Can We Change Our Foster Care System?

Radically changing or entirely rethinking the child welfare system.  It seems to be the hot topic that many people are talking about right now, as evidenced through this blog, a podcast series, and even entire non-profits (e.g. AliaInnovations and Foster America) devoted entirely to this topic.  Why we need to change our system is obvious at this point and we seem to have reached a broad consensus that our current child welfare system does not work as well as it should for children and families.  The stubborn statistics do not seem to budge despite lots of work to change them.  We are still graduating far too many kids from the system into poor outcomes with estimates of 25% of former foster youth experiencing homelessness within a year of exiting care and 25% of youth becoming involved in the criminal justice system within two years of exiting care.  Disproportionality is a significant issue within our system with, for just one example, African-American children comprising14% of the nation’s children, yet representing 23% of the national foster care population.  Recently a new class action law suit was filed in Kansas that alleged that foster children in Kansas are moved so often, in one case more than 130 placements in six years, as to effectively render children “homeless while in state custody”.  Indeed U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack recently ruled that children in foster care in the state of Texas almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged when they entered.” 

Those statistics fit and underlie the narrative about the child welfare system – both for those within the system but also for many members of the public - that the system is “broken”.  Many people believe this to be true and what unfortunately follows that statement is a seemingly inevitable shrug of the shoulders.  The system is broken and the implication often seems to be that there is nothing we can do about it.  For members of the public and even for those of us who work within the system, the feeling is that the system is too big and immovable to be fixed.
And so the question now faces us:  Can we actually change our current system?
The answer is not only that we can but that we actually have many good ideas on how our system should change.  In fact, we now have quite a bit of research, including results of pilot projects, as well as the invaluable feedback from system-involved children and parents to help us envision and build a better system.  Below are some of the ideas based on what we know, offered as evidence that we can build a better child welfare system that both protects children and strengthen families.
As the statistics above clearly show, our system pulls kids out of their support systems and families, often without replacing them.  Research has clearly illustrated that the removal of a child from his or her home does real harm, and so we know it must only be done as a last resort when that child is not safe in the home.  As a result, we know that the child welfare agency needs to make real and meaningful reasonable efforts to keep children with their families and that lawyers and judges need to “leverage reasonable efforts findings as part of child welfare prevention efforts”.  Those efforts can and must address issues of poverty, for example assistance with housing, as well as the provision of support for parents to assist them in safely keeping their children at home.  Further confirming that this is right direction for our system, the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS recently released a memo focused on reshaping the child welfare system in the United States to focus on strengthening families through primary prevention of child maltreatment and unnecessary parent-child separation.  It should be said that this approach does not mean sacrificing child safety, not by any means.  In fact, this approach elevates child safety and narrows the system’s focus to better address safety issues.
Given what we know from the research about how harmful family separation can be, when a child cannot safely be kept in his or her own home, the removal must be done in a way that minimizes the trauma of the separation.   A child’s relationships are the foundation for both minimizing the trauma from removal as well as healing from trauma the child might have experienced prior to removal and so a child’s connections and relationships should be prioritized above everything else.  Indeed, the removal of each child from his or her home should trigger an emergency response from every professional involved in the case to find relatives and/or known supportive adults with whom the child can be placed quickly, with any non-safety issue such as a lack of beds being addressed promptly so as not to interfere with placement.  The interstate compact needs to be fixed so that if children have family across state lines they can be placed quickly without long administrative delays that have nothing to do with safety.  Thirty days to family should be the deadline that the entire system works towards to get a child safely placed with people who love him or her and any time during which a child is not being parented should be treated as an emergency.  Once a child is placed, that family should be supported both financially and with any needed services to ensure that the placement is successful and that the caregiver is able to safely care for the child. 
If no kinship placement can be found after exhaustive efforts, children should be placed in foster families that are well-supported and supervised, and chosen based on the needs of the children, not simply based on where a bed is available.  Children who are in care should be able to participate in normal activities like sleep overs, learning to drive and attending extra-curricular activities.  We now know that these activities are not just important for normal child development but assist in healing from trauma as well.  We know that placement disruption can be very harmful for children (in fact it is a key risk factor for later juvenile justice involvement) and so an enormous effort should be made to support caregivers and work to avoid changing placements.  Note that there are some wonderful programs that have found innovative and meaningful ways to support foster families that can be looked to for examples.
When a child is removed from his or her parents, reunification is the primary objective and so parents should get services targeted to the reason that led to the removal.  Too many services can be a burden on parents, so they should be limited to the services that address the reason that the child cannot be in the home.  Research is clear that visitation with parents makes a huge difference and can shorten the time that children spend in state custody as well as minimize trauma while in state custody so visitation with the parents after removal should be frequent.  Since we know that reunification is the priority, at each court hearing, the question on the table should be “why can’t this child go home today?” and once the safety issue that led to removal has been resolved, the child should be placed home with close supervision.
Research has clearly shown that the professionals involved in each case can make a big difference in shortening time in care and improving outcomes. Therefore, every child and parent in the child welfare system should have an effective, well-resourced lawyer with low caseloads, and social workers must be well-trained and supervised with low caseloads and the right technology to do their jobs more effectively.  In addition, peer mentors for both youth and parents should be the norm in every system, as they have been shown to assist with engagement and communication as well as with improving outcomes such as reunification and transition to adulthood.
The above ideas are not new (nor are they a complete list), in fact many are being implemented, but too often they exist only in pilot programs or when a non-profit has the funding to support them. I share them here to point out that we actually do know what to do – we have the research - now we need the will and urgency to implement these reforms broadly with a focus on meeting the specific needs of each child and family.  For front-line lawyers (or other stakeholders), your ability to change the system in these ways might feel overwhelming or even impossible.  But you do not need to change everything.  Using some of the ideas and principles above, start with what you can change and work towards these goals for each of your clients.  You can also connect with other lawyers in your community to talk about what you can begin to do together on behalf of your clients, and then perhaps begin to talk to other stakeholders in the system to discuss what you can begin to change by working together. (for some wonderfully concrete ideas, see Can Children’s Attorneys Transform the Child Welfare System?)
Our system can be re-structured to work better for our children, families and communities.  If the above reforms sound too expensive, think about how much we are currently spending to achieve those poor outcomes listed above (as well as how much we spend on outcomes such as homelessness and incarceration).  We are likely to find in the long-run that it is far cheaper to invest in healthy families (or as Frederick Douglass more eloquently said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”).
Let’s stop using the narrative of a “broken system” and instead begin to talk about the ways we know our system can transform.  Let’s start talking about what is possible.  When it feels like the system is just too big to change, think about the many social workers, lawyers, judges, advocates and formerly system-involved youth and parents who are currently focused on improving our system.  Imagine what is possible when we all begin pulling in the same direction, both zealously and urgently advocating for each one of our clients with the above ideas and principles in mind.  And when you get discouraged, make sure you are addressing your own needs and your compassion fatigue, then think of the children and families who drew you to this work and let’s get to work building the system that they (and indeed all of us)  deserve.


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