Tammy and her wife, Kathy, are white. The Florida residents became foster parents to Tiffany, who is black, when she was born and continued to care for her until the age of 3. That’s when they applied to adopt her. Tiffany’s aunt expressed no interest in caring for her despite living close by and having already adopted the child’s older brother.

The state nevertheless approved Tiffany’s aunt as the adoptive placement instead of Tammy and Kathy because her aunt is “kin,” a choice almost always favored by child welfare agencies and courts these days. Why? When the couple sued the state over the decision, a witness for Florida’s Department of Children and Families said the quiet part out loud. Asked about what qualified her to judge that a three-year bond with the only women Tiffany had known as her parents was less important than being cared for by someone who shared her DNA, the caseworker said, “I have education in agriculture, which deals with breeding in livestock and the importance of genetics in that.”

All other things being equal, of course, it makes sense for a child who has been abused or neglected by his or her parents to be cared for by a grandparent or an aunt. But there are many cases where all other things are not equal. To rip a child away from the only parents he or she has known to be taken out of state or placed with relatives, even a second cousin, he or she has never met doesn’t make sense to anyone who has ever met a child, let alone anyone who understands the importance of secure attachment to a child’s development. But our child welfare system has become infected by a biological determinism so singularly focused on race-matching that employees sound like they are talking about breeding farm animals rather than making decisions in the best interests of children

Tammy and Kathy ultimately won their case, but thousands of other long-term foster parents are being rejected as permanent placements. Tim Keller, senior vice president and legal director at the Center for the Rights of Abused Children, said that such cases make up about a third of those in his legal clinic right now. “There has been a big shift in the legal culture all of the sudden to put family first and above all other potential options even when [a] child is in a safe, stable, secure foster home for years,” he said. 

Mollie Warren, the director of Family and Children Services for Boulder County, Colorado, recently explained in an interview the change in thinking. “We have so many conversations about the best interest of the child around being adopted by … the foster family that they have lived with for the last two years, which is often the entirety of their life, versus perhaps we’ve been able to locate a kinship family that the child doesn’t know,” she said. Warren added that “we have looked at that situation through too small of a lens.” She argued that we need instead to think about that child when he or she is older as well as “their parents, their extended family, their community, their ancestors.”

Their ancestors? Really? You have children who have been severely abused or chronically neglected, and the plan is to make decisions about the best home for them by taking the spirits of their dead ancestors into consideration? 

Warren promotes a new absurd policy to match this absurd rhetoric. According to the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a state is supposed to move to terminate parental rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. This is a drastic step generally taken only after years of attempts to rehabilitate the parents from substance abuse, severe mental health issues, or other problems that make them unwilling or unable to care for their children.