Thursday, March 20, 2008

Smokers Are Not Fit to Be Parents? Sheffield Will Not Accept Foster Parents Who Smoke, for Children Under Five

Would-be foster care parents of children under five years of age need not bother to volunteer if they are smokers, according to a new policy adopted in Sheffield, England.

According to an article in the Sheffield Star: "Foster carers who smoke have been banned from looking after children under five or disabled youngsters in Sheffield. The decision has been made following consultation between council officials and medical advisors – and other South Yorkshire councils are to follow suit. Authorities across the country are concerned about the potential health impact of passive smoking on children. ... Paul Makin, Sheffield Council's acting executive director of children and young people's services, said: ... 'The most recent and authoritative advice from British Association for Adoption and Fostering is that children under the age of five and disabled children shouldn't be placed with foster carers who smoke. This has been confirmed by our medical advisors. Therefore, we are not considering foster carer applications for this age group from smokers or those who have given up smoking within the last year.'"

Other communities in the area seem ready to follow suit. Barnsley is considering adopting the same policy.

According to the Sheffield City Council web site, you cannot foster a child under five if you smoke. However, you can foster if you are a convicted criminal, as long as the offense doesn't involve the abuse of children or something similarly serious. Sheffield desperately wants and needs foster parents and emphasizes that they take nearly all comers, as long as you don't smoke:

"You CAN foster whether you’re single, married or a non-married couple. If you’re gay or straight, unemployed, working or retired. As long as you’re over 21 there are no age restrictions, providing you’re fit and able to care for a child. We welcome people from all religious backgrounds, ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities. Plus we don’t mind whether you have children of your own or not, or if you live in rented accommodation or have your own home."

"The reason we are so open is because what matters most to a child is who you are as a person, your character and capacity to care. So you need to be able to empathise with children who are going through a tough time. Be sympathetic and caring even when a child is being difficult and more importantly have a good sense of humour."

While Sheffield will not, under any circumstances, consider an application from a smoker, the city will entertain offers from convicted criminals: "People with criminal convictions or cautions can foster, much depends on the seriousness of the offence, how long ago it was, and how you have lived your life since."

The Rest of the Story

What Sheffield is saying here is that smokers are simply not fit to be parents. The city would rather take on a convicted criminal (as long as it's not a sexual violence or child abuse-related crime) than a smoker. The city proclaims to be "so open" because "what matters most to a child is who you are as a person, your character and capacity to care." But what seems to matter first and foremost is whether you smoke.

The city puts up very few categorical restrictions on foster parents. Even being a convicted criminal is not a categorical restriction. Your personal situation will be taken into account.

Not so if you are a smoker.

It is disgusting, to say the least, that smokers are categorically considered to be unfit parents. And it is even more disgusting that smokers are categorically considered to be unfit parents, while most convicted criminals are deemed worthy of full consideration. You can redeem yourself if you have been convicted of most crimes. But you can't redeem yourself if you are a smoker.

In fact, you can't even redeem yourself by quitting smoking. You have to wait a full year after quitting before your application to foster will even be considered.

In addition to being disgusting, the policy makes no sense. Why would the city want to categorically deny itself the fostering services of 30% to 50% of its population, without even interviewing these individuals? Why deny such a large group of people the opportunity to foster, when it is undeniably true that many of those denied individuals will be the best possible foster parents?

If Sheffield is so concerned about even the possibility of secondhand smoke exposure, then why allow parents to foster if they take those children to places that allow smoking? Does the city screen for parents who take their children to places that are smoky? Do they eliminate from consideration people who have friends who smoke? What if the foster grandparents smoke?

What about parents who take their kids out all the time for fast food? How about parents who allow their children to watch television and play video games all day long?

To be sure, there are a host of considerations that go into the decision about whether to allow a person to foster. But with very few exceptions, these considerations are made on a case-by-case basis. An individual is examined as a whole. There are few categorical exceptions, other than the obvious ones like being a child molester or abuser.

Not so any longer. Now you can add being a smoker to the list.

Importantly, most smokers who want to adopt or foster children agree not to smoke around their children. Just because an individual smokes doesn't mean that he or she will smoke around the child.

Furthermore, just because a person quit smoking within one year doesn't mean that he or she will resume smoking and that when he or she does resume smoking, he or she will smoke around the child.

To categorically deny foster parenthood to individuals who smoke without even considering whether they will actually expose the children to tobacco smoke or not is not only discriminatory, but it seems hateful.

I should add that there is generally a high demand for foster parents. It is not like there is a huge surplus supply sitting around and the state can eliminate 30% to 50% of the otherwise willing and able pool and still be able to provide homes for all children who need them. The policy will likely result in some children being denied foster home care. It also might result in some parents being allowed to foster who are much higher risks to the children than the excluded smokers would have been.

Almost invariably, a categorical exclusion of smokers is going to decrease the quality of the final foster parent pool. Ironically, the policy that is supposed to help protect children may, in the long run, end up doing some harm.

With this kind of hateful policy toward smokers, is it any surprise that a large proportion of smokers are becoming increasingly resistant to the idea of quitting?

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