“In the State of California it costs about $620 a month to kennel a dog. At the same time it costs the state government about $494 to pay a foster family for one month of care for a child in the foster care system.”
Foster care is truly an indispensable and important system in our society. Its focus on providing stable homes for those in need has helped many children escape hardship and abuse. It serves as a safety net for thousands of vulnerable children who would otherwise have nowhere else to go when their families fail them. At the same time, the alarming numbers of foster care alumni who have limited success after care demonstrate that the United States foster care system is far from perfect. For too many, foster care is not a safe haven, but rather a place where they are again exposed to the instability, neglect or even worse, the abuse that led to their being removed from the care of their families.
According to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System (AFCARS), there 463,000 children living in foster care in the United States. Over 52,000 of these children and youth have called the system “home” for 5 or more years. 123,000 of the children are waiting to be adopted. While the average number of placements is 2, some children experience as many as 15 moves while in care.
In 2008, 29,500 children “aged out” of foster care without ever having found a permanent family to call their own. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the outcomes for the majority of young people who “age out” of care are not good. Just over 50% earned a high school diploma and only 3% went on to obtain a college degree. On the other hand, roughly, 84% will become parents outside of marriage, 51% will be unemployed, 30% will survive on public assistance and 25% will experience homelessness at some point.
Due in part to federal incentives, states have made progress in increasing the number of children adopted out of foster care each year. Last year, 55,000 children exited foster care through adoption. Those still waiting are typically eight years of age or older, are members of a sibling group, or have special medical needs.
While the statistics alone are depressing, what is even more disturbing is that this has been the reality in U.S. foster care for over a decade. For there to be the type of transformational change needed, the following challenges must be addressed:
- Foster and Adoptive Parent Recruitment: Statistically speaking, there is no lack of supply of suitable homes for children in need. According to the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), there are 55-million married-couple households in the U.S. and only a little over half a million children in need of foster homes4. At the same time, according to AdoptUSKids, the number of available foster homes has declined approximately 4% and continues to decline.
The reasons for this disparity are many. First, states are either not willing or unable to invest the resources needed to develop and implement effective recruitment strategies. In a September 2007 report on parent recruitment and training, National Council for Adoption states that while 22% of children in foster care are waiting to be adopted, states are spending on average only 1.2 percent to 1.3 percent of available federal funds on parent recruitment and training services. Second, research shows that there is still a negative stigma attached to foster children, making potential foster parents unsure of their ability to parent a “problem child.” Finally, the foster care system is not equipped to provide the level of training or support that parenting a child moving through the foster system requires.
- Child Welfare Workforce Development: According to the APHSA Child Welfare Workforce survey, on average 8.5% of positions in child protective services remain vacant. Such a high number of vacancies inevitably leads to heavier workloads for the hired workers. Making matters worse, an average child protective service worker’s tenure is only three years, meaning that some workers are “in foster care” less time than 70,000 of the children they serve. The average salary for a caseworker working in child welfare is $35,553 and a front line supervisor is paid only $44,232. Because of numbers such as these, youth in the system are left with a workforce that is overstretched and under resourced. Very few have both the time and expertise necessary to play the role that they are intended to play.
- Foster Care Financing Reform: Under current law there are several funding streams targeted at serving the needs of children in foster care and their families including: Title IV-E, Title IV-B, Promoting Safe and Stable Families, Adoption Assistance and Independent Living. Each of these streams comes with different requirements, serves different populations and has varied purposes. Some of this funding is discretionary, which means that the amount of money available to states is dependent on annual appropriations and some are entitlements, meaning that the states are entitled by law to receive these funds.
Unfortunately, states may access dollars under Title IV-E, the principal source of federal child welfare funding, only after children have entered foster care. Of the $7.2 billion federal funds dedicated for child welfare in 2007, approximately 90 percent supported children in foster care placements ($4.5 billion) and children adopted from foster care ($2.0 billion). States can use only about 10 percent of federal dedicated child welfare funds flexibly for family services and supports, including prevention or reunification services. For some time, advocates have pushed for greater flexibility of current federal IV-E funding is critical to ensuring that case workers and other professionals can deliver services that are tailored to meet the needs of each child and family they serve.
- Post Adoption Services: Although promising programs and informal supports have helped children and families in the states where they are in place, the typical experience of adoptive families is that it is difficult to obtain post adoption services. In one study, more than three-quarters of adoptive families (77.3 percent) said that they needed one or more post-adoption clinical services. When asked if they actually received services, there were marked discrepancies between the percentage of families who needed services and the percentage who actually received them. Almost 57 percent of the families, for example, said that they needed child guidance and mental health services, but only 26 percent reported actually receiving these services.
The cost of these services, particularly residential treatment, may force families to relinquish custody of their children to child welfare agencies so that the children can receive necessary support. In at least half the states, parents must choose between getting the mental health treatment their children need by relinquishing custody to the state or retaining custody of their children and forgoing critically needed mental health services. (Excerpted from NACAC Report on Post Adoption Services July 2007)