Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Mental Health Issues and the Foster Care System: An Examination of the Impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Mental Health Issues and the Foster Care System: An Examination of the Impact of the Adoption and Safe Families Act

Article excerpt

Although marriage and family therapists are being called on to help at-risk families, some say that clinicians have insufficient knowledge about the impact of policies on families involved in the foster care system. The purpose of this qualitative investigation was to identify how the Adoption and Safe Families Act informs decision making, to recognize trends in decisions regarding termination of parental rights of parents with mental health issues, and to explore treatment issues of families involved in the foster care system. Results indicate that court cases decided after the implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act are likely to result in termination of parental rights. Implications for clinicians and researchers are discussed.

Family violence, child maltreatment, poverty, and the child welfare system have led some to call the realities of foster care "the mean streets of family therapy" (Crenshaw & Barnum, 2001, p. 30). Some of the most important judiciary decisions about the futures of families are made in the foster care system (Azar, Benjet, Fuhrmann, & Cavallero, 1995). To assist with these critical decisions, a number of people, such as judges, caseworkers, and families, are looking to family therapists for assistance in addressing the needs of foster care families (Azar, Lauretti, & Loding, 1998). Judges are seeking therapists' opinions about parental competency and are increasingly mandating families to seek treatment specifically from marriage and family therapists (MFTs; Northey, 2004). Caseworkers are obtaining therapists' input about placement decisions and treatment, and parents are searching for help with custody and parenting issues (Azar et al, 1998).

Despite the number of ways in which therapists can assist with issues related to foster care, some argue that too few therapists have devoted time to understanding the foster care system, policies, and the implications of such policies on families involved in the foster care system (Azar & Benjet, 1994; Azar et al, 1998; Brooks, 1996; Rosenfeld, Altman, Alfaro, & Pilowsky, 1994). Whereas child welfare agencies are charged with the responsibility of determining parental fitness, in many instances the caseworkers are not adequately trained to conduct assessments of parents with mental health issues (Risley-Curtiss, Stromwall, Hunt, & Teska, 2004). Conversely, family therapists are being asked to provide expertise while often lacking knowledge of the current foster care policy (Azar & Benjet, 1994; Azar et al, 1998; Brooks, 1996; Rosenfeld et al., 1994). Britner and Mossier (2002) state that best practices for foster care can emerge through the collaboration of therapists, social services, and the courts. One primary step toward more informed involvement between family therapists, social workers, and the foster care system centers on therapists, who work with at-risk families, developing a clear understanding of the issues and policies that affect such families.

Foster Care and Mental Health

Wiltse (1985) asserts that it is unethical for parents to be penalized by the foster care system based on socioeconomic or mental health status. Although severe mental health issues could clearly affect one's ability to parent, mental health alone does not equate with potentially problematic parenting (Benjet, Azar, & Kuersten-Hogan, 2003). Even adults with severe mental health issues can be effective parents with the proper medications and treatment (Risley-Curtiss et al, 2004; Mullick, Miller, & Jacobsen, 2001). Courts are to avoid making universal decisions regarding mental health and parental rights, but are instead mandated to consider whether or not the mental illness is "significantly detrimental" to parenting (Azar et al, 1995, p. 601; Benjet et al., 2003). Yet, some have found that parental mental health is a significant predictor of decisions to terminate the rights of parents (Azar et al, 1995; Zuravin & DePanfilis, 1997). …

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