Family Preservation Versus Child Protection?  Gripping Polar Truths

In the past two weeks alone, and in at least a dozen separate contexts, I’ve listened to leaders…heard friends…read emails…reviewed articles…all expressing deeply-felt convictions on seemingly opposite sides of a single issue.

Often, it is framed as one value pitched in mortal combat with another:  family preservation and reunification on one side VERSUS foster care, adoption and other means of child protection on the other.

There was a true beauty in so many of the things I heard.  Stories of sundered families, now restored.  A sibling group that’d been exposed to terrible abuse, today thriving in their adoptive family.  Dozens of children returned from an orphanage to their mothers.  A father whose life dramatically turned after the “wake up call” provided by removal of his son into foster care – both of whom are now thriving together.

There were some not-so-beautiful things expressed, too.  I sensed subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – arrows fired in both directions at those on “the other side.”  One suggested that child welfare administrators do what they do solely to protect their turf and income.  Another asserted that most people don’t prioritize family preservation because they only care about children if they can possess them.  Still another claimed that some social workers are so passionate about reunification they’d knowingly put a child back into an abusive home.

No doubt, there are half-truths in many such critiques.  But half-truths are also half-lies.

In it all, my heart ached.  First, because virtually all of these people – on both sides of this divide – are among the relatively few who are pouring themselves out on behalf of hurting kids and struggling families.  What a tragedy not to see a kindred spirit in another person who is serving in this field! 

What a tragedy not to see a kindred spirit in another person serving in this field! 

Even more weighty are the consequences for the most vulnerable.   When leaders and programs and interventions seize the truth on one side of this tension and not the other, calamity is not far away.

I heard one story of an orphanage director in Africa who was so devoted to his institution that he reportedly tried to refuse the release of children from his care, even when their own mothers came to take them home.

I also read in the LA Times of Anthony Avalos, a boy abused again and again while his parents were served in “diversion programs” designed to keep families together rather than place children in foster care.  It was far too late when the system finally noticed, “The horrific death of Anthony Avalos and the many missed chances to save him.”

Of course, many deep and difficult questions wait for us in any discussion of this tension.  In fact, any time we dare draw near to the world’s hurt, we face questions for which there may be no good answer at all.  We rarely have the luxury of choosing between an ideal option and a bad one. 

Often we decide between multiple solutions, knowing that all of them are flawed.  And yet still we must choose.  

Rather, we often decide between multiple solutions, knowing that all of them are flawed.  And yet still we must choose.  Either that, or simply go home and mail in a check from afar.

Yes, it is painfully complex, often in a very literal sense.

But that doesn’t mean that thoughtfulness and wisdom can’t help.  Far from it.  Amidst the great complexity that always comes with service in a hurting world, we desperately need people willing to do the hard work to become humble listeners…prayerful thinkers…wise guides.

In situations like the tensions between family preservation and child protection, I believe wisdom especially requires gripping “polar truths.”  We must hold fast to two ideas that seem to be opposite. 

Wisdom often requires gripping “polar truths” — holding fast to two ideas that seem to be opposite.

The deepest truths of Scripture often come to us in this way.  Justice and mercy.  Truth and grace.  Humility and confidence.  These things seem opposite, even mutually exclusive.  But living wisely and well, as God intends, requires a wholehearted embrace of both.  Gripping just one and abandoning the other leads to all manner of ill.  It’s justice without mercy….or mercy without justice.  It’s graceless truth or truthless grace.

The same could be said in regard to family preservation and child protection.  We must grip a commitment to both, tenaciously.

As Christians who believe that family is God’s best for children and also that His grace can transform any life, we must be 100% committed to family preservation and reunification whenever safely possible.

And, as Christians called to protect the weak and defenseless, we must also be 100% committed to secure out-of-family foster care, kinship care and adoption whenever a child’s biological home is not safe.

Being devoted to just one of these imperatives and losing grip on the other is simply not acceptable.

Certainly, there will continue to be many critical discussions over the nuances.  And every individual case will carry its own unique dilemmas.

But there is no place for viewing the “other side” with contempt or touting the superiority of our own.  In fact, there need be no opposite sides at all.  Rather, we can and must be a single movement, all committed together to gripping the polar truths of both family restoration and child protection side-by-side, tenaciously.


[If you’d like to explore this theme further, see the CAFO2014 talk, “Polar Truths.”]