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What Makes a Family

When you think about your family and growing up, what are the memories that stick out? 

Maybe you had a parent that read to you every night before bed. Maybe regular conversations at the dinner table come to mind. Maybe it is a parent or sibling talking with you the first time you had a fight with a friend at school. 

I’d be willing to bet, even with a long list of memories, that very few, if any, of those significant memories would revolve around material possessions. For the majority of us, the memories revolve around the connection we shared, the love we felt from our parents, the experiences we had together as a family that are irreplaceable. 

In the child protection system, we use a concept called “minimum sufficient level of care” to determine when and if a child should be removed from their parents or reunified with them. In a nutshell, the concept takes into account the community and societal standards of care considered to be minimally adequate when raising a child. As a society, we’ve decided when a child is severely hurt we consider it minimally adequate to seek out medical attention to remedy that hurt. In our community locally, we’ve decided that it probably is not appropriate to leave a two-year-old home alone with the assumption they can take care of themselves. 

The concept of minimum sufficient level of care is, by design, not an insurmountable barrier. If it were, none of us would be able to maintain custody of our children. But the concept can be undoubtedly hard at times to swallow. For the majority of individuals who become involved in child protection, they want every opportunity to be afforded to a child: well-resourced schools, sidewalk-lined neighborhoods that are safe, a beautiful bedroom filled with cool toys, the ability to travel the world, etc. In a sense, all the things that would seem to make up the optimal level of care for a child. 

The allure of pursuing the perceived optimal level of care can become an all-to-easy option to pursue. It is not uncommon for a child who is removed from their home to move into a foster home where they have access to additional material goods, better schools and a safer neighborhood. If we begin thinking these tangible assets justify recommending the child remain in the foster care even when birth parents are making appropriate progress to reunify (meeting the minimum sufficient level of care standards), we slip into something called the Faustian bargain. 

In German folklore, there is a character named Faust who is associated with many stories. Faust, a scholar, knew many things, found success, and had all of his needs met, but still remained unhappy with his life. He knew there could be more. After many years of discontent, Faust made a deal with the devil to become omniscient and have the ability to engage in any pleasure he could ever imagine. In return, he surrendered his soul and agreed to eternal enslavement upon his death. Predictably, the deal doesn’t work out well for Faust. Before his descent into hell, he quickly realizes that his happiness is not improved by his newfound knowledge or by all the worldly possessions he has acquired. If anything, those things distract from his happiness which was always rooted in working for achievement, engaging in creativity, and living within his values.

This story developed into what we now call the Faustian bargain — when someone is willing to give up moral principles in order to gain knowledge, wealth, or other benefits. 

We know from study after study that a child’s long-term happiness is rooted in belonging to a safe, permanent, and nurturing family. While material goods, well-resourced schools, and sidewalk-lined safe neighborhoods can definitely add privileges to a child’s life, these assets can never outweigh the importance of belonging to our family and feeling love and connection at home.

Concepts like minimum sufficient level of care are central to the child protection system not only because they make reunifying families possible, but they help prevent the very dangerous Faustian bargain of forgetting what makes a family. 

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