To thrive, a child needs a safe, supportive and stable family. Research shows that enduring, loving relationships help children grow into productive adulthood and sustain them throughout their lives.
Those vital connections are more tenuous, and at risk of further fraying, for the half-million
Numerous studies have found foster children to be at higher risk of physical, psychological and educational deficits than their peers. They are vulnerable to further setbacks if they become alienated from families, placed in settings without adequate support or subjected to repeated moves.
Federal statistics show the 463,000 children in foster care in 2008 had averaged almost 27 months in care. Children of color tend to remain longer than whites and make up a disproportionate share of foster care youths. In 2008, non-Hispanic black youths accounted for 31 percent of those in care, Hispanics, 20 percent and whites, 40 percent.
By the time they “age out” or are “emancipated” from foster care (typically from ages 18 to 21), older youths have experienced even longer stays. "Time for Reform," a 2008 report, noted that older youths spend nearly five years without a permanent home. Further, it cites studies showing that just 58 percent earn high school diplomas, roughly 25 percent get incarcerated within two years of emancipation, and at least 20 percent become homeless. Among other poor outcomes, The Annie E. Casey Foundation cites data indicating 42 percent have become parents themselves and fewer than 20 percent are able to support themselves.
And while the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program of 1999 increased funding to give states the option to extend Medicaid coverage to age 21 and to expand life skills training, those emancipated often leave without critical supports such as housing or health insurance. An estimated 29,516 foster youths were emancipated in 2008.
Permanence, along with safety, is a key goal of foster care. Congress reiterated that objective with the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. Many child welfare experts, advocates and others also have been pressing for permanency and promoting the concept of “families for life.” They’ve called for more interventions to keep struggling families from splintering. If children must be removed, they advocate placement with relatives whenever possible. If they're placed with nonrelatives, they should get help in maintaining connections with family members. That also means keeping sibling groups together.
The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care – a panel made up of legislators, child welfare administrators and other experts – concluded in 2004 that existing federal child welfare funding is too restrictive, encouraging “an over-reliance on foster care at the expense of other services.” It urged more flexible spending so states could better tailor family preservation or reunification efforts – or move a foster child more quickly to a permanent home through adoption or legal guardianship.
A pioneering applied-economics study recently made a case for greater investment in family preservation. Released in early July, the study’s findings suggested that children who'd been considered for foster care placement "have better employment, delinquency and teen motherhood outcomes when they remain at home,” said its author, MIT professor Joseph Doyle Jr.
Foster care is an open-ended entitlement, while funding for prevention and family support is discretionary and limited. “The bottom line is that there is not enough federal money for alternatives to foster care,” Steve Christian, child welfare expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, wrote in a for the organization’s magazine in 2006. He noted the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 cut child welfare spending and made future significant increases unlikely.
The federal government – which shares financial responsibility with the states – has approved roughly $7.7 billion for child welfare in 2007, of which $6.6 billion is targeted to foster care. Foster care funding is disbursed through a complicated tangle of programs.
In 2005, almost half (46 percent) of all placements were in non-relative foster homes, with nearly another quarter (24 percent) in relative homes, the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System’s preliminary report showed.
Grandparents account for a significant portion of these kinship caregivers, many of whom are poor. Relatives may be reluctant to seek legal guardianship because it lacks the public supports, including Medicaid benefits, available for foster children. And they may not want to adopt, hoping the parent may eventually be able to resume custody or fearing a strain in other family relationships.
Reformers encourage developing more supports and subsidies for kinship placement. For instance, the proposed federal Kinship Caregiver Support Act – reintroduced this year in the Senate and the House – would establish guardianship assistance payments to relatives and would help them find available programs and services.
Tips and Story Ideas
ASFA’s 10th anniversary. ASFA, enacted in November 1997, has two key provisions: a requirement that states seek termination of parental rights when a child has been in care for 15 of the most recent 22 months; and a “fast track,” which permits states to skip reunification efforts when a parent has committed a felony assault or other reprehensible act involving a child. It also provides financial incentives for states to increase the number of adoptions: $4,000 for each one above an established baseline and an additional $2,000 for special-needs children.
ASFA supporters suggest it has spurred child welfare agency accountability and inspired reforms that include more effective judicial oversight. They say it also has promoted better outcomes for youngsters via the mandated federal Child and Family Services Reviews of state welfare agencies. (However, every state failed its initial review.)
Critics contend that ASFA, by authorizing incentive payments to states that increase the adoption of foster and special-needs children, creates a disincentive for reunification. They also suggest the accelerated permanency timeline puts birth families – especially those who are poor or are coping with problems such as substance abuse or crowded housing – at a disadvantage.
Your state’s child welfare oversight. Look online in your state's statutes for its children's code, where you'll find child welfare regulations. Use your state’s CFSR as a springboard for interviews with state officials, dependency court judges, caregivers, advocates and families. What measures has the state taken to support struggling families? What percentage of birth parents regain custody of their children? What percentage retain custody several years after the child has been returned? In other words, how many of these families remain intact? What supports are provided for adoptive families or legal guardians?
What are the demographics of foster families, and what is the state doing to recruit and retain them? Sit in on training and speak to families who’ve left the system.
How are immigrant children faring in your state’s foster system? Nationally, only 8 percent of Latino immigrant children in foster care live with relatives, compared with at least 20 percent of U.S.-born children, according to a May report by the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Sources and Resources
Alliance for Children and Families
Patrick Lester, Senior Vice President of Public Policy
Phone: 800.220.1016, ext. 15
Or contact Malcolm McIntyre, media relations specialist, 414.359.1040, ext. 6570; firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a national membership association of roughly 350 private, nonprofit human service providers in the United States and Canada, operating an array of child welfare and other programs for children, families and communities. Based in Milwaukee, it also has offices in Washington, D.C.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Sue Lin Chong, Public Affairs Manager
Phone: 410.223.2836; email@example.com; www.aecf.org
The Baltimore-based foundation’s primary mission is to foster public policies, human-service reforms and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. Its annual Kids Count Data Book compiles national and state-by-state indicators of child well-being. See the foundation’s fact sheets on “Families for Life: Addressing the Needs of Older Children and Youth in Foster Care.”
Center on Children and the Law, American Bar Association
Eva Klain, Director; 202.662.1720
It offers expertise in child abuse and neglect, child welfare and protective services system enhancement, foster care, family preservation, termination of parental rights, parental substance abuse and more. The ABA Permanency Project helps children move through the foster care system and helps states reduce foster care spending dollars. See http://www.abanet.org/child/permanency.shtml.
Claire Micklin, Communications Associate; 773.256.5190
This research and development center puts out rigorous, nonpartisan research and works with lawmakers, government administrators and providers to shape policies and programs. See its foster care research archives: http://www.chapinhall.org/category_archive.aspx?L2=61&L3=130.
David Carrier, outreach director; 202.572.6138
Child welfare is among the research areas at this Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization providing social science research on children and youth. The Child Trends Data Bank contains statistics and data sources on foster care and numerous other subjects. Previously Child Trends President Carol Emig directed the Pew Commission on Foster Care, mentioned above. See
Child Welfare League of
Linda Spears, acting vice president for operations and corporate communications and development
Contact Joyce Johnson at 804.492.4519
CWLA is an association of nearly 800 public and private nonprofit agencies that assist more than 3.5 million abused and neglected children and their families each year with a range of services. See http://www.cwla.org/programs/fostercare/default.htm.
Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
Carla A. Owens, director of communications and public affairs; 314.863.7000, ext. 107
The St. Louis-based foundation helps youth in foster care make successful transitions to adulthood. Formed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, it supports community-based efforts that create opportunities and build assets – in education, employment, health care, housing, and supportive personal and community relationships – for youth leaving foster care. The initiative provides grants and technical assistance, and supports local youth leadership boards.
Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now
National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators
Contact Frank Soloman, Director of Communications; 202.682.0100 ext. 285 firstname.lastname@example.org
This affiliate of the American Public Human Services Association represents public child welfare agencies. It works to enhance and improve public policy and administration of services for children, youth and families.
National Foster Parent Association
Karen Jorgenson, Executive Director; 800.557.5238 or 253.853.4000
The nonprofit, volunteer organization, established by the Child Welfare League of America in 1971, represents thousands of foster families. Headquartered in
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