July 21, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This fine article examines foster care partially through the eyes of foster kids (Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3/20/16). With those perspectives and a bit of data, it lets readers know that foster care should be the last resort for kids in abusive or neglectful families. I’ve reported the social science before on children in foster care and it’s not pretty. Basically, children in foster care do worse than other kids in just about every category of behavior. Amazingly, even kids in somewhat abusive homes tend to do better than those in foster care.
That alone should be enough to encourage states to keep biological families intact if at all possible. But they don’t. That’s because the federal government encourages states, via financial incentives, to take kids out of families and place them with foster parents. That came about as a result of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. One state senator from North Dakota told National Public Radop in 2008 that the Act was responsible for a massive uptick in children being taken from parents. Indeed, because the financial incentives for adopting “special needs” children were so lucrative, North Dakota simply denominated every single Native American child in the state to be a special needs child.
The Gazette article focusses on kids who’ve aged out of the foster care system. That is, they’ve turned 18 and celebrated their birthday by no longer having a roof over their head, food on the table or a place to sleep. Unsurprisingly, that’s intimidating to an 18-year-old.
Without the rules or structure that living in a foster home provides, [former foster child Hayden] Ayers was scared and didn’t know where to turn. He even considered committing another crime so he’d be sent to jail — a place where, in his mind, he’d find that structure and controlled environment he needed and had while in the foster system.
“I came out of the system at 18 and had all this freedom,” said Ayers, now 21. “I freaked out. I got scared.”…
As for exiting the foster care system, [Celia Van Meter] said, “You’re not sure where to go next. Not sure if you’re going to make it, if you’re going to live on the streets. It’s just that feeling of uncertainty and stress, and it’s not a good feeling.”
Those kids have been traumatized by their parents, traumatized by the system when they were taken from their homes and then traumatized again when they’re told they’re on their own at age 18. It’s not a good combination.
And sure enough, a lot of them don’t respond well.
That population also has a greater chance of experiencing mental health issues. Data from the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) shows that of the 256 foster-care children who started the state’s voluntary aftercare services for kids who aged out in fiscal year 2015:
- 62 percent received a mental health assessment, counseling or therapy in the previous year
- 29 percent attempted suicide
- 34 percent inflicted some form of self-harm.
Face it, any program that has 29% of its participants attempt suicide has a problem – a big problem. All states of course make at least some effort to help those kids post-foster care. They provide services that help them apply to college, get a job, find a place to live, etc. It turns out none of that is cheap.
States have a vested interest in making sure those who leave foster care at 18 do well. That’s because each group of young people leaving the system costs society an additional $8 billion in welfare, Medicaid, lost wages and incarceration costs compared to people of the same age who weren’t in foster care, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
It’s what I’ve been saying all along. The costs of trying to repair our mistakes with kids always turn out to be more expensive than doing it right the first time. Now, don’t get me wrong; there will always be a need – a regrettable need – for foster care. Sadly, there are parents who just aren’t up to the task of caring properly for the children they bring into the world. We need to give those kids an alternative and foster care is it.
Again, we must view foster care as the last resort, but we don’t. We offer states cash incentives to take children from parents and place them into foster care. We then offer them additional cash to have them adopted out of foster care. We need to emphasize help for biological parents who need it and family reunification where possible. Above all, we need to abandon the “take the child first and ask questions later” attitude we see all too often from child protective agencies.
Too much science on the subject tells us that biological parents are best for kids to be doing what we are. And, as I’ve said before and the above data demonstrate, the money it takes trying to address the problems with which foster care kids exit the system could be better spent keeping them out of that system in the first place.
That said, for those children who do need to be in some sort of foster care, the system can do a lot better job than it does. Paradoxically, that may include extending foster care beyond age 18. The fact is that age 18 is arbitrary. Why do we choose that age to turn kids out on their own? Few are ready for the world at that age a fact that’s well known and demonstrated by the large numbers of foster kids who simply return to the parents who abused them rather than try life alone.
In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allows states to extend foster care services to youth up to age 21 and receive federal funding for it…
But a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, which specializes in policy research that benefits children and families, shows that youth in extended foster care programs tend to do better than those who leave the system at 18.
That study tracked those who had extended care in Illinois versus those who didn’t in Iowa and Wisconsin, showing that those who remained in the system until 21 were less likely to experience negative outcomes…
What’s more, [child welfare expert Mark Courtney] added, is the study showed no negative effects of remaining in foster care until 21 — and there was an increase in those attending college, earning more and being more involved with their own children.
We definitely need to reduce our reliance on foster care by making more of an effort with biological parents. But for those whose only alternative is the foster system, extending the age of termination to 21 may be a good idea.
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