“When I was 12, a social worker took me away from my family and put me in a group home. I could actually see my family’s house from the home’s upstairs window. My brothers and sisters were still living there with our parents. I spent so much time wondering, ‘Why me? Am I the bad one?’” But Franck, the man in eastern France who told me this, never found anyone willing to tell him why he was put in foster care. We were talking one windy day when we were playing with Franck’s dog. Our conversation also included a woman named Mariette who shared her son’s experience:
“When my son was 14, I heard that they were considering taking him away from us. So I went to find a youth worker. I asked him to work with me to find activities for my son, and to make sure he would not have to leave home. I could guess exactly why people were worried about him. It’s true that he would act up, and lose his temper sometimes. But if people had only paid attention, they would have seen that the only time he was ever violent was in the weeks right before and after Christmas. When other boys were looking forward to special presents or trips, my son knew very well that he’d get nothing more than a pair of sneakers—or even just socks when times were very bad. It was awful for him every year hearing the others brag about where they’d gone for the holidays or what Santa brought them. But the rest of the year, he was never any trouble. And sure enough, once the youth worker was on our side, no one ever again said that my son had to be taken away from us.”
While foster care can be a useful tool for families in crisis, too often it is abused as the only response society can imagine for a child like Mariette’s. While she knew that his behavior was a problem, she was the only one who understood that it was linked to the frustrations of growing up in poverty—and that putting him in foster care could make his situation even worse. Like Franck, he could have struggled with loneliness and guilt, making it even harder for him to learn to control his temper. Thanks to Mariette’s courage and initiative in reaching out for support, and thanks to the youth worker’s understanding and support, her family’s relationships have remained a source of mutual strength. Today, Mariette’s son has a steady job in the military, is raising his own family, and is a great support to her when her health is bad.
In western Europe and North America, social services continue to remove many children from the care of loving, non-abusive parents because of poverty. Again and again, adults who experienced this as children tell us of regrets and frustrations that haunt them. While the goal of social services is to protect these children’s future, they seem to have no understanding of the harm that can be done by breaking families apart. On other continents where public social services cannot afford this approach, it is sometimes imported by international non-profit organizations, some of whose main goal is to find children who can be adopted in other countries. Anna, a mother in Southeast Asia who is part of ATD Fourth World, explained it this way:
“My family has been on the street for three years now. The last place we had was not really a house and it flooded when it rained. The owners wanted it back and we were thrown into the streets again. […] Police harass us for sleeping on the street. But what can we do? They come in the early hours, pile us into a truck, and send us to camps. They are worse than regular prisons. Our relatives can visit us less often than if we are in regular jail. And in those camps, they split up the families. A father and mother are not put together with their children. How can they do that? They split us up—it’s like breaking a bird’s nest. Don’t they see that? All we have is our family. I can’t read or write a word. But I understand that much—what they do to us is an injustice.”
No one wants children to suffer the harshness of life in poverty. As long as extreme poverty persists, some families will find nowhere to live but the streets, and child welfare systems will distrust parents’ abilities to raise their children. But, like Franck, children themselves say time and again that something irreplaceable has been lost when they must leave their families. We owe it to all of them to find better solutions together by fighting poverty, and by supporting the unseen efforts made by parents in poverty like Mariette and Anna.