Thursday, October 22, 2009

No Room at The Inn

No Room at the Inn Appr: 2700 words
by Karla M. Steffens-Moran

It's that time again....time to vote...time to ask the tough questions and expect some answers to tough situations. The candidates will do their best to either answer or evade those questions--but they will all make promises. If elected, I will do this...if elected, I will do that. We ask, listen, vote, hope and wait to see if those newly elected to office are able to fulfill those promises--or at the very least try.

It's easy to make a promise, difficult if not impossible to fulfill--especially, given the fact that there is always someone working at odds with what someone else wishes to accomplish. No matter what you are passionate about seeing happen, there is likely someone else who feels just as passionately about the opposite. And yet, it seems there should be some things we can all agree on: taking care of our elderly, our sick, our children.

One would hope.

Yet I recall in the morning after the last election. On the one hand, I was delighted that my candidates had all been victorious. There was much to celebrate. I sat across from my dear friend at the Skillet CafĂ© in town  over plates of steaming hot eggs and pancakes, our fingers wrapped around enormous mugs of hot, black coffee, as we talked excitedly of our hopes for the future. On the other hand, there had been signifcant losses. We both agreed: the only true losers this time around were the children in foster care waiting to be adopted, waiting for a place to call home.

We’re talking about Arkansas here, the most recent state in our nation to ban legal adoption of children by unmarried couples. The initiative was introduced by the Family Council Action Committee (a self-described “grassroots organization involved in ensuring the confirmation of conservative judicial nominees, protecting the Arkansas Marriage Amendment, and dealing with issues such as the expansion of gambling”). The measure was meant to circumvent The Supreme Court’s overturning of the Arkansas’s Child Welfare Agency Review Board’s policy in 1999 that banned gay people from serving as foster parents.

In its unanimous ruling, the court agreed that “the driving force behind adoption of the regulations was not to promote the health, safety and welfare of foster children but rather based upon the board’s views of morality and its bias against homosexuals.”

So, while Social Conservative blogs decry it “a huge victory!” the courts and advocates of human service agencies all agree that the ban is a genuine blow to the needs of children. How anyone could vote to deny any child a warm, loving, nurturing home is clearly beyond indecent. To do so and claim that it is a “victory in the name of what Jesus would do” is insulting. To claim this loss for children as “a victory for social conservatives everywhere” is cruel and inhuman--and yes, appallingly ignorant.

There is no victory in denying a child a home--for any reason, let alone basing it on some bigoted belief that only married heterosexuals can properly parent. Indeed, there is little evidence to support that “fact.” We need only look at the number of broken (i.e. divorced) heterosexual homes (as well as in-tact married heterosexual homes from which neglected and abused children have been forcibly taken by the state) to prove the point that “we married heterosexuals” have little right to claim superiority in our parenting skills. On the other hand, there is a genuine lack of evidence to suggest that single and/or homosexuals have failed to successfully parent children. Indeed, they are as likely (or more) to provide a loving and supportive home. There is no evidence. There is only bigotry.

I challenge anyone who holds this as his/her core criteria for denying a child a home to do one of several things: 1.) go and look a child in the eye who has been in the foster care system, waiting for nothing more than a permanent and safe home for years and dare to ask what s/he wants; 2.) serve on a foster care review board for even six months; 3.) talk to those wanting to adopt--heterosexual or homosexuals, married or not--waiting to adopt. Dare to do this. I challenge you.

If you do, I promise you it will change you; it will break your heart; it will, at the very least, give you pause to question your beliefs. Certainly, each of us is entitled to believe what we choose. However, those beliefs--no matter how passionately held they are--give us the zero right to deny others their Constitutional rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our opinions should not invade the rights of others to build families--in particular, if they are opinions based in ignorance. As I have suggested to students in my classes: it’s easy to have an opinion. The challenge is to have a well-informed one. It’s harder to be closed-minded with eyes wide open. The idea that to be heterosexual gives us some secret wisdom to parent is absurd. I’m a married heterosexual and am convinced of only one thing: there should be some test, some rulebook, something that would take some of the guesswork out of this thing we call parenting. The only thing I know for certain is that successful parenting begins and ends with being there. What children need is for us to be there for them. And we heterosexuals don’t have any stronghold--ANY advantage--in that one over anyone by virtue of our marital status and/or sexual orientation.

Because if that was true, then explain this to me. Why in this past year alone have nearly 800,000 children (most if not all of whom come from married heterosexual households) in this great nation of ours been served by the foster care system? Explain to me what happened with those 800,000 children?

I know! Let’s have every one who voted to ban homosexuals and/or the unmarried from adopting children adopt a child waiting for a home. Better yet, let’s include anyone who would vote to do so in any state at any time--and require that each of those voters provide safe shelter to a child waiting for a permanent home. Let’s go ahead and start with those voters from Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah, and Florida who have banned single and/or gay parenthood (we can add any voters who would vote to do so later as needed). I imagine that the number of voters in those early states alone would provide tens of thousands of homes to children waiting for permanent placement. Add to that the sixteen states with similar initiatives underway nationwide and their potential voters, and I think we just might have this placement problem licked.

Funny thing is--and clearly there’s not much that one might consider genuinely humorous here--after searching the web sites of countless such organizations, including the Family Action Council Committee responsible for the 2008 Arkansas ban--there is nothing on those sites inviting its membership to adopt any of these children. And while I do know a handful that practice what they preach, it appears that far too many of these advocates of “healthy family values” are disproportionately busy with their agenda of “being against,” to actually provide a solution, or in this case, a home.

Seventeen years ago, I served the foster care system in Baltimore, Maryland as a member of its Foster Care Review Board. I can attest that the only reason many of these children are returned to their biological parents is because there’s “no room at the inn”; there are not enough homes available for temporary, let alone permanent, placement. There are not enough willing to parent “somebody else’s problem.” So there we sat, around the large conference tables, listening to caseworkers lay out the pros and cons, flipping through the files trying to find some shred of evidence to support the hope that “reuniting” them with their biological parents was not in total vain.

Every month we would review these cases and be devastated. Children forced to eat out of garbage cans, abandoned for days or weeks at a time, starved for attention and time and nutrients; toddlers forced to fend for themselves while caring for younger siblings. These children were ravaged first by parents--of all ages, races, religions and socioeconomic levels--and second by an overburdened system of workers that could only do so much with their limited resources. Children starved, beaten, burned with irons, cigarettes, cut with bottles, sexually mutilated and then abandoned. And these were the survivors. Tough, resilient, courageous children in need of one thing: a safe home.

But there weren’t enough families willing to adopt out of the system. And so back these children went. We had no choice. That’s what we tried to convince ourselves as we closed the case files and headed home for the day. My friend and I would drive home, silently, filled with a sorrow that haunts me to this day, for having sent these kids back to near certain neglect and abuse.

First, do no harm. That should be the criteria before anyone casts a vote on the safety and salvation of a child. Second, know the facts. Third, do something to help the situation before eliminating those willing to do so. Only after all of those boxes have been checked should we allow ourselves to cast any vote on behalf of what we believe is best for another human being--in particular, a child.

As of January 2008 of this year, according to the data collected by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families, there were 130,000 children waiting to be adopted. Of those, 84,000 had already had parental rights terminated--translation: had been in the system for on average two years--and were waiting for permanent placement, waiting for someone to make room for them in their lives and homes. This figure does not take into account the nearly 800,000 in 2007 actually served by the foster care system. Who am I you may wonder to speak on behalf of these children waiting to be adopted? Am I an authority? No--and yes.

Yes, because I am adopted. Notice that even though I am a grown woman that I say I am adopted versus I was adopted. This is a distinction to note because truth is, unlike foster care, being adopted is not temporary. Even those of us adopted at an early age know from our core what it means to long for inclusion in a family that will be there for us, who will not abandon us.

And let’s face it, such families are not born, they’re created. Families are not accidents; they’re choices we make. It is a choice to be there for others: through better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, to stay versus leave, to be there. And in the case of those children waiting to be adopted, their wait has just been extended because the pool of prospective parents has been crippled by the bigotry of individuals who believe they know what is best. Those ‘holier than thou’ in the states of Arkansas and Utah, Florida and Mississippi. who believe they know who is better equipped to be a parent: “married couples that consist of a man and a woman.” And while the voters in these states play God in de-vining what makes for a “healthy family,” the children wait.

“Since FY 2003, the estimated number of waiting children has been approximately 130,000 on the last day of each year. The estimated number of waiting children whose parental rights had already been terminated as of the last day of the year has been increasing (from 74,000 in FY 2004, to 78,000 in FY 2005, and to 80,000 in FY 2005). The estimated number reached 84,000 in FY 2007, the highest number since AFCARS data have been reported.” Some have stood up to answer the call of these children. They fight to protect these children just as others work to deny them rights. And the battle rages on.

A circuit court judge in Florida ruled the state's 31-year-old
ban on adoptions by openly gay men and women is unconstitutional.
Monroe County Circuit Judge David J. Audlin Jr. issued the ruling
in the case of a gay Key West foster parent who seeks to adopt the
special needs teenage boy he has been taking care of, the Miami
Herald reported Wednesday.Audlin declared the adoption to be in
the boy's "best interest" and said the Florida law forbidding
gay people from adopting children is unconstitutional. A home
study by a Florida social worker "highly" recommended the foster
father and his partner be allowed to adopt the boy, saying they
provided a "loving and nurturing home.” (Miami Herald, 2008)

My friend and his partner have done that very thing. They’ve provided a home to three young children--siblings who have been in the system for years since nearly birth. I am proud to know and call this family--created from love and from commitment to being there for one another--my friends. Their home began with the opening of their hearts as many such homes wish to do. They are counting on us to open our eyes, our minds, our ears, and yes, our hearts to the truth that family is constructed in many ways. Home is where the heart is open and the mind is open and the door is open.

That’s what we each need a family, a home, a place to return to that is safe and loving and nurturing, with parents who are there for us. Let us all stand united in this, men, women, straights, gays, adopted and adopter, married and single--to defeat any measure that is meant to exclude, deny, diminish the rights of any of our citizens.

The irony of course is that while the House unanimously passes legislation to encourage that children not be left waiting until they “age-out” of the system (which sadly nearly 25,000 youth do each year without ever enjoying what most of us enjoy--a permanent home), coalitions of ignorant soulless individuals work against their efforts. This ensures only one thing: a child is left waiting. Actually 130,000 children are left waiting.

Of course there are organizations devoted to working on behalf of the kids. One such organization: Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now is described as “a national, nonpartisan campaign dedicated to promoting foster care reform. Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts, an ever-growing number of local, state and national partners are working together so that our most vulnerable children don't spend their childhood waiting in foster care for the families they deserve.” However, while we applaud the efforts of these organizations, we need not wait for such a ban initiative to show up on our next election ballot. And let’s be clear, someone is working on drafting one for our state because they think they know best. They don’t.

So, let’s instead be proactive. Let’s each of us go one step further than simply saying: that’s not right. Let’s at the least write to our Congressmen and our Senators, write to our current President, George W. Bush, write to our new president-elect, Barack Obama on his new website that is asking us to speak up. Or contact Jennifer Slife and Jennifer Gericke to see about serving on a Foster Care Review Board here in Linn County by calling: 319-362-0829 or write or to get involved. Perhaps it will serve to open a door to what is truly needed, what is truly at stake. While the election is over and the votes are already cast, as president-elect Obama has suggested: the work has just begun. It’s not enough anymore to simply cast our votes and wash our hands of it.

Let’s instead put those idle hands to work on creating something positive. Let’s make it our responsibility. As one of my own three beautiful children pointed out to me on Election morning: “The thing is, Mom, it’s not about being against something; it’s about asking yourself what you’re for.” Change happens when we choose it…and follow up by working for it.

Last night I sat at the theatre watching my own daughter onstage. My two friends sat--all three of their kids in tow in order to introduce them to the delight of going to the theatre-- (two weeks ago it was cheering on the high school football team). Two of the three kids were curled up in their daddies’ laps, heads resting against their broad shoulders. The third was sitting forward laughing at all the antics onstage. The play was almost over. The oldest, a daughter looked up to her dad and asked in a hushed whisper: “Are we going home soon, Daddy?” My friend looked down the row to his partner and they shared that knowing glance: “It’s late. We need to get them to bed soon.” My friend hugged his new daughter to him and whispered back to her assuringly: “Yes, sweetie, we’ll be going home soon.” She smiled. Her wait is over.

One hundred and thirty thousand are still waiting.

No comments: