Friday, November 26, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part II

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part I, LK posted a rather lengthy comment. I won't quote the entire remark, but a very valid point was made:
So the problem is that they are taking too many kids from their parents who should not be removed. Therefore they have to lower the standards in order to house them all.

There is no doubt that child welfare services does a better job in taking kids away from families than they do caring for them once they are taken. Budgets are too small, social workers have too many kids on their caseloads, and there aren't enough foster homes to go around. There are too many kids in the system, and the resources are simply spread too thin.

So how do you fix it?

Take fewer kids.

I know that sounds obvious and way too simple, but the truth is that it's way too easy for social workers to take children in many states. Although our state is a little more stringent in requiring documented proof of abuse, and some social workers are becoming less picky because they realize there aren't enough beds for the children who are already in care, there are still cases where kids are taken for silly reasons.

One example of this profound silliness is the case out of Los Angeles where social workers tried to take a child because she was exhibiting out-of-control behavior. Even though everyone agreed the mother wasn't being neglectful in her parenting, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services filed a neglect petition anyway. Thankfully, this case was overturned on appeal.

And of course we can't forget the latest mishugas that's going on with Rachel/Tudusamom. To think that a family might lose custody of their children over a blog is pretty darn shocking.

We also can't forget our own situation, where we had a social worker issue a removal notice because we admitted our foster child was having problems in our home and dared ask for help. Granted, this is a somewhat different situation because we weren't the legal parents of the kid in question, but it illustrates how social workers are quick to remove and slow to find real solutions to problems.

To address the problem of too many children being taken into foster care, we really need to address some larger social issues. In our county, more than 80% of the children in foster care are there because of their parents' involvement in the illicit drug trade. Some children find themselves in foster care because their parents end up incarcerated because they are using, selling or producing illegal drugs. Other kids are taken because their parents are simply too intoxicated to ensure that the house is sanitary, there is food available, or that the kids are clean and go to school. Kids in our county end up physically or sexually abused because their parents are too high to be rational, or they pimp their children out so there is money for the next hit.

It's a difficult situation. How do you keep kids at home with their drug-using parents when so many treatment centers fail at helping people achieve permanent sobriety? One adoptive family I know has two kids because the birth mother consciously decided (and told her worker) that she would rather get high than work her case plan and get herself sober for her kids.

How do you combat that? How do you fight addictions that are so strong parents would sell their children for that next high?

I think the real truth is that you can't. Addressing this issue is far more complicated than drug treatment programs which often do not work. Once a parent has started using meth, it's too late. At one of our foster parent training programs, a county sheriff reported that in her 20+ years of law enforcement experience, she knew only one person who was able to kick meth for any length of time. Although her experience is probably anecdotal, one study, which included residential and outpatient treatment modalities, found that 60% of methamphetamine users had relapsed within 12 months.

Those odds aren't good.

I think the reality here is that child welfare services is fighting a losing battle. Until we can find programs that address the deeper societal issues which trap families in poverty and drive people to use drugs, there will always be more kids in foster care than the system can properly handle.

Money certainly would help, especially if it were used to keep families together before they were separated, but it's not the entire solution. There will always be children who will not be safe at home no matter how many interventions are given. There will always be families who can't or won't be able to care for their children properly.

Although I largely disagree with our county's behavior as a whole, most of the cases I know where kids were removed were for legitimate reasons. One child was boiled to the point of third degree burns in a hot shower, another had a sibling beaten to death in front of her eyes, a third was born off-the-charts high on methamphetamine to a mom who refused to get sober and another was a teenager who had been living on the streets, with no parental supervision or support.

How do you decide which of these children should not be in foster care?

I don't know.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part I

If you have followed my writings for any length of time, you probably know that I think the foster care system in this country is just plain broken. The system sucks for birth families, foster families, adoptive families, and social workers.

But most of all, it sucks for the kids.

Through my travels, I've met a number of foster alumni. I follow the blogs of former foster kids, and I know a few in real life. What every one of them says, without hesitation, is just how terrible being a foster kid is.

Although there are many reasons why the kids have bad experiences, one of the largest is that most foster homes stink.

I've thought about that a great deal, and I've realized that the majority of us who are writing or reading about the foster care system, aren't the bad foster homes. We care, we try to do better for our kids, and we try to make their experience as good as it can possibly be. We try to do the right thing, even though most of us are not rich, and the foster care system gives us very little in terms of funding or resources to help us out.

So why is it, then, that so many foster alumni complain so bitterly that they were abused, neglected, or just treated like an ugly, three-legged dog?

I think it's because good foster homes are still in the minority.

The reality is that almost nobody in their right mind wants to be a licensed foster home. In our county, the majority of families who foster fall into one of three groups:

1) They are desperate to adopt.
2) They are extremely religious.
3) They are living on some type of public assistance and want to supplement their income.

There are problems with all three of these groups.

Those that are desperate to adopt won't be in the system for very long. They will hang in as long as it takes to get their desired number of kids and they will drop out. They aren't interested in fostering long-term, and see it only as a means to an end.

The religious folk, unfortunately, tend to feel the need to "minister" to their foster kids. And sometimes, it gets downright uncomfortable, especially for older children and teens who already have their own spiritual ideas. It's nice that these folks are doing what they feel brings them closer to the divine, but not every kid wants to wallow in Jesus along with them.

The public assistance folks are looking to stretch their dollars and kids that go to those homes are stuck living in poverty. Although another $500 per month for a teen sounds like a lot of money to a family whose income hovers near the poverty line, the reality is that kids are expensive. Things like food, clothing, yearbooks and school activities really add up, and that extra money isn't going to go very far if you spend it on the kids. Sadly, a lot of these families don't spend their foster care money on the kids, and the children go without.

How many stories have you heard about foster kids getting chump gifts for birthdays and holidays while biological kids living in the same home are showered with expensive stuff? How many stories do you hear of foster kids being left behind while the rest of the family goes on a fabulous vacation without them?

So what would it take to raise the quality of those foster homes? What would it take to ensure that abuse is less likely to occur? What would it take to make sure that kids are really treated like they are part of the family?

I argue that it comes down to four things: money, training, respite and respect.

I know there are a lot of people who would argue that foster parents should not be paid at all. They should become licensed only if they want to do this out of the goodness of their hearts, and they shouldn't receive compensation at all.

I think we've already demonstrated that this system isn't working. The pay is low enough that most people don't want to become foster parents anyway. Some that do, especially the religious and the desperate for kids, go in with the idea that they are going to help. Even with that idea, we've already demonstrated that families quickly become jaded, and the foster kids become the unwanted interlopers in a household.

So what would happen if foster families were paid well? Suddenly, what is considered mostly a pretty crappy job would become desirable. More families would want to do it, and counties wouldn't be begging for new foster homes. If they paid a large enough base rate and generously reimbursed families for things like clothes, birthday gifts, school yearbooks and field trips, people would be standing in line to get those coveted foster parenting spots.

And once there was a substantial line of families begging to become foster parents, the county could be a hell of a lot more picky. Instead of choosing families who simply passed the background check and stuck around long enough to make it through an insanely-boring multi-week training course, they could be more selective. They could match kids according to their needs and wants with families who could meet them. Instead of a social worker getting a foster kid and working her way down a phone list praying for a bed, she could do a better job of making sure that a Jewish kid ends up with a Jewish family, and a Deaf child would end up in a family that is fluent in sign language.

The other benefit of higher wages would be that the county could expect more in terms of the amount of training foster parents receive. Currently, most counties have pretty minimal annual training requirements because they know most foster parents aren't going to take any more training classes than they possibly have to. Worse, most of the classes offered are the same old tired repeats. How many times can you take the Love and Logic course without falling over dead of boredom?

In our county, the quality of the training classes was really bad. I remember taking one parenting class that advocated we use discipline techniques that aren't allowed for foster kids. One training suggested we withhold meals, or take the door off a misbehaving child's room. Although that might be okay for a birth child, with foster kids, it's definitely not okay.

Improving the training also means that parents are better-equipped to deal with serious behaviors. Our county offers no training on how to calm a raging child, or even what the protocol should be when a kid gets violent. They tell you that you aren't allowed to hit or restrain a kid, but what are you supposed to do when your teenage foster son is dismantling your living room?

Sure, you can call the police, but even that is discouraged. Wouldn't it be better if the training classes addressed that? Wouldn't it be better if parents knew what to do and how to calm volatile kids before they got to that point?

Respite is a hugely important component that is often overlooked. Parents, especially those who are parenting really tough kids, need a break. In our county, there is no formal system for obtaining respite. Once you take a kid, he is yours to keep until he moves on to another foster home or is reunified with his birth family.

Now I don't think that respite should be used as a tool to dump an unwanted kid while the family goes to Disneyland, but something needs to be in place so that parents (and families) get a break. It's hard living with a child who rages. It's hard living with a kid who lies, steals, or hoards food. It's hard living with mental illness.

Parents do a better job if they get regular breaks, because it allows them time to decompress and come back fresh. We had a child who had been diagnosed with RAD in our home for 11 days, and it was a nightmare. When she was moved to another home because she was becoming violent at home and at school, we were exhausted. I can't imagine what it would be like to parent her for months or years at a time without a break.

Finally, I think that foster parents need to receive the respect they deserve from social workers and other professionals who come into contact with them. Although our county paid huge lip service to the fact that foster parents are "a member of the professional team," we were never treated like team members. Decisions and plans, many of which required our participation or cooperation, were often made without consulting us. Our input was ignored or minimized because we were "only" the foster parents. It didn't matter that we were the people, in the trenches, living with these kids 24/7 and would likely be the ones to best be familiar with their needs.

The interesting question, really, is this: why is nobody interested in solving this problem? Each year, the budgets for social services and child welfare are cut, foster family stipends and reimbursements are threatened, while everyone involved beats their chest and gnashes their teeth in complaint.

If children are so important to our society, why is it that we make their care such a low financial priority? Why is it, knowing that a huge percentage of these damaged and abused children will eventually age out of the foster care system and begin to fill our homeless shelters, mental hospitals and jails, that we aren't doing something to create a better outcome?

How can it be acceptable, in this great nation of ours, for a child to be removed from his so-called "dangerous" home, only to find himself uneducated, jobless and homeless on his 18th birthday?

I don't know.