How the Child Welfare Department Can Help

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Those who make the laws and those who administer and enforce them must acknowledge that the consistent day-to-day loving and guiding parental relationship that a child needs to mature and grow into a wholesome and law-abiding citizen can be provided by psychological or adoptive parents just as effectively as by biological parents.

(Ketcham, 1998)

The primary legal responsibility for foster children lies with the state. Foster children are technically “wards of the court” under the guardianship of the child welfare department and their caseworkers. The child welfare department has the power to make and change policies and the responsibility to see that the laws and policies are followed. More than any of the other major players, the child welfare department can facilitate the ultimate goal: assuring safety and achieving permanence within one year.

A major cause of foster care drift is the failure to recognize that meeting the foster child’s need for permanence is paramount. Too often, caseworkers take an unwarrantedly long time to provide the birth parents with additional chances. They assume that the child is in a safe home while time runs on, playing back and forth between the needs of the biological parents, the foster/adopt parents, and often in last place, the needs of the child. Children are reunited with birth parents repeatedly, only to be removed once again when birth parents are unwilling or unable to care for the child. Yet only half of all foster children ultimately return home to stay. Delaying to “get it right” becomes a silent but very real form of child abuse.

Bureaucracy is another major cause of delay. The system has many rules and many players: child welfare departments, child protection services, private child welfare agencies, the courts, specialists and therapists, guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates, the birth parents, and the foster parents. Each party may have its own vested interests and its own attorney. When one party sees waiting as an advantage or fears losing, that party may use the time-tested legal strategy of continuances and postponement. The child is harmed by delay, yet rarely does anyone represent the child’s right to a timely solution.

The child welfare system is beset with workers who are undertrained and overburdened. Turnover is high. Attention is necessarily focused on the more problematic children. Children who have food, a roof over their heads and no reported problems are often ignored and left to drift in foster care.