Is international foster care a thing?
January 1, 2021 1:16 PM   Subscribe
My husband and I are seeking advice on a difficult family/custody/caretaking issue involving a single father who can't currently be a full-time parent and international borders.

There is a difficult situation in my family, and we are trying to articulate our options to move forward.

My husband and I are a mixed-nationality couple (I am a US & EU citizen, husband is a citizen of a middle-income country) that currently live in the US. My husband’s brother and his one-year-old son currently live in my husband’s home country. Unfortunately, my BIL’s wonderful wife passed away in childbirth - an unexpected and unspeakably difficult blow.

My BIL has had longtime mental health challenges that have unsurprisingly been greatly exacerbated by this year’s cocktail of grief, lockdowns, etc. Because of that, he literally cannot be a the parent his son needs right now - though he is still very much present in his son’s life, and loves him enormously. My mother-in-law has been the baby’s primary caretaker* since he was born, which is a massive (and very appreciated) undertaking, but at her age, it’s not a sustainable situation. Plus, she’s very critical toward BIL and has no empathy for his grief, so you can imagine how toxic lockdown has been for him especially. Minimal support is available for both mental health issues and for single fathers in their country; suffice to say that while everyone’s goal is for BIL and nephew to find a stable family situation together, it’s probably going to be a bumpy road for at least the next few years.

My husband and I have stable lives in the US and we want (but don’t yet have) kids. If the kid was also in the US, we would pursue temporary guardianship in a heartbeat - both BIL and MIL have expressed that they would want that, and it would give BIL some space and time to recover and figure out the best next steps for him/nephew - but unfortunately, as they’re not in the US, visas are a major barrier.

In short, this is a really difficult situation for everyone, with no great options to move forward. My question is both legal and interpersonal:

Legally - do we have any options to make some version of family foster care work internationally? (This would, of course, be with BIL’s full and enthusiastic consent.) The only options we’ve identified so far are:
-We could move to husband’s home country. Legally easy, but every other thing about it would be insurmountably difficult - I don’t speak the language well, we’d both be starting from square one professionally, we don’t have a support network other than aforementioned mostly-toxic family, etc. This really isn’t something either of us are open to.
-We could try to bring nephew here on an F-1 visa as early as kindergarten if we could find an eligible private school willing to take him. This is actually a pretty viable option we’d consider pursuing, but still five years away.
-If we could get BIL (and nephew) to the US on an H1-B, then we could live with them and informally take on caretaking. This is stymied by BIL’s mental health and the fact that his career, while skilled and specialized, may not translate easily to the US, so he’s unlikely to qualify. Perhaps an F-1 if he’s willing to give up his career temporarily and go back to graduate school.
-We and BIL could both immigrate to a third country, where we could combine households and support nephew. I have no idea what countries would be feasible - something where all of us would have professional opportunities in English, I guess, and all of us would be allowed to immigrate. This would be massively difficult, but what on this list isn’t?
-Adoption is the nuclear option, but we aren’t really willing to pursue that unless it’s something that BIL wanted as well - nephew is his kid, and supporting them as a family is 100% the goal. But it's not permanently off the table.

Both of us do have plenty of experience with the US immigration system and are under no misconceptions that any of this would somehow be easy or straightforward. We don’t have unlimited money, but we are willing to use pretty much any resource we have access to in order to ensure BIL and nephew’s well-being. We would never actually go through with any of these options without a lawyer, don’t worry, but I don't think we're quite at lawyer stage yet (we do already have a "regular" immigration lawyer on retainer for husband's pending case, though).

Interpersonally - based on the information shared, what advice do you have for me and my husband? How can we best support BIL, MIL, and baby? Do you know anyone who has faced a situation remotely like this? Are there any books or memoirs?

*they do have help from a full-time nanny (on and off due to COVID lockdowns) and some other household help; they live in a country where domestic help is common enough that most middle-class-and-above babies have both a full-time mother and a live-in nanny taking care of them. As an American, I can’t say I fully grasp their childrearing norms, so I’ll leave it there, but suffice to say that this is a challenge that wouldn’t be addressed by simply hiring additional support.

Throwaway email for anyone who would like to reach out:
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (8 answers total)
I used to be a child protection social worker. We would only send kids to other countries to stay with relatives if an investigation had found them in need of protection, and then the parents failed over a period of about two years to lower the risk by participating in rehabilitation programs of whatever kind were indicated. We’d put them in regular foster care or the care of a relative for the two years while the parents tried to reduce the risk. As the two year mark approached if the risk did not seem to be lower, we’d look for more permanent options.

I saw custody transferred to relatives in another country only a couple of times in my career. It was legally complicated. Transfer of custody is a little different than adoption, but legal subtleties will depend on your jurisdiction and the child’s.

I can only really speak to the child protection and custody elements here, but I admire your desire to find a more collaborative option. Feel free to message me with further questions.
posted by unstrungharp at 2:03 PM on January 1

You might want to talk to about this. The link is to the UK branch of the International Social Service network, because the UK service is the one I know - I think they would refer you to a US-based service, or one in the country your nephew is in, if that makes more sense for your situation.
posted by paduasoy at 2:48 PM on January 1

I’m a current CPS manager and yes, if government child welfare systems get involved, this becomes very complicated and will take forever. However, families make plans for their children without government agencies all the time and if everyone is on the same page and safe that’s almost always the best way to go. I’d do my best to find an attorney experienced in this and see what you can work out at that level.
posted by purenitrous at 3:48 PM on January 1 [11 favorites]

I may be misunderstanding seems that the child is well taken care of. He has a father who loves him although is not his primary caretaker. He has a grandmother who takes care of him. It sounds like he does or could have a nanny to help ease the burden on the grandma.
Sounds like frequent visits from caring family (you) would be an added bonus. Why don’t you just frequently visit them? Changing your work schedules to accommodate travel like this say a week every two months sounds like less of a hassle than all your other options.
But maybe I am missing something about this child’s lack of current wellbeing? (Other than of course the terrible traumatic loss of a mother)
posted by amy.g.dala at 4:46 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry your family is facing this situation.

The welfare of the 1-year-old has to be paramount. I agree with amy.g.dala that the baby appears to be in a good situation right now, where he is taken care of and stable. Yanking him away from his grandmother and nanny and transplanting him to a foreign country would not likely be the best thing for him. A baby will not understand the reasons behind the disruption of his life. He will just feel a sense of broken attachment and loss of trust in the world.

You say the MIL is critical towards the son, but as long as he's allowed supervised access, and as long as she's not being outright abusive, I don't think her attitude is terribly relevant. You say that she's too old to care for the baby, but I'm struggling to think of an age that would be too old per se, especially with the help of a nanny. Is she no longer mentally sharp? Does she have a specific medical issue that makes it unsafe for her to make decisions regarding his care? Barring that, I think the best thing for the baby is to stay where he is. You can support the baby and father with visits (if feasible), phone calls, money if needed, and perhaps research in finding resources in the home country.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 2:37 AM on January 2

Maybe you should to talk to an immigration attorney. The simplest solution would be for your brother-in-law to bring the baby to you, have a US lawyer draw up legal guardianship papers, and go home. But then there is the visa question and an immigration lawyer could help. I don't think any social workers need to be involved as long as the baby's father assigns guardianship to you and your husband.
posted by mareli at 4:42 AM on January 2

The simplest solution would be for the "full-time" nanny to be a live-in nanny, as is the custom where BIL and nephew live; as a permanent part of the household, COVID lockdowns wouldn't have the same effect. Your MIL would be less involved with childcare and have fewer opportunities to criticize her son. If you have the means to consider moving to another country, could you contribute toward housing with a separate bedroom & bathroom for the nanny (if space is the issue) and the increased salary for a live-in position instead? If it is unlikely that a (possibly young, presumably unmarried) female nanny would accept a live-in position with a single father, is hiring an older live-in couple an option, with the wife providing childcare and the husband taking care of [cooking/cleaning/chauffeuring/gardening]? That would grant BIL some space and time to process the past year and make plans.

Your grieving BIL needs to limit his interaction with your MIL. (Your nephew will only grow more aware of the friction between them, too.)

I think that for the next year, with BIL's consent, you & spouse throw money at having round-the-clock live-in help and some professional telehealth therapist support. At the same time, you're consulting attorneys to explore what would be necessary to sponsor your BIL and your nephew in the US or take on guardianship for the child. Right now, the "international family foster care" option is extending support to both individuals where they are. Even if there wasn't a pandemic, I'd vote against uprooting your own lives by moving to a compromise country, and encourage doing what you can to keep father and son together (and lessen MIL's influence on BIL). It's great that you want to help, and I wish you all the best.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:20 AM on January 2

Bit that didn't paste over: is the family of your late sister-in-law involved in their lives? (I'd wondered if bringing your nephew to the US would inadvertently distance him, in several ways, from his maternal relatives.) Maybe her side of the family is a resource, too, in these difficult times.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:32 AM on January 2

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