Foster care crisis deeper than a few bad  parents

Mar 21, 2013

Earlier this week, The Mountaineer reported on the rising number of children in the foster care system in Haywood County, the increasing costs to the county and the need for more licensed foster homes.

While all this is true, the statistics reported by the Department of Social Services make it clear that the problem goes deeper than a few “bad parents.” It is time to look at the circumstances surrounding the removal of a child from a home and look past the surface problems to the underlying issues in our community that — while perhaps not directly causing the problem — certainly aren’t helping it either.

It is no secret that budget cuts have been made and are likely to continue, particularly when it comes to social services. While some might declare this a good and necessary thing, the child welfare statistics in our county alone put these cuts in a different light.

According to a report from Haywood County DSS, all of the families that had children removed from the home had multiple problems that led to foster care. Highest among those issues were substance abuse and emotional and mental health problems. It is important to note that these two issues affect the exact same percentage — 68 percent — of families.

It is easy to draw the conclusion that these issues are related, and while drug addiction treatment programs can be effective in helping people break free from their addiction, addressing the underlying emotional and mental health problems leading to addiction is a big part of that treatment. Better yet, we should be addressing emotional and mental health problems before they lead to other negative behaviors, such as substance abuse, violence, etc.

To do otherwise is to continue the cycle in our next generation, the children of the people who didn’t get enough help, didn’t get it soon enough, or themselves grew up in the same kind of unhealthy home they are now creating for their children.

All this is not to say that there aren’t many situations in which a child must be removed from a home for his or her safety. Those tragic cases will occur, and the safety and well being of children should always be a priority. But it is time to stop paying lip service to that ideal, and start doing something about it.

We understand government can’t be the end all be all to the problem and at some point parents have to be responsible for their behavior and choices. To get to that point, the cycle needs to be broken. Helping people needs to become a priority and parents suffering from mental health issues and drug addiction need to take the necessary steps to change their lives.

But the services have to be available for those who ask for help. Cutting public service programs like health care, especially mental health care, and patting ourselves on the back about how much money we’re saving in the short term will only cost us more in the future.

The “savings” will be at a great cost to our children. For the moment, it is coming at a monetary cost by having to pour more money into the foster care system. But what will the cost be for those children as they become adults?

Will that child turn to drugs? Will he or she abuse their spouse and children just as they were abused? Will their children do the same? And how much more will it cost before we see the need to invest in changing things for the better?

DSS Director Ira Dove said the agency works hard to help parents and families overcome their problems, whether it’s in the form of drug treatment programs, counseling, parenting classes or any number of other services that can help to make a family healthy and create a safe environment for the children in it.

“But the plan relies on the fact that there will be community services available to help those kids,” Dove added.

Let’s make sure we’re not so focused on the short term that we can’t clearly see the future we’re creating.