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March 25th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A Boston Globe op-ed has seized on the tragic case of Tanicia Goodwin and her two children to call for increased separation of children from their parents.  Goodwin is the mentally disturbed woman who slit her children’s throats, set fire to her house, went to the police station where she smashed a plate glass window and reported the injuries to her son and daughter.  The children seem to have survived their ordeal although both remain in the hospital in critical condition.

Now, the Globe op-ed claims that, because chld welfare caseworkers may have dropped the ball in the Goodwin case, the state should take more and more children from their parents.  Read it here (Boston Globe, 3/23/12).  Of course we’ve heard this before many times.  The Arizona Republic can be counted on to call for ever more takings of children whenever one gets hurt or killed by a parent.  Interestingly, it never seems to criticize foster parents when one of them commits some atrocity against a helpless child, so it’s hard to view their advocacy as anything but less pro-child than anti-father.  What the Republic and other similarly-inclined publications also never mention is the dramatically poorer outcomes for children in foster care than for those in parental care.  It doesn’t fit their narrative, so the paper leaves out that inconvenient truth.

But the Globe piece isn’t about taking children into foster care, it’s about taking them into orphanages.  The difference between group foster omes and orphanages escapes me and the writer makes no effort to explain it.  Now, according to the writer, Lawrence Harmon, orphanages are wonderful places for a child to grow up in.  He even cites a 1997 study that claims that children raised in certain orphanages have done better on essentially every scale of well-being than all other children.

In 1997, [University of California economist Richard] McKenzie reported the results of a survey of 1,600 former residents of nine orphanages in the South and Midwest. The alumni, it turned out, outperformed the general population on education, income, and positive attitudes toward life. And their rates of unemployment, poverty, incarceration, and dependence on welfare were just a small fraction of their counterparts’.

Given what I know of the decades of research showing that children overwhelmingly do better with two biological parents than in any other caregiving arrangement, I find it surprising that a single study found that group homes under the care of a foster parent are actually the best.  Put simply, I doubt it.  The idea that the model touted by Harmon of a “village” of 80 children cared for by 16 parents constitutes the best of all possible worlds for children just doesn’t pass the smell test.

I’d like to know a lot more about the study Harmon touts.  For example, who were the children and who were the foster parents?  More importantly, what was the cost?  After all, it may well be that specially trained foster parents with lots of resources at their disposal can do very well raising children.  But can that model be applied to the vast general population of children without fit parents as Harmon implies?  That’s what I doubt the most.

What Harmon seems not to realize about his own article is that he’s not just arguing for taking children from unfit parents, but from all of them.  If children raised in orphanages grow up to be happier, healthier, better educated and more responsible than all their other counterparts, then aren’t orphanages the way to go?  Why involve parents at all since they, according to this single study, do a worse job of caring for their own children than do foster parents in group settings?

The answer is McKenzie’s study is flawed, either of itself or in some of its externalities, like the cost of care.

Meanwhile, Harmon doesn’t mention the fact that he really knows almost nothing about Tanicia Goodwin or why she hurt her children.  Her realtives say she was a loving mother who had a psychotic breakdown.  At this point, no one is certain just what child protective authorities knew or didn’t know about her, or what they did or failed to do.  But Harmon’s unspoken thesis that such a thing could never happen to one of his favored foster parents doesn’t even bear mentioning.

No, Lawrence Harmon is selling orphanages and he’s not going to let a little thing like almost complete ignorance of Tanicia Goodwin get in his way.  Like the Arizona Republic, he takes a terrible tragedy visited on children by a parent and tells us that parents can’t be trusted.  In fact, the question of whether to take a child from parents or not can be far more difficult and nuanced than Harmon wants to admit.  And, from what we do know about Goodwin, she was anything but a clear candidate for removal.

Into the bargain, had they chosen to take the children, their uncle in Atlanta was the obvious choice for placement, not some stranger with four other children to care for as Harmon recommends.

I take a backseat to no one in my criticism of child welfare agencies.  They often get it wrong both when they choose to take a child and when they choose not to.  But as of now, the jury is still out on whether they dropped the ball in the case of Tanicia Goodwin’s children.  And even if they did, it’ll take a lot more than a single 15-year-old study to convince me that children are better off in orphanages than they are with their parents.  Far too much social science, accumulated over some 50 years, says otherwise.

Come to think of it, Harmon didn’t mention that either.

Thanks to Ned for the heads-up.

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