The Case for Orphanages
COULD ANYONE in their right mind deny that the 3-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son of Tanicia Goodwin would have been better off in an orphanage than at home with their mother or in a foster care placement that would eventually lead back to her?
This week, Salem police accused Goodwin, 25, of attempting to murder her children - Erica and Jamaal - by slashing their little throats. It’s an extreme case. But thousands of other Massachusetts children carry scars on their bodies and psyches from their biological parents.
Goodwin poses a severe test to the underlying family preservation philosophy of the state Department of Children and Families, the agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect. The agency sees its mission not only as physical protection but as making “every reasonable effort” to keep family units intact. That mission reflects, in part, the social work profession’s decades-long bias against long-term institutional care. But it also reflects a simplistic view of orphanages as some Dickensian throwback where little kids go begging for bowls of gruel. What social workers should fear instead is the isolation of the Salem public housing unit where, according to police, Goodwin tried to kill her children.
Intensive investigations are under way. But no one should be surprised to learn weeks from now that the caseworkers and courts did everything by the book. Child protection workers followed their ‘kin first’ mandate some seven years ago when Goodwin asked voluntarily for her cousin to take guardianship of Jamaal. And the system respected “the right of families to be free from unwarranted state intervention” when it returned Jamaal to Goodwin in 2010.
Then, in May, child protection workers received and responded to a report that Goodwin physically abused her son in the course of disciplining him. She cooperated with caseworkers, signed a safety plan, and accepted child care and after school services. Even marginal improvements on the part of an abusive parent count heavily toward retaining custody under the shaky family-preservation model.
Still, social workers in Massachusetts remove about 4,500 children from their homes for parental abuse or neglect each year and place them in the care of relatives, foster families, or small group homes. Within seven or eight months, about 90 percent of the children are back under the care of their parents, according to state officials. And within a year of their return, about 15 percent of those children must be removed from the home again.
It would be far kinder to “institutionalize” these returnees than to keep them in a years-long cycle of abuse and foster care placements. Especially given the modern incarnation of orphanages.