To Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, simplicity was the hallmark of modern architecture, hence the aphorism for which he is credited, “Less is more.” When it comes to children in foster care, less is most definitely more - if “less” connotes fewer abused and neglected children, fewer petitions for deprivation, fewer children for whom permanency is an issue, and fewer tax dollars necessary to fund child protection (aka “deprivation” or “dependency”) proceedings. The reality, however, is that while the number of children coming into care has decreased and the number of children exiting care has increased in the last decade, there remains an unsustainable number of children in foster care.
On September 30, 2000, more than half a million children (552,000) were in the foster care system (“foster care” or “the system”). Nine years later, on September 30, 2009, an estimated 423,773 children were in foster care, of whom 25% had been placed with relatives. Slightly more than half of those 423,773 youth (51%) left the system, and for 64% of those who left, the exit took more than a year.
Even though the number of children in foster care declined from 552,000 children in 2000 to 423,733 in 2009, the number of foster care children entitled to Title IV-E foster care funding also declined - from 287,800 foster care children in 2000 (about 52 percent) to 186,300 in 2009 (about 43 percent).
On April 29, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation recognizing May as National Foster Care Month, saying that "the best path to success we can give [these children] is the chance to experience a loving home where they can feel secure and thrive.” But is foster care really the best path - even if loving and secure? Perhaps the best path is taking steps to prevent removal in the first instance.
In 2008, Congress passed a law providing that they would match funds for those states that extended foster care to age 21. While extending foster care may be the best option for children for whom alternatives such as reunification, adoption, and legal guardianship are not viable, it is the default option, not the best one – and certainly not a means of inhibiting the types of parental behaviors that required these children to be taken into care.
Our nation has been in an historically tug of war between seemingly competing values - child safety and family preservation. They need not be mutually exclusive. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (“ASFA”) and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (“FCSIAA”) each provided necessary support for the nearly half a million children in foster care. However, out-of-home placements can be forestalled through increased prevention and early intervention support funding.
A 2006 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy that reviewed evaluations of Intensive Family Preservation Service programs found that they markedly reduced out-of-home placements and subsequent abuse and neglect. Studies have also shown that collaborative plans created by families, support networks, and child welfare system representatives, such as Family Group Decision Making (FGDM), are more likely to keep children safe, decrease the need for removal, increase permanency, preserve familial bonds, and improve the wellbeing of families generally.
My affection for Lennon and McCartney notwithstanding, all these children need is not love. That is part of the recipe, but only one ingredient. They need stability, consistency, habitable homes. They need to be in school. They need environments in which they can learn. They need to be engaged with other children and involved in extracurricular activities. They need proper medical care and treatment. They need to be nurtured, guided, and supported - and the love they're shown should be selfless and unconditional. We need to focus more on creating opportunities for adults to learn these skills, before they become parents.
What Children Need: The American Humane Association. (2010). Children’s Agenda for the 112th Congress. Retrieved at http://www.americanhumane.org/assets/pdfs/children/what-children-need-leg-agenda.pdf
The AFCARS Report. (2010). Preliminary FY 2009 estimates as of July 2010. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report17.htm
Intensive family preservation programs: Program fidelity influences effectiveness – revised. (2006). Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Retrived at http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/06-02-3901.pdf