The Quandary of Foster Care

You’re a foster parent, and you’re standing on the other side of that little half wall in the courtroom with your mouth agape in disbelief.  How did this happen?  How did so many adults with college degrees and positions of authority, people who should do what’s in the best interest of a child, do exactly the opposite?  It’s as if that wall separates sanity and logic from a circus where clowns juggle papers and misinformation.  The gavel slams, and the child you sacrificed, cried, and prayed for is returning home to a parent who has been an addict, in and out of jail, homeless, jobless, and/or abusive.  So, how did this happen?

How does this happen?  The previous scenario is one of many the masses play through their minds or read about online that perpetuate the struggling foster care systems across America.  Maybe you’re considering becoming a foster or adoptive parent and weighing whether you’re ready to commit or not.  Maybe you know someone who is struggling in their experience with the system, and you want to help but don’t know where to begin.  Or maybe you’re a judge or caseworker who just read the scenario above, and you’re already assuming I have no idea what I’m talking about because you’re not a clown.  You work hard under an insurmountable caseload doing the best you can with what you have.  Regardless of who you are or why you’re reading this, I want to walk you through how the foster care system works, the myths, and the realities associated with situations like the one above and ultimately encourage you to act.  While the foster care system may be broken, it will only remain broken if you and I allow it to stay that way.

The most foundational concept to understand about the foster care system is somewhat of a paradigm shift for us because the public is generally ignorant about what the system is dependent upon.  If the general public thinks about foster care at all, we tend to conceptually believe that somewhere neglected and abused children are being taken care of.  Visions of orphanages, children’s homes, and Annie come to mind.  But as early as the 1940’s, the foster care system has been replacing institutional settings.  Today, very few children’s homes still exist within America.  So, where are America’s more than 700,000 neglected and abused children?  In foster care.  And, where is foster care?  It’s in your home and my home.  The foster care system is dependent upon families opening their bedrooms to traumatized children in need of healing.  If there aren’t enough homes for the children from a given county or region, children must be placed in a home from another county or region.  There are emergency shelters and sleeping bags in child welfare offices along with other stop-gaps to help care for children when there aren’t enough homes immediately available, but research has shown children heal in a family setting where they can attach to a caregiver and learn how to cope while continuing to grow.  So, regardless of how many tax dollars are allocated for foster care programs if there are not a sufficient number of licensed foster families, foster care cannot function and children cannot heal in the best environment possible.

Now, just because foster home availability is foundational does not mean sufficient tax dollars from your federal, state, county, and city governments are not also a critical component of the foster care system.  Money, your and my tax dollars, is not only the fuel of the foster care system, it is also a factor in the quality of a given system.  It is not the only factor, but it is a major one.  The United States spends over $25 billion on foster care services each year.  These funds pay for a litany of salaries, services, and administrative costs that cannot be overstated.  For any given child,10 to 15 adults are paid for some service related to their case along with a myriad of other adults providing the infrastructure for the foster care system.  Costs begin with an intake hotline and an investigator who visits a child or family to determine if there is a valid case of neglect or abuse.   Along with this is all the necessary infrastructure to ensure intake, investigations, and removals are possible. Only about 40% of all allegations are confirmed.  Sometimes this is due to a lack of evidence.  Sometimes an investigator is unable to track down a family.  Without a sufficient number of investigators, foster care is halted.  No investigation, no removal.  Costs continue when a determination is made to provide services to a family or remove a child in the case of imminent danger.  The need for a caseworker and their supervisor, along with the aforementioned infrastructure to support the frontline workers, then increase costs, and it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to start adding it all up when we begin to include the courts, lawyers to represent the child and their parents, mental health services, and the plethora of other tangential contributors to the system.

Are you beginning to see a fuzzy image for how our introductory scenario becomes a reality?

Too little funding leads to a poor quality workforce and those who lack the necessary bandwidth to do the job sufficiently.  Investigations aren’t done in a timely manner, children aren’t seen frequently enough while in care, sufficient preventative and rehabilitative programs aren’t available to stem the influx of at-risk families and recidivism.  With too much funding, a welfare state begins to form where the public almost entirely insists on the government addressing all of the needs.  Both situations lead to egregious problems namely the problem of you and I doing nothing.  Too much taxation leads us to believe someone else is dealing with the needs of these children and families.  Too little taxation and there isn’t a sufficient framework or bandwidth of educated professionals organizing a system accountable to the best interests of children.

Another consideration is foster care is intended to be temporary with a priority given toward reunification with birth parents.  Many children in foster care come from single or unmarried parent, low income households, and many foster families come from two parent, moderate to high income households.  This is a generality, but the socio-economic dichotomy is real.  Expectations, lifestyles, language, and various other social norms are juxtaposed.  Therefore, when foster parents enter a courtroom for a hearing about a family’s case, they enter with a set of standards for what is appropriate and acceptable which doesn’t always align with the legal system, the political climate, or the funding issues which can lead to high rates of caseworker turnover and low quality work.  A foster parent typically expects the best while the legal system is limited to what is lawful.

The last point I’ll make is the foster care system and every system involves human beings.  Errant, sinful, selfish, well-intended, occasionally misinformed human beings.  I don’t say this or any of this in a search for the sufficient excuse to remedy the issues that plague the potential success of foster care, but I say this to improve your perspective and charge you to act.  It is easy to to look at how insurmountable the problems in foster care are, believe you have no control, throw up your hands, and refuse to do anything more than complain and rage against the machine on your social media platforms.  But, the foster care system also involves Spirit-filled, well-informed, educated, thoughtful, and yet still sinful human beings who are standing in the gap refusing to quit.

I am never more encouraged than when the above scenario plays out in any of its varieties, and a foster parent or advocate, even one who takes to the blogosphere to inappropriately vent their frustration, lowers their head, pledges to persevere, and affirms these fundamental truths.  First, no parent woke up one morning and chose to abuse or neglect their child.  Parents are still accountable, but pitting them against their child as the enemy is not a productive solution.  Second, caseworkers, lawyers, and judges, even bad ones, don’t work to hurt children or families.  They come to wrong conclusions sometimes that you or I may disagree with, but they also come to right conclusions that you or I may disagree with.  Third, you and I are capable of making an impact.  Our impact is entirely dependent upon our willingness to stand firm and resilient while surrounding ourselves with those who will speak truth to us and encourage us to care for ourselves so we can maintain the capacity to care for others.

One parent’s response to an incredibly trying situation from years ago summarizes my thoughts and admonition to you.  The father said, “I do not know how else to help him. I have tried everything I can think of and exhausted my heart and mind on his behalf.  I cannot fathom why the system has failed him and us in the way that it has.  I do not know what else to do.  But, I do know God has placed him in my family, and if I have nothing else to give him, I will hold firm in this.  He has a family who will not give up on him.”

Foster, adopt, advocate, mentor, and support.  You are not alone.  Join us in reclaiming the care of these children and families.