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.


  1. Amen! I especially agree with the training part. At least for us, the training we got was mostly theoretical (attachment theory, birth order theory), very little concrete or practical. Like, who do you call when your foster kid ends up in the ER because he spiked a dangerous temperature? Or, how to navigate the public health system? Or how tell what kind of bottle is best for your foster baby? And of course, the only foster parent we heard from was a woman who had adopted two babies and was out of the system. Uggh.

    You're right, foster parents do need some respect. We're seen as potential abusers, money hungry, and endless balls of energy. The system will keep taking and taking and taking until we're just a ball of goo...praying for relief.

    Great post. Sorry if my comments were a little scattered...I'm tired at the moment.

  2. The state of Florida, has been participating in a Congressional study where under a waver, the federal funding that came in strictly for the foster care system, which used to be designated by law for that particular purpose, is now being used on preventative services so that many of these children can stay in their homes safely. These services include, housing assistance, drug treatment programs (drug court), daycare help, food help, parental training and education services so that parents can graduate high school, etc.

    This has brought the number of foster children down drastically in the state, while still keeping kids safe in their homes. Prior to this federal study, Florida was one of the "Take the child and run" states with a very high rate of child removals. This federal waver, allowed them to change that, and the savings is able to be reinvested into different programs such as adoption thus Florida also has one of the highest adoption rates in the country, and they just recently overturned a ban on adoption by GBLT's.

    Back in 2003/2004 the state of Maine went through radical reforms. The focus went to preventative services and kinship care, and the state was able to minimize it's foster care numbers. This savings was able to be reinvested into even more preventative services and kids remain safely with their own parents.

    It was a change in the overall culture.

    These two states, by some in power, are now considered national models for child welfare reform.

    There was a New York Times article a couple years ago, which I can't find now, which talked about the difference. The average cost to the states to keep one child in foster care was about $40,000 a year. The average cost of successful preventative services for a family with 2 kids was about $8,000 a year. This because you have to factor in many other numbers. For example, lawyers, court costs, AG's, GAL's, foster care reimbursements, mental health services that are much more intensive after the child has been removed, and might I add, are demanded by the foster parents who are put into the position of dealing with a high needs kid, psyche meds, daycare, reunification services, adoption services, gas for the workers to drive half way across the state, etc.

    All of these people want to be paid.

    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.


  3. I remember the christmas that went by with the bio kids getting new hand held nintendos, tvs for the bedroom, and tons of clothes... We foster kids were given king size candy bars, a book, and a cheap ass gift certificate.... Why? Because the state gave them $25 to spend on the foster kids each.

    Let's not talk about the time I went into "respite" because the foster family was going on vacation to Disney.

    It happened, and I'm sure it still happens every day.

  4. In defense of some (but certainly not all) foster families, they aren't always allowed to take foster children on out of state vacations. Two examples-- Our wedding, my husband's foster sister, who had been in the family for more than five years--a judge had to give permission at a court hearing for her to go out of state (it was NJ). Thank goodness he said yes! She was (and still is as she was adopted by my MIL/FIL four years later) our sister and we would have greatly missed her presence.

    The other, when we trained to be foster parents in WI, we were told that either the birth parents and/or a judge had to give permission to go out of state as well. In some cases, a child (for various reasons) would not be allowed out of state. We would have to get permission from the birth family or the case worker for vacations over 100 miles away as well.

    Depending on the circumstances, the judge, the birth family, or the case worker could say no.

  5. couldn't agree more! we want to help change the system, but are trying to figure out HOW???


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