RINEHART: How long will NC foster care children languish in search of a forever family?

Before most North Carolinians ever heard of a virus by the name of COVID, another epidemic already existed in our state.  Substance abuse and particularly, opioid addiction, have been at historic highs in North Carolina.  Those who pay the steepest price in this epidemic are babies and small children in the care of a parent too incapacitated to care for them.   This is why the number of children entering the North Carolina foster care system has increased over 36% in the last decade.

Last week the tragedy these children face found its way onto the House and Senate floor in the first piece of legislation in North Carolina designed to provide children with a stable, permanent home within the first 15 months of life — either with a recovering parent,  a close relative,  or an adoptive family.   Both the House and the Senate passed House Bill #918 and now it awaits the governor’s signature.

This bill marks an important and needed paradigm shift in foster care legislation.  In the past, the child welfare system has been biased in favor of the parent’s desires and needs — not the child’s.  While reunification with blood relatives is always desirable, it is not always possible.   Recovery from serious opioid addiction, for example, takes an average of five years.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes, a parent will not or cannot do what it takes to care for a child.  Children pay a steep price for a parent’s addiction.  In fact, over 90% of the maltreatment of children actually occurs at the hands of a parent or a paramour, often under the influence of drugs.  

For all these reasons, then, many children languish in foster care in North Carolina for years, waiting for a parent to get serious about treatment and stable enough to parent.   After two or three years in a foster home, small children have attached and bonded, often to families who would happily provide them with a lasting home.  The goal of reunification-at-any-price produces heart-wrenching scenes.   A child who has attached to foster care parents for two to four years thinks of them as  “mother” and daddy” until the moment when he is pried from their arms, crying and kicking, and handed over to a parent or relative he barely knows.  

It’s a traumatic disruption and it can lead to an attachment disorder that marks that child for life.  It’s time we faced reality.  Being with a blood relative may not always be in the best interests of the child. 

This new legislation, which follows a path first blazed in Arizona, is now being followed in six other states like North Carolina.  It aims to reset the clock in favor of the child’s attachment and developmental needs.  The first three years of a child’s life are crucial.  Bessel van der Kolk,  Harvard’s renowned trauma researcher,  has documented for 25 years the adverse changes to the brain,  cognitive and developmental delays,  and anxiety and depression children suffer throughout life because of early disruption in their attachment bonds.

This is North Carolina’s opportunity to intervene on behalf of children tossed around in the system, often until they are too old to be easily adopted.   We can prevent homelessness, prison, and mental illness that has its roots in early childhood trauma associated with endless foster care — but only if we intervene sooner on behalf of the child.  That decision is now entirely in Governor Cooper’s hands.  

Paula Rinehart, LCSW, is a social worker in Wake County who writes on cultural issues and who served on the team promoting child-centered foster care legislation in North Carolina.