Op-Ed: Why Do We Make it So Hard to Do the Right Thing for Vulnerable Families?

Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star published a story about a local police officer who, with a lot of back up, saved three children from needless foster care.  But let me tell you what it took to achieve that result.

On one level this very good story—written by Cortlynn Stark, an intern for the Star—-is inspiring. On another level it’s frustrating.

And on still another, it’s outrageous.

On June 28, at about 2:00 a.m. Sgt. A.J. Henry of the Kansas City Police Department found Chantre Russ and her three children, ages four, two, and 7 months, sleeping in a parking lot stairway. They had arrived on a bus from California. The family fled that state after the father of the oldest child was murdered.

Chantre Russ and her children are headed on a path to success after a Kansas City Police officer found the family sleeping in a stairwell and was determined to keep them together/via Kansas City Police Department

Upon finding the family and talking to Ms. Russ, Sgt. Henry took out his phone and made a call—but not the one you might expect.

He did not call Missouri’s child abuse “hotline” to have child protective services rush out and put the children into foster care. Instead, even though it was 2 a.m., he called Gina English.

English is the Kansas City PD’s Social Services Coordinator—a job that exists, by the way, only because of grants from a private foundation.

On June 28, at about 2:00 a.m. Sgt. A.J. Henry of the Kansas City Police Department found Chantre Russ and her three children, ages two, four, and 7 months, sleeping in a parking lot stairway. They had arrived on a bus from California. The family fled that state after the father of the oldest child was murdered.

Upon finding the family and talking to Ms. Russ, Sgt. Henry took out his phone and made a call—but not the one you might expect.

He did not call Missouri’s child abuse “hotline” to have child protective services rush out and grab the children into foster care. Instead, even though it was 2 a.m., he called Gina English.

English is the Kansas City PD’s Social Services Coordinator—a job that exists, by the way, only because of grants from a private foundation.


The inspiring part

Sgt. Henry wasn’t going to let these children be thrown into foster care. “It was not going to happen on his watch,” English said. “That family was not going to be separated.”

And so the family wasn’t. But oh, what it took to achieve that result.

The story (which you should read in full) goes into great detail about all the different people who had to be contacted and mobilized to keep the children in this one family out of foster care. There were the people who came up with car seats for the children, the officers who pooled their own money to get the family a hotel room, the local groups that supplied diapers and baby wipes.  “Support from across Kansas City poured in…” wrote Stark.

It all happened just in time. Before Sgt. Henry found her, an exhausted Chantre Russ, who was unsure where next to turn, was on the verge of calling child protective services on herself.


The frustrating part

This amazing collective effort is obviously inspiring. But here’s the part that’s frustrating:

I’m sure this isn’t the first time Sgt. Henry, Ms. English and others have extended themselves for families this way. But no one can sustain this kind of collective ad hoc volunteer effort for every family who needs it. So it’s frustrating that this risks becoming one of those feel-good stories that warms our hearts about the family that was helped, as we forget all the others who are not.

Nationwide, multiple studies have found that 30 percent America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had decent housing. So I hope readers, and other journalists, who see this story will remember the thousands of other families, just like this one, whose children are in fact torn from their parents every year because their parents lack a safe place to live. And I hope they will realize that those children suffer the same sorts of trauma as that endured by children taken at the Mexican border.


The outrageous part

The part of the story that’s outrageous can be boiled down to a single question:

Why is it so damn hard to do the right thing by these families?

Why is foster care such an easy choice, while everything else is so hard? Why does it take foundation grants and police chipping in their own money, and this enormous collective effort to do what’s right and keep one loving family together, while doing what would be wrong for that same family – consigning children to the chaos of foster care — takes little more than a phone call?

The technical answer has to do with arcane child welfare funding formulas that reimburse states for a significant share of the costs of foster care in many cases, while providing far less to keep families together. (And by the way, the grossly overhyped Family First Act would do nothing for the family in this case – the kind of concrete help they need isn’t covered.)

The larger answer is that foster care is easy and everything else is hard because so much of America blames the poor in general, and the nonwhite poor in particular, for their difficulties, instead of admitting the plain fact that we don’t all carry the same burdens—a situation that has far more to do with luck and unearned advantages, than it does personal choice or virtue. When we blame poor parents that way, those we hurt most are their children.

That leaves good people like Sgt. Henry, Ms. English, and the others who banded together in this case to do the best they can, largely on their own.


Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.