -- and that was 40 years ago. Today, the picture of an archetypal American family is radically different, though. Look at the Dunphys of Modern Family. A blended/post-divorce couple with later-in-life children, a gay couple who adopted, and a more traditional male-female couple with multiple biological children. In each extension of the family, though, children are lovingly cared for. Neither the Brady Bunch nor Modern Family examples should serve as a template for the ideal family, which makes Knox's attempt at social engineering all the more difficult to fathom.
From my own experience and that of fellow adoptees and adoptive parents, I can say that family is what one makes of it. Regardless of our background, we build our families out of love of care, not tick marks on a checklist of "approved" behaviors and customs. Oddly enough, if an unmarried church pastor or a nun wanted to foster in the CARE program, they would be ineligible. Single people need not apply, either.
Knox has said this is an incentive program, and not an expectation that all foster families would fit his criteria for a "normal" family. But Knox further stated he would like to see his standards established as the minima for fostering in the state. How drastically these new restrictions would reduce the available foster family pool is not known, but with demand far exceeding supply doing anything that might cause families to exit the foster system and new ones to forego entering the system is the exact wrong way to go about the problem. In fact, by providing higher subsidies to CARE families, Knox's plan might incentivize some families to look to foster care as a cash cow first instead of expanding their family and providing safe homes for children in need.
In short, setting unrealistic goals about personal values for foster families is the wrong solution to an even bigger problem. Someone who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner is not less of a parent, nor in reduced capacity to foster a child. Reforming the foster system to better care for children, to provide support for fostering families and encourage more potential foster families to enter the system, is the right direction. Let us hope Knox will amend his bill to refocus on the most critical aspect of the foster system in need of immediate reform.
Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.