Interrupted bonding is significantly correlated with childhood and adult mental illness, with adult crime and violence, and with homelessness and poverty.
The Rights of the Child
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) states early in its Preamble: “….The family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community…The child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love, and understanding….” While most would agree with that statement, the United States has still not signed this international agreement on the rights of children. The only other country not to have signed is Somalia.
Far from a finished product, the child is going through a process which will determine what kind of adult he will become, and to what extent he will be capable of working and loving. Life pathways for the child are still being fashioned. The parents, for better or worse, have already reached a stage in life where patterns, personality, and character are set.
Basic needs for a secure attachment, health, and safety must come first and provide the foundation for growth. When society removes a child from an unsafe home, society assumes an obligation to make the situation better, to make the birth home a safe one or to find an alternate permanent placement for the child. As society’s most vulnerable citizens, foster children should have a primary claim on our collective conscience.
The basic needs of the child endow him or her with certain basic rights. They are threefold:
- The right to safe surroundings.
- The right to maintain significant relationships.
- The right to a permanent home.
The right to safe surroundings: ASFA declares that the “health and safety” of the child are paramount, and that this consideration must dominate all others. The three basic rights listed above are an attempt to define the meaning of “health and safety.” The right to safe surroundings is elemental and obviou
Kulp lists nine rights which she feels must be available to children if they are to have a chance to grow up to be loving and productive human beings. Preeminent among them is “the right to food, safety, supervision, and protection.” (1993)
Children have the right to be free of abuse and neglect. The welfare department is required to investigate physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Of the three, neglect may well be the most devastating and is too often ignored because it is harder to substantiate.
When the safety and health of the child are at stake, all voices must be fully heard. To protect the child, the welfare department and the courts must have full knowledge. The legal parent, the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), and the foster parent must all be fully heard. Foster parents are often given minimal say or even excluded in court.
The right to maintain significant relationships: Bonding is a significant attachment, not some “warm fuzzy” notion described by a well-meaning child advocate. To be given the importance it deserves, bonding needs to be well defined, and the consequences of its interruption need to be made clear.
Too often blood relationships are given undue preference and bonding is ignored. A bonded relationship may be more important to the child than mere kinship. Welfare departments and courts need to hear both sides in permanency hearings and in disputed adoptions. Moving a child from a bonded relationship is traumatic.
What happens when bonding is disrupted? Strong statistical evidence is offered in Chapter Three and following that shows a significant increase in mental illness, crime, and homelessness. To allow delay to increase the likelihood of these serious consequences represents child abuse and neglect.
Blood relatives are important. If and when the child is removed from the home of his legal parents, relatives who are available, acceptable, and willing to care for the child should be given priority. However, to locate blood relatives after time has passed and bonding with a foster family has occurred, and then to attempt to transfer the child to unknown relatives is irresponsible, harmful, and wrong. Bonding takes precedence over “kin-come-lately.”
People are the medium through which our needs are met, and people are not interchangeable. All children in care have the right to the preservation of significant relationships based on the child’s needs. When a child has come to depend on a specific person to meet basic needs, that person and the needs become identical in the child’s mind. To take away the person is to take away the secure feeling that basic needs will be met. While the argument might be made that the child will learn in time that others can meet those basic needs, there is risk that the child will turn his emotions off and refuse to attach again, rather than face future rejection. The DSM-IV lists frequent changes in foster care as a factor in the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder.
The right to a permanent home: Children need stability and permanence. A child cannot grow and develop without a firm and unchanging base. Even a less-than-best home is preferable to being shuffled around, never knowing where one belongs. Children can adjust to most situations. They cannot adjust to not knowing what happens next or not knowing where they will be tomorrow. One cannot get the momentum to spring forward from a base that moves around. In the face of uncertainty, the child can only hang on and hope for stability.
One year in a child’s life is already a long time. Recognizing this as the maximum interlude allowable for impermanence, ASFA requires that a termination of parental rights be filed within that time and no later. The choice between reunification with the legal parents or adoption must be made wisely but quickly, within the one year of “child time.” Delay abuses the child.