Thursday, October 30, 2008

Smokers May Be Prohibited from Being Foster Parents in East London Borough of Redbridge

The East London Borough of Redbridge is considering a new policy which would prohibit anyone who smokes from becoming a foster parent. The Redbridge Council Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to vote on the proposed policy, which would go into effect in January 2010.

According to an article in the Daily Mail: "Smokers could be completely banned from fostering children under controversial proposals branded health 'fascism' by opponents. Redbridge in East London is believed to the first council in the country to consider a total ban on foster carers who smoke, no matter how old the child they want to look after. It says the tough rules are needed to protect children from the effect of passive smoking, and to stop them taking up the habit from carers who they see as their role models. ...fostering organisations said they did not believe occasional smokers should be banned, at a time when there is a national shortage of 10,000 foster carers."

According to the article: "Michael Stark, the council's cabinet member for children's services, ... said he was acting on NHS advice which said those who breathe in second-hand smoke are at the same risk as those who smoke themselves...".

A professor at Cancer Research UK was quoted as stating that childhood exposure to secondhand smoke causes childhood cancer: "Director of tobacco studies at Cancer Research UK, Professor Richard West, said: 'Smoking around children can exacerbate asthma, increase childhood cancers and make them more susceptible to respiratory problems.'"

Several groups expressed opposition to the policy: "Neil Rafferty of smokers' rights group Forest branded those who wanted to ban smokers from being carers as 'health fascists'. 'There are many millions of smokers who would make brilliant foster parents,' he said. 'It's really troubling. Next they'll be banning obese people for setting a bad example. Where will it end?'"

"The Fostering Network, which represents most of Britain's carers, advised that a ban should only be placed on carers of children under the age of five - advice that most councils follow."

"A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: 'The health and well-being of looked-after children is paramount and we do, of course, want children to be protected from the harmful effects of smoking. Whilst our regulations do not ban smokers from becoming foster carers, smoking is certainly an issue which we would expect fostering providers to take into account as part of the approvals process.'"

The Rest of the Story

The idea of banning smokers from being foster parents because they may set a bad example for their children is a dangerous one. While foster children should be protected from harmful behavior, it is not the appropriate role of the fostering agencies to cast moral judgments on the legal behaviors of potential parents, especially when the issue is the assumption of health risks by that individual.

As the spokesperson for Forest pointed out, this is conceptually a slippery slope. The same argument could be applied to ban obese people from becoming foster parents. It could also be applied to deny the right to foster children to individuals based on religion or sexual orientation. It is indeed scary to think about where this could lead next.

Given the apparent shortage of foster parents in England, it is unfortunate that smokers will categorically be denied the opportunity to foster children, even if they are potentially loving, caring, responsible parents and especially if they are willing to minimize their children's smoke exposure by, for example, smoking outside.

The argument that this policy is necessary in order to protect children from secondhand smoke does not hold water. The policy applies to all smokers, even if they agree to refrain from smoking in the presence of their children. It applies even to occasional smokers, who might only smoke when their children are not around or might even smoke only when they are outside of their home.

While a sensible policy would take all of these factors into account as part of the decision, a categorical rejection of any individual who smokes appears to be motivated as much by a disdain for smokers as by a legitimate concern for the well-being of the children. After all, with a severe shortage of foster parents, is it really better to deny children foster care or keep them waiting longer just to avoid having to place them with an individual who has made the decision to smoke and even if that individual agrees to refrain from smoking in the child's presence?

Does it make sense to categorically deny the opportunity to be a foster parent to all smokers, even when the children in question may be adolescents who are much less susceptible to the respiratory health effects of secondhand smoke (e.g., pneumonia, bronchitis) and who may even smoke themselves? Can you imagine a 16-year-old smoker being told she has to wait longer to be placed in foster care because the prospective parent is a smoker and she needs to be protected from secondhand smoke, even as she herself puffs on a cigarette?

It is also unfortunate that the policy is being justified based on false scientific claims. It is untrue that "those who breathe in second-hand smoke are at the same risk as those who smoke themselves." I have thoroughly debunked this myth, which is still being disseminated by many anti-smoking groups.

The claim that secondhand smoke exposure causes childhood cancer is unsupported by the bulk of the scientific evidence, and for this reason, the California EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General have not linked tobacco smoke exposure to childhood cancer (even though the Surgeon General told the public that breathing in tobacco smoke for 30 minutes sets the cancer process in motion).

Ironically, Forest's prediction that banning obese people from being foster parents will be next does not appear to be too far off the mark. An article in yesterday's Daily Mail reports that
a social services agency in England has taken seven children away from their parents because the children are obese. This is scary, especially because obesity is largely hereditary and obese parents are much more likely to have obese children. They may, in fact, not be able to control their children's weight. It is scary to think that the government may take away your children for a factor over which you as a parent have no control!

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