Innocents Lost: Miami Herald Expose on Tragedies in the Foster System

Last week, we highlighted a controversial TED Talk urging the end of foster care.   The video and blog post stirred strong feelings among many.  Some resonated deeply with Molly McGrath Tierny’s condemnation of the foster system and emphasis on family preservation.  Others felt her proposed solutions would create a surge in children exposed to abuse and neglect.

Last Sunday, the Miami Herald began an explosive investigative series titled, “Innocents Lost.”  The opening article bears the title, “Preserving Families but Losing Children.”  Its subtitle describes, “After Florida cut down on protections for children in troubled homes, deaths soared. The children died in ways cruel, outlandish, predictable and preventable.”

In many ways, the Herald series affirms Tierny’s strong criticisms of the foster system.  It reveals with excruciating details ways in which government has failed as protector and parent to children in the system.

But “Innocents Lost” also offers a strong counterpoint to the solution Tierny urges.  It highlights the tremendous tension between the often-competing goals of family preservation and child protection, and reveals what is at stake in the painfully complex judgment calls that must be made every day by social workers and judges.

See the articles, videos and more from the Innocents Lost series HERE.

Like the TED Talk, Innocents Lost offers both data and stories with which every person who cares deeply about vulnerable children must wrestle.

The series also reminds of several vital truths that we must hold tenaciously if we dare engage the world at its most broken.  Good intentions, and even well-informed theories, often get strangled amidst the tangles of real-world dilemmas.   We must know that every attempt to address deep human need:

1.  Brings us face to face with complexity that may not be resolvable.  From prisoner reentry to global AIDS, every attempt to bring restoration amidst brokenness will be far more difficult than we image from afar.  Solutions will be elusive and partial at best.  Often we will be forced to choose among several options all of which are flawed.  If we are unwilling to accept this tension, it won’t be long before we quit.

2.  Carries hazard of unintended consequence.  Even the most well-intended efforts to help can hurt.  Free bed nets reduce malaria deaths…but can also drive local bed net sellers out of business.  Closing orphanages can mean more kids in families…but may also mean more on the streets or in abusive homes if done incautiously.  Effective work requires not just good intentions and good planning at the outset, but continual recalibration and refining.

3.  Produces errors and draws criticism.  Even top quality organizations will make mistakes.  Even the best of efforts – both religious and secular – will be the target of fierce criticism.  There will always be more people ready to critique from places of comfort than to sacrificially serve.  Sometimes these criticism will be warranted; and there is always something to learn from even misguided attacks.  But ultimately, those willing to serve must also be willing to take criticism, both fair and unfair.

Yet in all of this, we’re still called to act.  As described in Becoming Home:

Anyone who dares to engage the world at its most hurting must know this: the results of even our best efforts will often be much less than we’d hope. We’ll likely be disappointed by those we seek to serve—and they by us, too. At countless crossroads along the way, we will face vexing dilemmas to which there are no good answers. To act at all, we’ll have to choose among imperfect options that threaten heartbreaking side-effects. From corrupt adoption processes to abusive foster homes, we’ll ache at unintended consequences.

Even a glimpse of all this complexity can be paralyzing. Like the risk-averse investor in Jesus’ parable of the talents, we may be tempted to bury what we have to offer and not get involved at all.

But Jesus minced no words in condemning that approach. He called it “wicked and lazy.”

Instead, God calls us to act despite the risks. Knowing that helping can hurt gives us much-needed caution and humility. We must first learn…listen…plan…and then, finally, act—always ready to recalibrate when we discover the mistakes we’ll inevitably make.