Disputations: Family Preservation


December 1, 1995

Just when you thought it was safe to call yourself pro-family, the Byzantine ethos of “family preservation” among social workers rears its ugly head. Wendy Anisman’s case in Pittsburgh, PA demonstrates the fantastic contortions of “family preservation” in current social welfare circles.

After the break-up of her marriage to Denis Baier, Wendy placed their son with Allegheny County Children and Youth Services (CYS). She was distraught and feared she would lash out at the child. Wendy and Denis agreed it would be best if their son was placed with his godparents, Suzanne and William O’Mullan, until Wendy was in better shape. As Mrs. O’Mullan, his godmother said, “We stood at the altar and baptized this baby…. In my mind, that means when something happens to the parents, you are called for.”

While their child was in the custody of the O’Mullans, Wendy and Denis were to have monthly visitation privileges. But, the first visit went poorly. “The child is not right when we are in the picture. We represent emotional turmoil to that child. His father and I fought a lot.” Wendy said. The visit led Wendy and Denis to conclude that it would be best for their son to be adopted by his godparents who could give him a stable, permanent home. They signed the consent forms and Wendy informed CYS of their decision.

In a saner world, the story would end here. But Don Suehr, the CYS caseworker, objected to the adoption because it did not conform to his plans for “reuniting the family.” Mr. Suehr repeatedly told Wendy that he knew what was best for her child, and that she did not. He is so convinced of his better judgment that he has asked the court to take the child from his godparents, because they are “unwilling to participate in reunification plans.” What Mr. Suehr refuses to grasp is that he is the only person willing to participate in reunification plans.

Suehr also claimed that Wendy was wavering in her decision to give up her son. Yet Wendy said she wanted her son back only if Mr. Suehr was going to carry out his threat to take the child from his godparents and place him with strangers in foster care. Incredibly, the court has agreed to hold a hearing to decide whether the child should be removed from his godparents and placed in foster care so that Mr. Suehr can reunite him with his divorced parents — who believe this to be contrary to their son’s best interests. Apparently Big Brother Social Worker knows best.

There is actually hostility to adoption among many social workers. Just when the states need adoption more than ever to solve the crises they are facing in the foster care and welfare systems, many states are weakening their adoption laws. Historically, the success of adoption in the United States has been due to the fact that legally it created a family with rights and privileges identical to those enjoyed by biological families. It did this by guaranteeing the permanence and confidentiality of adoption. Permanence is vital to adoption for the same reason that it is vital to marriage. Without a permanent, inviolable bond, an unconditional giving of oneself is at best difficult, if not impossible. It is this commitment that must be supported by sound laws.

And the reason for confidentiality in adoption is the same. The practice of opening adoption records effectively ends adoption by offering birth-parents a permanent role in the adoptive family — making adoptive families long-term foster parents. Great Britain’s adoption rate fell 70% in the 14 years following opening of adoption records and Australia’s rates have fallen 51% in the past five years since it did the same.

The goal of family preservation is a laudable one. The family is the first natural association and the foundation of civil society. Many of America’s most intractable social ills — crime, poverty, and educational failure — find a common genesis in the collapse of the American family. For family preservation to be effective, though, there must be a family to preserve. When there is no family to preserve, adoption is the best hope these children have of ever having a real family. The importance of the family for child development cannot be overstated. This, finally, is why sound adoption is so important.

While the case of Wendy Anisman is infuriating, it could be worse. It is often worse. “Family preservation” led social workers to return three-year-old Joseph Wallace to his mentally-ill mother three times after cases of abuse. In July of 1993, Joseph’s mother hanged him with an electric cord. Of the 2,000 children killed by parents or caretakers in 1992, half had received attention from the state social service system. Biology alone does not a parent make, and the belief that it does is why Joseph Wallace is dead.

Parents who truly abuse their children have already forfeited their parental rights. A common sense approach would be to provide a fair hearing, then, if appropriate, to quickly and permanently terminate the rights of abusive parents. With parental rights terminated, the child is protected from further abuse and may be placed for adoption. There will be some children for whom adoption is not appropriate because of the damage long-term foster care or parental abuse has done to them. Usually, however, adoption offers the best hope of giving these children what they most desperately need: loving and stable families.


  • Patrick D. Purtill, Jr.

    At the time this article was published, Patrick D. Purtill, Jr., was director of development of National Council For Adoption.

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