Op-Ed: Fixing Foster Care
I think we all can agree: Protecting abused and neglected children, and enabling them to grow up in a safe and stable environment, is one of our society’s most important responsibilities. Unfortunately, according to the federal government’s Child and Family Services Reviews, no state in the country is meeting federal requirements for doing so. With National Foster Care Month starting this week, this is an ideal time to focus on fixing our nation’s foster care systems and ensuring that these children are protected.
For foster children, the path to a safe and stable upbringing begins and ends in court. It is there that decisions affecting their lives are made, where judges decide if it is safe for them to remain with or be returned to their families or if they should be temporarily or permanently placed in new homes.
Mistakes in such cases can lead to tragedies. In the worst examples – the ones we see in the news – children are injured or killed. In countless other cases mistakes sentence children to a lifetime without the stability and nurturing care they need to reach their fullest potential.
The magnitude of the decisions made every day in these courts could not be higher; but the resources devoted to improving them could scarcely be lower. Despite the existence of cost effective programs that could dramatically improve court procedures, less than 1 percent of federal dollars devoted to abused and neglected children is directed toward the courts.
One effective but under-funded program created in 2000 by the Strengthening Abuse and Neglect Courts Act has helped courts develop computer systems to place children in safe environments more quickly by helping improve the way foster care cases are processed and tracked. In the four years since the program was created, Congress has appropriated just $2 million to its implementation—enough to provide limited assistance to some of the courts in just six states. Far more needs to be spent on this and similar initiatives.
At the state level as well as the federal level, additional resources need to be directed toward improving the quality of the work done by everyone involved in every phase of the system – agency caseworkers, supervisors and managers, as well as foster parents, court employees, lawyers and judges. Governments need to find the resources to pay these people properly, train them thoroughly, and carefully scrutinize their work.
States also need to ensure that foster parents are active participants in the legal proceedings involving the children in their care. As the people with the most intimate understanding of the child’s day-to-day needs, theirs is a perspective no one else can bring, one that can be the difference between life and death.
Take the case of an 8-month-old boy in California who died after being returned to his birth parents. His foster parents were concerned about his behavior following supervised visits with the biological parents, but did not know how to communicate those concerns to the child’s court appointed lawyer or bring them directly to the court’s attention. After a thorough review, the judge in the case decided she would no longer make placement decisions without receiving a caregiver’s report.
This and other tragic cases confirm that expanding and institutionalizing the ability of foster parents to participate in court proceedings, and encouraging them to do so, must be a key component of foster care reform. Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, foster parents have the right to give input to the court; but not nearly enough is done to ensure they get heard.
It will take energy and resources, but repairing child welfare systems is a worthy and necessary investment, one that will ensure every child the opportunity to succeed in life. We know how to do it. We must now find the will.