Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004
The Current State of Foster Care
Foster care is intended to serve as a temporary haven for abused or neglected children who cannot safely remain with their families. However for some children, the journey through foster care is characterized by further trauma and abuse; and even in the best situations, foster care is inherently fraught with uncertainty, instability, and impermanence. The number of children and families who require foster care services has grown substantially over the past two decades, and these families are typically contending with a multitude of complex and interrelated life challenges such as mental illness, unemployment, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Child welfare agencies face chronic organizational challenges that undermine their ability to provide appropriate case management, services, and supports to the children and families in their care. Reports of children being injured while in care thrust the system into crisis and reaction, yet reforms in response to tragedy have generally failed to result in meaningful change.
A Child's Journey Through Foster Care
Children enter foster care for a number of reasons. For some children, the journey begins at birth, when it is clear that a mother cannot care for her newborn infant. Other children come to the attention of child welfare when a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, or a neighbor reports suspected child maltreatment to child protective services. Some of these children may have experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a loved and trusted adult. More often, parents battling poverty, substance addiction, or mental illness woefully neglect their children's needs.5
In 2001, approximately 3 million referrals were made to child protective services, and more than 900,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment.6 When child maltreatment is substantiated, caseworkers and courts must decide whether the child can safely remain home if the family is provided with in-home services, or whether the child should be placed into state care. In 2001, 290,000 children entered the foster care system.
The term foster care commonly refers to all out-of-home placements for children who cannot remain with their birth parents. Children may be placed with non-relative foster families, with relatives, in a therapeutic or treatment foster care home, 7or in some form of congregate care, such as an institution or a group home. Nearly half of all children in foster care live with non-relative foster families, and about one quarter reside with relatives. More than 800,000 children spent some time in the foster care system in 2001, with approximately 540,000 children in foster care at any one time.8
After children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, caseworkers develop a permanency plan based on an assessment of the child's individual needs and family circumstances. The plan is then reviewed by the court. For most children, the primary permanency plan is reunification with their birth parents. According to federal law, states must make “reasonable efforts” to provide birth parents with the services and supports they need to regain custody of their children. However, there are exceptions to this requirement. States are not required to pursue reunification under certain conditions.9 In these circumstances, alternative permanency options such as adoption or legal guardianship are the goal for these children.
Under current law, if children are in foster care for 15 out of the previous 22 months, states are to recommend that parental rights be terminated and the child be made available for adoption. In 2001, there were 126,000 children who were no longer legally connected to their parents awaiting adoption.10 However, the child welfare agency can waive the termination requirement if birth parents are making progress in their case plans and workers believe they can reunify with their children soon, or if workers believe that another placement that does not require termination of parental rights, such as legal guardianship, is in the child's best interests.
The average length of stay for children in foster care is approximately 33 months, but some children stay a much shorter time and some much longer. According to 2001 data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), approximately 38% of children who exited foster care in 2001 had spent 11 months or less in the system. At the other end of the spectrum, approximately 32% of children had been in care for 3 years or longer. The longer a child remains in care, the greater the likelihood that he or she will experience multiple placements. On average, approximately 85% of children who are in foster care for less than 1 year experience 2 or fewer placements, but placement instability increases with each year a child spends in the system.11
More than half (57%) of the children in foster care exit through reunification with their birth parents, although in recent years, reunification rates have declined. 12Children who entered the system in 1997 had a 13% slower rate to reunification than those who entered in 1990.13 During this same period, the number of children who were adopted from foster care increased substantially. As reported in the article by Testa in this journal issue, most states have more than doubled the number of adoptions from foster care over the last seven years and some states reported tripling the number. Additionally, many states have increased the number of children achieving permanence by offering caregivers the option of becoming legal guardians.
The Child Welfare System
When entering foster care, or the “child welfare system,” a child does not enter a single system, but rather multiple systems that intersect and interact to create a safety net for children who cannot remain with their birth parents. State and local child welfare agencies, courts, private service providers, and public agencies that administer other government programs (such as public assistance or welfare, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment), and Medicaid all play critical roles in providing supports and services to children and families involved with foster care. Indeed, families often find themselves juggling the requirements and paperwork of multiple systems.
Child welfare agencies are central to the system, but their policies and practices vary significantly from state to state. For example, each state determines its own definition of maltreatment, its own laws based on federal regulations, and its own level of investment in child welfare services. The organization of child welfare agencies also varies significantly across states. In some states the child welfare system is administered at the state level, whereas in others it is administered at the county level.
In every state, the courts also play a significant role in child welfare cases, from the initial decision to remove a child to the development of a permanency plan to the decision to return a child home or terminate parental rights and make the child available for adoption. It can be challenging to ensure that courts have the capacity and case-specific knowledge to hear cases in a timely and thoughtful manner, as many different perspectives must be considered in the process. Each party involved in a foster care case—the birth parents, the child, and the government—is represented by a different attorney. Each attorney is responsible for representing the interests of his or her client, but the adversarial nature of legal advocacy can at times sharpen conflict between the various parties.
Many jurisdictions rely on volunteer court appointed special advocates (CASAs) to ensure that children in foster care have a voice in the legal decision-making process. 14CASAs are assigned to one child (or a sibling group) for an extended period of time and are trained to serve as mentors and advocates. CASAs are required to submit written reports to the judge at each court hearing, detailing the child's progress in foster care, and, in their role as advocates, are often asked to address the court on behalf of the child. Currently more than 900 CASA programs operate in 45 states, and more than 250,000 children have been assigned CASAs.15
Private agencies, typically through contracts with public agencies, provide a significant proportion of foster care services to children and families. The use of private agencies to provide services such as family-based foster care goes back to the very origins of child welfare in the United States.16 Some states, such as Kansas, have privatized nearly all of their foster care services, whereas others rely on a mix of public and private service providers.
To assure the best outcomes for children, all of the agencies in the system must work together. Each must rely on the others to provide the necessary information and resources. Child welfare agencies, though ultimately charged with the responsibility of caring for maltreated children, cannot provide optimal care without the collaboration and support of other agencies. But currently no overarching mechanism for governing the system or managing resources exists. Instead, most agencies have established either formal or informal cooperative agreements.
The emergence and convergence of several significant social problems in the mid-1980s had a tumultuous effect on the child welfare system. The crack epidemic, homelessness, the rapidly growing incarceration rate, and HIV/AIDS proved devastating for poor families and communities. In turn, families contending with multiple problems were unable to appropriately care for their children, and the number of children entering foster care rose. In 1980 approximately 300,000 children were in foster care; by 1998 that number had climbed to an unprecedented 568,000.17
Today, children and families who enter the foster care system continue to wrestle with these complex and interrelated problems. Additionally, the population of children in the system has shifted. Children of color compose the majority of children in foster care, with disproportionate representation of African-American and American-Indian children. The changes in the severity of the needs of children in the system and in the diversity of populations that are represented, tax the system to provide appropriate services, delivered by trained workers, and in foster care homes that are tailored to children's individual needs.
The Push for Reform
Critics of the child welfare system are not hard to find, and efforts to reform the system are numerous. Classaction lawsuits against child welfare agencies are a frequently used tool to push agencies to change. In 2000, more than 100 lawsuits were pending in 32 states against some element of the child welfare system.18At least 10 child welfare departments are currently operating under directives of the court or consent decrees as a result of legal action. A number of states have commissioned investigative panels to examine the child welfare system and recommend reforms.19
Given the high level of scrutiny and intense pressure, it is not uncommon for child welfare administrators to serve short terms in office. A study conducted by the Urban Institute in 1999 found that in nearly half of the 13 states they reviewed, a leadership change in the state child welfare agency had occurred within the last 3 years. 20At the same time, many agencies have also introduced innovative programs, such as communitybased foster care, foster parent to birth parent mentoring, and shared family care, in an effort to address shortcomings.21
Over the past decade, new federal policies have provided a strong impetus for reform. These policies have led to significant changes in child welfare practice and in the methods and measures used to evaluate states' performance. Two of the most influential and far-reaching policies are the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 and the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs).
ASFA. This law introduced sweeping changes in child welfare, as detailed in the article by Allen and Bissell in this journal issue. The most significant changes attributable to ASFA include:
- Shortening timelines for making decisions about permanency;
- Eliminating long term foster care as a permanent option;
- Clarifying when states do not have to make reasonable efforts to reunify children with their birthparents;
- Requiring action to terminate parental rights in certain situations;
- Recognizing kinship caregivers as a legitimate placement option;
- Providing states with incentives to encourage adoption;
- Placing increased emphasis on accountability.
CFSRs. These reviews, mandated by Congress in 1994, are the first attempt to evaluate how well state child welfare agencies are meeting established national standards. States are assessed on a broad range of systemic, family, and child outcome measures to determine how well they are meeting the goals of promoting safety, permanency, and wellbeing for children in foster care. States that do not meet federal standards are required to submit performance improvement plans to the government mapping out how they plan to address their deficiencies. States then have two years to demonstrate that they are making progress toward meeting national performance standards. At the end of the two year period, states may incur financial penalties if they do not demonstrate improvement. Of the 32 states that have completed the review process, none has yet met all federal performance measures. The remaining reviews will be completed in 2004, and it is expected that no state will meet all the national standards.
Early reports suggest that the child welfare system is responding to the directives of ASFA and the CFSRs. For example, ASFA provisions that shortened the amount of time children can spend in foster care before their birth parents' parental rights are terminated have encouraged child welfare agencies to plan concurrently for both family reunification and an alternative permanency option such as adoption. ASFA provisions that recognize kinship care as a legitimate placement option have contributed to a growing reliance on relative caregivers. Whether or not these changes will result in better outcomes for children remains to be seen. Several states, such as California, enacted initiatives similar to those in ASFA years before the passage of the federal law, yet they have seen little substantive change in how children and families experience the foster care system. ASFA and the CFSRs hold promise for initiating positive change; however active steps must be taken to translate policy into practice.
In sum, the child welfare system faces daunting challenges in the 21st century. Not a single system at all, but a network of multiple intersecting and overlapping agencies, the overtaxed child welfare system has had to take on more children who are suffering more complex problems than ever before—all under the white-hot spotlight of media scrutiny. The crisis orientation that pervades the child welfare system can be discouraging to many hard working professionals in the field, and this is reflected in high turnover rates among child welfare leaders and caseworkers. However, crisis can also be a window of opportunity for change. The challenge before the child welfare system is how best to capitalize on the momentum initiated by crisis, mobilize agents for change, and steer the system toward reforms that will truly improve the lives of children who come into foster care.