‘Memoirs of a Baby Stealer’ Reveals Darker Side of Child Protection

I was prepared to love Mary Callahan’s Memoirs of a Baby Stealer long before I opened the book’s front cover. Just the title, the fact that Callahan was able to acknowledge that her role as a foster caregiver made her party to a state-sanctioned kidnapping, was intriguing. I was certain Baby Stealer would be an important, life-affirming read for someone like me. Though I felt I was already well-acquainted with the failings of the child “protection” system, I was excited to learn from Callahan’s unique perspective as a disgruntled fosterer. What I wasn’t prepared for was an inescapable sense of disappointment that came over me as I read. I feel conflicted just writing this review!

In the prologue, Callahan wrote of the reasons that drove her to enter the world of foster care. She was quick to point out the “hero complex” that was a catalyst in her decision, as well as the financial benefits that made fostering so appealing. Although it was refreshing to see someone in her position acknowledging rather questionable motivation, she did not dig as deeply as I had hoped. Her hero complex was pervasive throughout the book, and appears firmly in tact even in her concluding chapters. The same can be said for the financial incentives that got her started: Memoirs of a Baby Stealer concludes with Callahan fostering two children for $5000 plus additional expenses and a respite weekend each month. Who wouldn’t want to do foster care for that kind of pay?

In all seriousness, Callahan did an excellent job detailing the lives of her charges and the multiple ways in which they (and their families) were irrevocably damaged by CPS. Unfortunately, I felt that the words she chose often mimicked the destructive language of the system, which resulted in this reader feeling alienated instead of drawn in. I was extremely uncomfortable with her willingness to embrace the title of “foster parent” when caregiver or guardian could have been substituted easily. Though she frequently referred to the children’s real parents as just that, the fact that she considered herself to be a parent as well only led to her being further enmeshed in the rhetoric of the system. Despite that the two terms are often treated as interchangeable, there is a distinct difference between child-rearing and parenting. As a fosterer, Callahan could not parent: she was not the mother of her charges. Instead, she was rearing children that naturally belonged to other families. Memoirs of a Baby Stealer would have been greatly improved had she recognized this simple fact by selecting more truthful words.

Despite all the above criticism, I am conflicted. Baby Stealer was worth reading even when it required muddling through inappropriate terms and a bit of unchecked greed. Everyone could learn something about foster care and about the child welfare system from Callahan and the children she’s cared for over the years. It would be difficult to get through this book with an in tact belief in DYFS’ “good intentions,” assuming one spent the earlier part of her life wearing rose-colored glasses.

The most useful chapter in Baby Stealer was titled “Mary” and reflected upon Callahan’s own experiences and opinions about reform. She described the pervasive prejudices that caused case workers and judges to separate many children from their natural families; the idea that youth and poverty somehow led to loving parents being labeled as abusive and that, no matter what small thing brought the children into foster care, case workers were patently unwilling to send them home. One theme that ran throughout the book was the eagerness of the state to pay fosterers, while refusing to provide services that would help reunite real families. Is it fair to pay a guardian $2500 a month, plus baby-sitting and recreation expenses and a clothing allowance, when that same amount of assistance could make a world of difference in keeping the child with his parents?

Borrowing ideas from Richard Wexler and the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Callahan outlines four major reforms that need to take place in order for CPS to be effective. The first is simple: when allegations of abuse are known to be false or based on a disagreement in what makes a “good parent,” the state must bow out. We should not remove children from their families just because we dislike the parents’ practices; children should only be removed when they are in danger. The second reform also applies to reunification: the state must offer real, concrete help to struggling parents. The third item on Wexler and Callahan’s list goes hand in hand with number two: go to whatever extreme it takes to preserve the family. As an example, Callahan mentions an entire community that was established to assist “at risk” families by offering education, child-care, housing and help instead of punishment when things are going poorly. Had I limitless funding, I would love to create such a safe place for children and parents!

The final reform deemed necessary by Wexler and presented by Callahan is a change in financial incentives. As it stands, most states reap a good many benefits for keeping children in the system. As soon as those children go home to their families, the money stops rolling in. It is absolutely critical that we change the way we think when it comes to financial incentives. Right now, our country is unfairly putting a price on the value of family. Haven’t we learned by now that certain things in life just cannot be measured in dollars and cents?

I still feel conflicted about Memoirs of a Baby Stealer, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others. In fact, I truly believe it should be required reading for all fosterers, case workers, and CASA/guardian ad litem volunteers working in the system. If more people understood the nature of CPS, families would stand a fighting chance at respect, dignity and security; exactly what our children deserve.

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