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Looking into the foster care system:  Who will raise the children? 

Regardless of who is doing it, caring for children is hard work, badly paid if paid at all; full of unforeseen challenges, uncertainty, worry and heavy lifting.  Yet it is fundamental to the health and future of a society.  And all the more so if that society is a democratic one that must have responsible, organized and informed citizens to function.

If and when a parent is not able to care for a child, then—how do we find someone to take their place?  We have created “foster care”—an out-of-home placement system administered by the state but largely dependent on the willingness of individuals and families to do the work itself.  Can that be the solution?

The children and how they fare

In Washington state, there are close to 10,000 children and youth in foster care in any given month, but the length of stay varies, with the median stay  in 2014 ranging from 15 to 18 months.   Over 2/3 of the children who enter care are reunited with their parents or placed with a guardian within three years.  The remainder are adopted, emancipated, or remain in care.  A disproportionate number of those are children of color—a reality that has been examined in depth for over 10 years with little or no impact on the situation despite state initiatives to correct the problem.  Children in care can be any age under 18, but they are typically younger. In 2016, over half who entered the system were under 5 years of age. 

Long-term mental health effects, educational deficits and other social problems for young adults who languish in foster care over long periods were identified in research conducted in the South Sound several years ago.  Local human service workers interviewed for this article offered anecdotal information about children who later became part of the homeless population, the jail/prison system, mental health residential housing or battered women’s shelters.  

Foster families and who they are

The stated goal, policies and hope for child welfare agencies is that children stay in their families of origin.  Preserving the family is a high-minded goal, albeit a policy highly convenient for a system that has nowhere else to put children while their parents get clean; or attend anger management; or find adequate shelter and housing; or a job or subsidies to support the household. 

Copious research indicates that children are better served to stay at home with strength-based familly support; however safety has to be the highest priority for vulnerable children. The Foster Parent Assn. of Washington (FPAW) with the support of the Washington State Employees Union proposed legislation in the early 2000s to “professionalize” parents and train them to address the varied behavioral and emotional problems of traumatized children.

The legislation would have made foster parents equal partners/coworkers in the care of children who were dependents of the state.  Even the most successful and dedicated foster parents perceive a lack of respect and regard from social workers.  While the legislature didn’t pursue the course laid out by FPAW and WSEU, their effort did produce important improvements to the system. Via a compelling lawsuit, they also achieved an increase in the amount assigned to cover the cost of providing foster care. 

More changes are needed to repair a system that relies on over-stressed social workers to provide retention support to foster parents. They often have to ask that a foster parent be investigated for an alleged incident by the Division of Licensed Resources/CPS—which can result in removal of the child and loss of a family resource.   The only recourse foster parents may have in this context is to lodge a complaint with the Office of Constituency Relations or Ombudsmans Office in the Children’s Administration itself.  Some long-term foster parents have simply left the program rather than be subjected to continued disrespect. The good news is that FPAW perseveres in its effort to make the foster system work for its parents and children.

In 2016, the Children’s Administraation assessed about 43,800 households.  Yet there are not enough foster and adoptive homes available. Children are sent out of the county, kept in less than ideal conditions in marginal foster homes or relative placements.  It’s not unheard of for a social worker to spend an overnight in the office with a child.  Social workers will work with an opioid- or meth-addicted parent in and out of treatment for months to try to keep a child at home.  Organizations like Homebuilders and the WISE program and Family Preservation Services with contracted therapists help make up for the lack of good foster options. 

A study group at The Evergreen State College discovered that over 75% of the families doing foster/adoptive care are avowed Christians who attend church at least once per week.  The evangelical community has apparently taken on this issue as a moral obligation, tied to their belief in home, family and child-rearing They have become a big presence in the foster/adoptive community. Their recruitment message is shared from the pulpit and word of mouth throughout faith communities. 

The study in effect raises  a question about the absence of progressives among foster families—where are those who understand the role of social issues and the importance of raising strong citizens?

The “Safe Families” movement in some faith communities is fueled by an intention to keep children safe and families intact.  Through Host Families, Family Friends and Family Coaches, church members get licensed as foster parents, or temporary hosts who provide a network of support to families in crisis while they get back on their feet.The Safe Families movement makes it simple for churches and individuals to connect with them through 1-800-555-CHILD.

The state and their agents

This year, Washington continues to build a new Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) intended to improve how the state serves at-risk children.  This will reconfigure DSHS but retain the county-based system where workers find foster homes licensed by the Department of Licensed Resources. DCYF will continue to contract with private agencies to place children in licensed homes. including homes licensed to serve those with special needs – the medically fragile or emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. 

Whether DCYF will be able to change the practices that fragment and drag out recruitment and licensing of families remains to be seen.  A recent study by Partners for Our Children concluded as follows:

The number of children in care has increased while the number of newly licensed homes has decreased. Kinship placements have increased as have the demands on foster parents.  The cost of living including child-care and boarding rates plus maternal employment affects the pool of potential foster parents, especially the availability of foster parents of color.  Placing infants and adolescents poses a great challenge.  DSHS policies on confidentiality contribute to foster parents feeling “shut out” of information about children in their homes.  There needs to be better coordination of strategies to recruit and retain foster homes.

We no longer have orphanages.  When a child no longer has a home—or the home is no longer safe, we only have the fostering system. That system today faces a crisis for many reasons – budget cuts, stigmatization of families and children, lack of awareness, low-waged work, burdens even on intact families….  Yet these children are our future. If their birth parents cannot do the work of raising them, it’s up to us. 

Susan Davenport was a licensor, recruiter and trainer for foster/adoptive families, a foster mother for teens and member of the FPAWs board. Her life work has been serving children youth and families. She currently works in an agency that seeks offers family preservation services to prevent children going into out of home placement.

Sources:  Foster Parents Association of Washington State (interviews), Washington State Childrens Administration (staff interviews, website, reports), Partners for our Children (reports), Child Welfare League of America, Jim Casey Youth Initiative, Casey Family Programs, Childrens’ Bureau (federal gov’t.).


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