Written by a member of the Children in Limbo Task Force with lived experience in the child welfare system.
Some musings on the phrase “the best interest of the child” from a former crown ward.
First off, I would like to start by saying I am not trying to attack anyone who uses this phrase when they talk about the betterment of children and youth in foster care. In fact I often think quite the opposite. I think that someone who uses this mantra in their practice has their heart in the exact right place. I only want to question the simplicity of the statement to achieve the ends to which it aspires…to help open our thought process to what exactly is in the best in interest of the child.
To do this, I would like to share my personal experiences with the child welfare system.
To be brief, I came into the care of my local Children’s Aid Society (CAS) at the age of thirteen with my sibling who was only one. The twelve year gap between us is significant in foster care and adoption. Many parents who are interested in fostering and/or adopting typically have a preferred age range, which is fair (when I try to think about it from their perspective). It usually doesn’t span twelve years, especially for those who are interested in children as young as one.
If I were to try and think on why this is, it would end up a whole different piece. One with a perspective (that of a parent) that I certainly do not have the firsthand experience with. However I think the openness of parents to different ages and special needs is the responsibility of ‘the system’ to some degree. How we prepare our parents to meet the needs of this population (young people who have experienced trauma) comes into play…but I digress.
In foster care, biological parents have one year to meet the expectations of the CAS they are involved with to ‘get back’ their kids. However this only applies to children under twelve. When you are over twelve, the biological parent has two years.*
In some ways, this makes sense. Older youth have likely had more time to develop a relationship with their biological parents. In some ways, we could say that this rule is in the best interest of the child.
For my sister and I, it meant that our mother’s rights were terminated just before her third birthday. After becoming a Crowd Ward, and especially at such a young age, it made sense to start pursing adoption for my sister. To find a home for her to grow up and grow old in. To find her permanency.
Many would say, that this was in her best interest. It’s hard to argue that permanency is not in the best interest of every child/youth.
However what this meant was, my sister’s adoption plan was being rolled out and families were being looked at while I was still in limbo. At this time, I was told that there was a good chance that my sister’s new family may not be interested in keeping contact with me. Though it wasn’t said to me back then, I know now that my then age of almost fifteen was also a deterrent. Families who wanted toddlers didn’t want teenagers as well. Families who wanted toddlers wanted to start a brand new life with their new family formed through adoption.
To tell you that this was one of the most devastating experiences of my life would be an understatement. After losing my father (I was not in contact with him) my mother (who I had been apprehended from), my home, my school, my friends…losing my sister was something I could not even fathom.
Maybe her permanency was in her best interest…but if it came at the cost of our relationship…was it truly in mine? Was her best interest so important that it should come at the cost of mine? Was losing me for permanency really her best interest? Was losing permanency so that we could keep our relationship…at the cost of growing up in foster care together and never achieving permanency in our best interest?
As is usually the case, it seems that there is no right answer here. That we put the expectations on CAS to make the least harmful decision, because maybe there really is no ‘good’ one.
I want to step back to how we prepare our parents for a moment. I was being told that I might lose my relationship with my sister because her new family might not be interested in keeping me in the picture. Whether it was because of my age, or perhaps the family only wanted to grow by one doesn’t matter. I want to ask the question; are we preparing our families to meet the needs of these children? My sister and I are not the only sibling group in the care of CAS. Siblings in these situations are common, many of us come into care with them. Many of us forge these bonds with other young people we live with or meet through this experience. Prepping our families and really helping them understand the importance of these bonds is an integral part to meeting the needs of these kids.
Let’s come back to my sister and my situation. Just before her third birthday, and my fifteenth (our birthdays are very close together) she gets adopted. I stay in foster care with the goal of going home to my biological mother. For a while I don’t see my sister, however there is a small light for me. Her new parents have expressed interest in keeping in touch with me. They think my relationship with my sister is important to her and myself (they tell me via email that she misses me). I know this is true because when I get to visit her months later…she cries when she sees me. She cries when she has to leave, reliving the trauma of losing me for the short time that she did, and reliving the trauma of losing her biological mother even if her understanding and memory of this is vague.
Fast forward a year after my sister’s adoption and now I am a crown ward. The pain of not going home to live with my mother is a hole in my chest. I loved and still love my mother deeply. Perhaps at the time, I was bitter about the struggles that she was having in her own life, but now I understand why she had them, and how it had come to her losing parental right over both her children.
However there is more light now, as my sister’s adoptive family wants me to come live with them. They want to make me a part of their family, and so I get to keep my relationship with my sister. I get to grow up with her. I get the same permanency that she has.
Though it seems to work out in the end, I want to take a moment to honour that did not come without sacrifice. That it did not come without the loss of a life we could have had with our biological mother. That even though my sister and I and our twelve years between us found somewhere to call home together, many siblings groups like mine will be separated. Many children and youth will not move through ‘the system’ quickly, many will not achieve this permanence.
That sometimes the best interest of the child is just attempting to make the best out of a terrible situation. That sometimes making these decisions will leave white lines across our hearts in the form of scars that we trace with our ‘what ifs’. That even though you are making the best decision you know how, and even though it might be happy…it may also hurt, and to honour that as well. To not take offense that I am asking you to think about this, because I know that your heart is in the right place when you make decisions based on the best interest of the child.
*This timeline is not held in all cases of apprehension. Many young people end up ‘in limbo’ due to unique circumstances of their cases, or judgement calls made by the CAS they are working with.
Read more about the Best Interest of the Child as a guiding principle in Canadian family law.