I have been reading the news stories about Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray, two teenage girls adopted out of foster care who recently died, and their adoptive parents, who now face charges related to their deaths. Beyond the normal response of horror and disbelief, I also am struggling with feelings of rage at a system I despair will not change. I am having a very hard time accepting that there was nothing that could have been done to save those girls.
Because my brother and I also were foster children adopted into an abusive home, I know how it feels to go from a crappy foster home to an even worse adoptive home, all the while being told how lucky we were to be rescued from the horrors of foster care. You wanna know what is worse than foster care? Being dumped on the doorstep of your new “forever family,” people who you have never met until you and your brown paper bags of clothes were unpacked from the social worker’s car. A quick round of introductions, and the social worker leaves you to figure out the complete strangers who you now have to call Mom and Dad. No business card, no contact information, no way to alert “the system” that your new family has adopted you to become their personal maids.
Months later, our old social worker came around to check up on me and my brother. It was a formal visit, planned way in advance. What the social worker didn’t know, sitting in the pretty living room while complimenting my adoptive parents on their lovely home, is that I dusted and vacuumed that room. The room we children were not ever allowed to be in unless invited by the adults. We stayed in our bedrooms.
When the social worker asked me and my brother whether we were happy with our new family, I have no idea what she expected me to say.
It’s not like I could the say the truth: “Well, they are really quite awful human beings. They withhold food if we don’t finish our chores; they beat us with sticks and tell us we should be grateful for a bed to sleep in. They do not love us. We are here to serve them.” How could I say any of that, since we were surrounded by the captors the social worker was complimenting? What good is a home visit if the worker focuses solely on the home and not the child?
And don’t say the abused child should call the police. My brother did that after a terrible spanking. When the police came and our adoptive mother explained that they had recently adopted us and my brother was 9 and I was 7, so obviously we needed to be trained properly. The main cop in charge shook hands with our parents and told my brother that if he was his son, he would have spanked him, too.
Adoptive parents are given wide latitude because society is so grateful they were willing to take “those children.” No one considers that those children already have been to hell and back, which is why they were in foster care to begin with.
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Not properly vetting adoptive parents, not having a system of one-on-one welfare checks away from foster and adoptive parents, and especially not giving children access to their social workers once they are adopted, just keeps this mess of neglect, abuse and death in place.
Foster and adoptive parents should be told up front that the children will be monitored long term to ensure their needs are being met. It should be a team effort, with the state and families working together to provide children with the childhoods they should have had to begin with.
Children who already have been failed by the adults in their lives deserve twice as much support by their communities, not the complete withdrawal of it.
• Heather Young lives in Iowa City and is the author of “Ezra and Hadassah: A Portrait of American Royalty,” a memoir recounting her life in foster care, adoption and reunification with her biological parents