Give 'em Hell, Harry

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The U.S. foster care system is said to be improving, but has anyone asked their customers? The facts on the ground are not what they seem on paper. As Truman responded to a question about political realities: “I never did give them Hell, I just told them the truth and they thought it was Hell!”

Foster care is a system that has evolved over the years to provide temporary out-of-home care for children when their families have failed them. The premise is simple: Remove children from dangerous homes and temporarily place them in a good home and provide services to the birth family in an effort to reunite them with their children as soon as possible.

On paper, the foster care system appears viable, even ideal. But if you have lived in the trenches as a social worker, judge, guardian ad litem, birth family or foster parent, you have witnessed the delays and failures. You have seen vulnerable children languish overlong in care, or be emancipated to “independent living” without a permanent home.

More often than not, because of case overloads, bureaucracy, and a false sense of complacency, foster children are neglected and even “abused” by the very system designed to protect them.

Reunification is a wonderful goal in theory. Too often, because of superficial evaluation and preparation of the birth home, it fails, And the children continue to be shuffled back and forth until they emotionally close down. Sadly the only people writing these glowing reports about the number of reunifications are the same people who stand to gain from them.

The people most affected by the process; that is, the child, his family of origin and his foster family, are rarely asked for their appraisal of the journey or its outcome. The reality is that close to 90 percent of this group of voiceless stakeholders would give the system a big fat naught! And this author believes an anonymous polling of the state's employees would fetch similar results.

If this is true, and it is, then WE need change! Yes, we all must become income involved. Benjamin Franklin prophesied: "Change cannot occur until the unaffected are as outraged as the affected."

We need the rage that unites foster parents and practitioners alike, in a quest to serve the vulnerable children who find themselves in state custody. Foster parents willingly volunteer to place themselves in the gap on behalf of children or youth who often have nobody looking out for them. Caseworkers, GAL's and Judges go to school and receive training for years to prepare them for the difficult and complicated work of mending broken families. It is incumbent upon these parents and workers to not only work towards permanency on behalf of the children, but to give a voice to their pain and suffering.

Most foster parents in the system have answered the call to love and protect them the children in temporary care. They understand the need to provide a safe and loving home.. They enroll in their MAPP, GPS, or PRIDE foster parenting class with a firm resolve and are committed to love and nurture the children who find themselves in state care. They invite these children to live alongside their own children and spouses, attend their churches, go to their family reunions, and participate fully in every aspect of their lives.

The training they have received prepares them to help children through the cycle of grief and to understand the importance of a special sensitivity in caring for children from broken homes where they have been abused and neglected.

However, most of our well meaning parents lack the ability to speak with an effective voice on behalf of their children. In the brief time allotted to training to become a licensed foster parent, it's simply not possible to train them to navigate the complexity within our challenged system. Nor are they likely to learn how to point out and oppose a system where it is flawed.

Caseworkers and therapists face a similar deficiency. They begin their careers by dedicating their lives in service to others. They are excited to finally be in a position to help these broken families get the help they so desperately need. They're eager to apply their education and experience to helping children and adults learn how to sustain one another, in good times and bad, through healthy familial relationships. But they don’t normally understand how to change an ineffective system.

The reality is that our system of out of home care is, by design, one of the best systems in the world for dealing with orphaned and abused children. Legislative and case law define foster care as temporary. It should be. In actual fact it is not. Children remain in temporary care an average of over two years, more than twice the guideline and deadline set by the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). None of us would ever tell a child they were going to have to leave their family "temporarily" if we knew it would be two to three years before they would be able to return.

U.S. Foster care was intended to have children temporally placed in a single loving home until such a time their birth family could take them back. In actuality the average child lives in two to five homes in the first 30 months and 70,000 children in the U.S. have languished in care for more than five years. With these facts in front of us, a reasonable person might conclude that while our system helps some children in their time of desperation and need, it adds to the pain and suffering of most.

Let’s not point fingers. There is enough blame to go around. We all need a broader and more productive approach. Like any good commercial business, we need to inquire into the flaws in a nice-sounding system responsible for this tragic disconnect.

To start, let's look at the 1997 federal legislation (ASFA), offering the most sweeping changes in foster care in the past 20 years. Why it was written and what was it trying to fix?

In part it was passed to give foster parents a blueprint and a voice on behalf of the children in their care. ASFA focused quite directly on the most important outcome: timely permanency.

ASFA has resulted in getting the average stay in care reduced by a few months. The child welfare departments have sent children home a little faster. Has this really produced better outcomes for kids? Studies by the National Health Institute have revealed that while we may get them out of temporary care faster, it is not necessarily for all the right reasons. Too often, the primary beneficiary is not the child, but the state. The state is financially rewarded by the federal government for moving children out of care in a timely manner. I am not saying they do it simply for the money, just noting that this creates a real potential for a conflict of interest, especially when offered to a financially strapped and understaffed state management team.

ASFA has been only partially implemented. A critical part that was intended to forward these outcomes has yet to be realized. ASFA required that foster parents be given a voice in a child's individualized service plan (or Family Service Plan). Foster parents were to be heard in the ISSP meetings as well as in court on behalf of their children.

Sadly this has not happened in most counties across our nation. A role for foster parents as team players is even less accommodated in the day-to-day business practices of many child welfare departments. Foster parents are often treated as babysitters, hotel managers, or at worst, a necessary evil rather than important stakeholders in the child's life. This occurs despite the fact that foster parents are the only ones with 24/7 knowledge of the kids under their care and the other major source for permanency through adoption.

The research shows that former foster children, especially those who are emancipated without a permanent home, suffer from mental illness, homelessness, and imprisonment at a significantly disproportionate higher rate. This is likely to continue to happen unless systemic changes are made. Here are two practical suggestions.

First, define the desired outcome as permanence through reunification or adoption that lasts at least two years, or until the child reaches age 18. Then give the states financial incentives to achieve these results.

Second, give foster parents a meaningful voice at case conferences and in court. Their job is not simply to warehouse kids but to care and advocate for them. Make them full team players along with the caseworkers, the GALs and CASAs, and the birth parents. Rather than suppressing their voice in planning for the child, encourage it.

Third, caseworkers and special advocates need smaller case loads, and our frustrated judges need smaller dockets if children are to be better served. This costs money which is hard to come by today. Legislators need to wake up that children become adults and are our most important resource. Or if unattended, they will become a major cost. Investment in children is as important as investments in homeland security, material infrastructure, military preparedness, the environment, or research.

Pay me now or pay me later.

David H. Sharp

ACT Board Member

Foster & Adoptive Parent