Foster Care: Time for a Change

Part 1
Jim Roberts, Founder/CEO
April, 2, 2019 -

America’s system for caring for foster children is in serious need of a change. Our current 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!

One in eight American children are abused or neglected by age 18. Every year, over 250,000 children enter into the Foster Care System, that’s one out of every 17. About 23,000 foster youth annually leave the system on their own without a permanent connection and with little support or direction. Even worse, 20% of children leaving the Foster Care system are immediately homeless! Fifty percent of foster youth will not graduate from high school on time. Seventy percent of juvenile justice-involved youth have been in foster care, as has about 65% of the adult prisoner population. Also, 50% of foster youth will not graduate from high school on time, and less than 3% will graduate from college. Over 60% of child trafficking victims have histories in foster care, and 33% of homeless adults were previously in foster care. These numbers definitely do not paint a picture of success, or represent a proud moment for Social Services in the USA!

Let’s take a moment to review how we got here. Within the Jewish and Christian faith, there has always been a Biblical command to “take care of widows and orphans.” Under English Common Law, the practice emerged of caring for poor or orphaned children by forcing them into “indentured servitude” until they became of age; basically a type of slavery. Many of these kids were also forced into orphanages and even jails; for the most part, these were cruel, punitive institutions. This practice was justified in that children were being “taken care of.” Indentured servitude and institutional care continued in the USA up until the mid-1800s, unless the child was fortunate enough to have a family take them in. Surprisingly, forms of “orphanage care” still exist today.

In 1853, Charles Loring Brace began the “free foster home movement.” A minister and director of the New York Children's Aid Society, Brace was concerned about the large number of immigrant children sleeping in the streets of New York. He devised a plan to provide them homes by advertising in the South and West for families willing to provide free homes for these children, whether for charitable reasons or whatever help these children could be to them. In many cases, these children were placed in circumstances similar to indenture. However, Brace's daring and creative action became the foundation for the foster care movement as it exists today.

The Children’s Aid Society and New York, became a model for the rest of the states to begin establishing laws for both private and public agencies to assume this responsibility. In 1865, Massachusetts was the first state to provide financial assistance to families providing board and care, and in 1885, Pennsylvania became the first state to adopt “foster family licensing regulations.” Obviously, we have come a long way, but there remains a significant need for major system transformation.

The nation’s Child Welfare and Foster Care System has always been reactive – never proactive. This practice must change. Obviously, there are significant humanitarian reasons for being reactive when a child’s health and safety are at imminent risk, to do otherwise would be irresponsible. Nonetheless, we now live in an era of sophistication; visibility and technology allow us to identify problems and indications early on, in order to prevent “after the fact” intervention! Unfortunately, there is little will or public policy interest at this time to do otherwise.

For instance, our entire federal and state foster care funding system is based on reactive triggers. Funding begins only when Child Protective Services (CPS) or law enforcement becomes involved, after a problem is reported and responded to, and a Juvenile Court intervenes. In many cases, this is far too late. It is a system designed to rescue broken lives after they have gone over the falls, instead of preventing them from getting close to disaster!

I believe the term “Child Protective Services” is a misnomer, archaic and not reflective of what “protection” really entails. By definition, protection is a person or activity that prevents someone from suffering harm or injury; it’s about safety, preservation and security. Our Child Welfare–CPS System does not do that; it intervenes after the damages are done, like a paramedic responding to a car crash or catastrophe, and creates further injury and trauma!

The facts are in; research confirms that separating children from their families doesn't just “punish their parents,” these practices deeply hurt the very children they are purported to protect. The national outrage over the separation of children from their families at the border is based on fact, not emotion. Childhood trauma has a measurable negative impact on a child’s brain, sometimes permanently!

Children in foster care are doubly traumatized! First, by the abuse or neglect they have experienced, and second, by forced separations from their families. Consequently, foster children have higher levels of prescribed psychotropic medication than other child populations, and demonstrate far greater behavioral challenges. Children are medicated to counteract the destabilizing effects of being separated from their loved ones, on top of the trauma they have already experienced. These circumstances result in what is called “Complex-Trauma”, which is seriously damaging!

The overwhelming majority of removals in this country happen by unilateral decisions by child welfare caseworkers or police officers before any judicial review happens. Some state statutes give child welfare agencies broad authority to unilaterally remove children based on one person’s subjective opinion that a child has been neglected or abused.  Most states do not require the individual making this determination to have had any training on the legal standards or the trauma caused by removal.

In 2017, nearly 1 out of every 10 child removed were released from foster care within 30 days of their removal.  Most (57.6%) of these children spent a week or less in foster care, living in the homes of strangers or in institutions. Almost all of these children were released to a family member, with the bulk returning to the same caretaker from whom they were removed. This data begs the question: why are Child Welfare systems inflicting trauma on these children only to return them home quickly? A few months back, a District Judge in Texas ruled that children in foster care in the state of Texas “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”

The research on childhood trauma is exhaustive, and irrefutable. Complex trauma can affect children in a multitude of ways, and all foster children have suffered complex trauma. Here is a short list of common, negative effects: Difficulty with attachments and relationships; poor physical health – body and brain; inappropriate emotional responses; mental illness and disassociation; challenging behaviors; poor cognition – thinking and learning; poor self-concept and future orientation; long-term health problems; and severely impaired adult functioning. Current research also confirms that complex trauma has an adverse impact on a child’s genetic makeup. This is serious business.

So, we put these children and youth in foster care with complete strangers and wonder why they do so poorly. Our terrible foster care statistics and data serve as an indictment against our Child Welfare System. Is it any wonder that we’re having a national crisis in recruiting families to serve these kids – it is a set up for failure!

We can and must fix this system! True transformation of our Child Welfare System will take place when we redefine our beliefs about what children and families need and how we will respond. By avoiding out-of-family placement, we change our measures of success to not only protect children’s physical safety and wellbeing, but also to safeguard their hearts.

In “Foster Care: Time for a Change – Part Two”, I will share my thoughts on how we can positively transform our Child Welfare System and stop the cycle of “system-abuse.”