FIJ Quarterly - Fall 2022 Edition

Family Is in a Child’s Best Interest Amelia S. Watson

Family matters. I know this to the core of my being. It is one of the things that sustains me in my life and my profession. I knew family mattered when I started twenty years ago in Tacoma, Washington representing parents in Pierce County dependency and termination of parental rights cases. I knew it from my own experiences of having a large extended family. I continue to know family matters in my current role with the Office of Public Defense Parents Representation Program supporting parent attorneys and social services workers providing family defense in Washington State. Like many people, the constellation that connects my family is both simple and complex. Some of my family are related by blood, including some who were surrendered for adoption but later found their way back to us. Some are related by marriage or were at one time, but while the marriage has ended, the family connection remains. Some would be considered fictive kin whom I have formed familial relationships with over time. With many of my family, I have so many memories I couldn’t begin to name them all from our time spent together at holidays, vacations, graduations, weddings, and so many other experiences. Others I have met less often, perhaps at a family reunion, or still others that I have not met yet at all. But to me, they are all mine. Not all of the parents I represented felt connected to family. Some had no family connections, or some shared they had fractured relationships with family or were ashamed to share with them that they were involved in a dependency case. Many of them did have family they wanted to be a placement. They loved their families, knew their children would be well cared for by kin, and were desperate to have children placed with them. And the family regulation system was so busy othering them that it was not even stopping to notice. Stranger foster care was viewed as “safe,” and relatives were viewed as unknown and therefore questionable, presumably “unsafe until proven otherwise.”

Too many people working in the family regulation system think children are better off in stranger foster care rather than with relatives. This is despite the overwhelming research that children who have been removed from their parents do better when placed with their family. I wondered, is this how they see their family, or did they just see relatives caught up in the system as different as “those people.” When representing parents, so many opportunities could flow from relative placement. A placement with an auntie or a grandmother meant a place of love to a child— but also a home that was comfortably familiar, where they knew where the light switch was if they had to get up in the middle of the night. It was not foreign; it was connection. My parent client could breathe easier and focus on what they needed to do to get their child and not fear where their child was; this was especially true for clients who shared with me their traumatic and abusive experiences in foster care. Visitation would often be easier to address, potentially occurring in the more natural setting of a relative’s home and occurring more frequently. Often the trajectory of the case could feel completely different, with me not worrying the case would morph into a parental alienation where we would battle the foster parents for a parent’s constitutional right to have their children returned home. So many opportunities came from the relative placement that was often quashed right at the start when the court ordered foster care over the parent’s objection. It felt like basic family connectedness and what was truly in a child’s best interest was ignored regularly—like they weren’t thinking of family the way I thought of mine. Complexities and Historical Problems with Background Checks One complex area where prospective relatives are judged and stopped from becoming

Amelia S. Watson

42 | FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022

FIJ Quarterly | Fall 2022 | 43

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