Foster Care: Time for a Change – Part Two

Jim Roberts, CEO/Founder
April, 26, 2019 -

As I stated in Part One, America’s system for caring for foster children is in serious need of change. The system is based on archaic practices, often contrary to the best interest of children and contradictory to current science; and by and large, does more damage than benefit to children! But, I do believe there is the will and opportunity to improve our Child Welfare-Foster Care system, and here is how we should do it.

First and foremost, we must completely change our thinking about the purpose and function of our Child Welfare Services System (CWS). Child Welfare Services must stop being reactive, punitive and authoritarian; instead becoming supportive and community-based, and primarily focused on early detection, intervention and family preservation. This would be a big paradigm shift, transitioning from a “Child Protective Services” role, which is often perceived as a quasi-law enforcement function, to a “whatever it takes” genuine social work function, keeping children safe, preserving families, preventing child removal, and brokering needed resources.

It should no longer be acceptable to remove children without substantial justification. There is a core group of CWS reformers who believe that removing a child should require a court order, only permitting removals without court approval in the most extreme of circumstances. These proponents believe that there should be national statutes requiring that children are determined to be in imminent danger of substantial harm before they are separated from their family with precise tools and criteria to make that determination. Additionally, there should be very few to no children removed for neglect. But, this is about current system practices – let’s move beyond that!

Second, we need to abandon the concept of “Foster Care.” I know this sounds radical, but it is necessary. Foster care has become the preferred alternative for children requiring removal from their family, it has become the default option, not the last option! Children need families, preferably their own, and “stranger care” can be more traumatizing to them than the situation they are being removed from. If there needs to be a substitute family placement, then it needs to be with someone they are familiar with, i.e., a relative, neighbor or a close family friend; not a stranger.

Another thought – we are always “needing more foster parents” as there never seems to be enough. But if we effectively transform our CWS system, the need will be far less, and the role will be far different! Foster Care needs to be replaced by “Treatment Family Care,” specialized, “professional parents” providing short-term, therapeutic care is part of a broader system working to rapidly move foster children to permanency, preferably with their own biological family, relatives or family friends.

Third, as I stated earlier, the primary focus of Child Welfare Services must be “Early Detection, Intervention and Prevention!” CWS services are currently funded through federal and state systems that are triggered as an after-the-fact, reactive intervention. Our Federal Title IVE Foster Care Funding needs to be completely rebranded to something like, “Family Preservation and Wellbeing” funding. More importantly, we need to completely redesign the activities delivered under a transformed Child Welfare Services system, diminishing the role of government in delivering these services, while expanding community integration. I believe a “Family Preservation and Wellbeing” approach can be accomplished by pursuing the following practice shifts:

  • Keep the focus on Family. Child safety is paramount, but every effort must be made to prevent the removal of a child from his/her family. Strengthening, serving and supporting families is the best way to prevent children from entering into the Child Welfare system. It’s essential that we respect the importance and value of the Child-Parent relationship and make every effort to preserve it intact! The goal of our Child Welfare System must be to help families thrive, not just avoid system entanglement.
  • Early Detection is absolutely essential. This must entail a multi-faceted approach where every key community stakeholder is committed to thoughtful observation and family wellbeing. Preschools, childcare facilities, schools, pediatricians, public agencies, health clinics, neighbors, extended family, significant others, et cetera, must be trained to identify family needs and mobilize the help and services required to make the family successful and thrive. Additionally, the science of Predictive Analytics must be better refined for child and family wellbeing and applied proactively--not reactively. There has been significant research done in this area--we know the risk factors--plus, we have the technology, artificial intelligence and ability to develop significant Predictive Analytic Tools to improve our ability for early detection. Predictive Analytics can even be applied across communities in order to initiate more global, regionalized or geographic solutions for strengthening families.
  • Early Detection must fully embrace “Proactive,” prevention thinking. Folks will be much more apt to refer a family for services if they know there is not a punitive, stigmatizing, even hostile and condemning response awaiting that family. A family who is struggling is not “bad,” and we have to stop thinking that way. These are people with real needs, which, in most cases, can be mitigated or eliminated with appropriate services delivered with compassion, care and genuine concern. Referring a family for assistance and help must be seen as an act of compassion and not “tattle telling” or snitching!
  • Family Intervention and Preservation services availability must be greatly expanded and become the default response, again, with the eye on family strengthening and preservation. The same degree of intensive services that we now employ to put families back together and treat traumatized individuals, must be deployed as early as possible and whenever needed, to prevent family disruption and/or child removal. The system is replete with foster youth suffering from trauma, which, had it been addressed early on, would have prevented them from reaching this place of despair, dysfunction and heartbreak.
  • Family Preservation and Wellbeing must become a shared, Community priority. No longer is it acceptable to pass the buck onto a public agency to “fix” the problem. We are our brother’s keeper, a healthy community takes care of its own. Churches, community-based organizations, schools, neighborhoods and the like, must be willing to mobilize and advocate for families. Reaching out to help a struggling family must become normative community behavior. We need Community-Based Family Resource Centers that have the capacity to “do whatever it takes” to strengthen and preserve families!

Fourth, Treatment, Services and Supports must be trauma informed, effective, family-centered, community-centered and culturally appropriate. Children and families must be given “voice, choice and personal preference” – it is about meeting their needs, not the system’s needs. Services must be available when it is convenient for the family, even in their own home if necessary, and delivered by individuals who understand, and can adapt to, the unique culture of each family. One of the most exciting, yet challenging scientific revelations over the past decade or so has been understanding the incredible negative impact of childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences. On the encouraging side, Trauma can be effectively treated through a variety of evidence-informed interventions. Plus, there are many evidence-informed services available to families addressing issues such as substance use disorders, mental and emotional challenges, poverty and homelessness, self-sufficiency, and employability and career development. Again, we must do whatever it takes to help a family thrive and promote child safety.

Unfortunately, there will be some children and youth who require “out of home” treatment services, but only as a last resort. Therapeutic or Treatment Family Care should be the first option for these youth – placed with specially trained therapeutic parents while being provided a full array of services needed for them to be rapidly reunified with family. Short-term residential treatment is now required by federal legislation and is being developed in many states. This must be truly “short term,” necessary only to stabilize behaviors and move the youth quickly to a family setting. There is also a serious lack of secure children’s psychiatric hospital facilities which are absolutely necessary for youth who are self-destructive or at-risk of hurting others. Too often these young people are placed inappropriately, experiencing multiple placement failures and further trauma, and even loss of life.

Finally, the Legal System must also adapt to a new systems approach. Attorneys and judges are essential to bringing this vision to life, committing to unified guiding values and principles, and adhering to those values and principles in their daily practices. Aggressive efforts to keep families together safely, working diligently to promote child and family wellbeing, and recognizing the role of community supports are key areas where the legal and judicial communities can make a difference.

These are bold but necessary ideas. For decades, large amounts of public funding has been expended to patch kids and families back together after they have cascaded over the falls of life--this is a preventable tragedy. Now is the time to make a change, put our public finances, energies, knowledge base and efforts into Early Detection, Intervention and Prevention to create an effective Family Preservation and Wellbeing System!