The State as Parent: Using Attachment Theory to Develop Child Welfare Policy in the Best Interest of the Child


It is well established in American law that there is a fundamental right to parent one’s own biological children. The Supreme Court has held that when the state intrudes into a family, a fundamental liberty interest is affected: “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents.” Because there is a fundamental liberty interest in parenting, the state can intervene in the family only when it has a compelling reason, such as evidence of abuse, neglect, abandonment or parental inability to provide for the basic needs of the child. When the state does find sufficient evidence to warrant intervention, it may initiate proceedings to remove the child from parental custody. If circumstances dictate removal, the state takes custody of the child, generally placing her in foster care.

Because there is a fundamental right to parent one’s own children, restoration of the family should be a priority of the state when doing so does not endanger the child. New York State has acknowledged that its “first obligation is to help the family with services to prevent its break-up or to reunite it if the child has already left home.” If a child is removed from her parents in New York, the statute requires the social service agency to make “diligent efforts” to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship while the child is in foster care before permanently terminating parental custody. However, policy makers generally have little knowledge of how to encourage and strengthen family relationships, and so restoration of the family happens less often than it should. The shapers of foster care policy have historically been policy officials, not child developmental experts, and so few current policies consider developmental theory and research. In this paper, I examine the developmental literature and derive policy from that research. In particular, I recommend a revision of current visitation policies to allow increased parental visits and the opportunity both to “parent” during those visits and to observe the foster parent acting as a role model. Attachment Theory, a prominent approach to develop- mental psychology, predicts that such a change would increase the likelihood that families would be successfully reunited.

In addition to suggesting psychologically sound policies for the pur- pose of strengthening and restoring the family, this paper will explore some policies that states should adopt to promote optimal development while the child is in the state’s care. A policy designed to help children, that of removing children from dangerous homes, can end up harming children if it is inattentive to their developmental needs. It is not enough to provide forthe physical safety of the child. Once the child is in state custody, the state assumes the responsibility of meeting the child’s developmental needs. The state should provide high quality parenting which reflects psychological research on what children need to thrive and how they will suffer if those needs are not met. Foster parents must be trained to provide sensitive care to foster children, who are often difficult charges. The emotions and behaviors of these children are predictable, and foster parents should be taught what to expect and how to best care for these children.

The premise of this paper is that sound child welfare policy must begrounded in a thorough understanding of child development. This paper will outline some ways child welfare policies could be revised to incorporate developmental research. I have chosen to use Attachment Theory as a starting point for policy revision because the theory and the supporting research focus on the development of affectional bonds between children and their caregivers, the developmental significance of the quality of the bonds, and the impact on the child when the bonds are disrupted. Because of the subject matter of the research, it is a theory that can be readily applied to the child welfare system. This paper will focus on the child welfare system as it affects infants and young children, as those are the populations Attachment theorists have studied most. Nearly any child welfare policy decision can be guided by developmental theory (e.g., decisions about placement of infants born to mothers in prison, policies about placing siblings, decisions about appropriate counseling, etc.). Adopting child welfare policy grounded in developmental theory could help the state to promote the fundamental rights of parents and the psychological needs of children.

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