By Thomas D. Segal
July 16, 2009 / newsbyus.com
Harlingen, Texas, July 13, 2009: For the more than one half million children in foster careacross the United States, the number “18” is forever on their minds. For some that number means the birthday they must reach to be “aged out” of a system they find restrictive and abusive. For many others it means the birthday they will reach and find themselves cast out of a home environment into a world they are ill prepared to face alone.
“Aging Out” of the foster care system is as mixed up and convoluted as the entire government operated foster care program in general. Some states continue to take care of the child through training programs, free college tuition, healthcare and other options until they are prepared to function independently. Many states end all support and payments the day the child turns 18.
Girls who reach 18 find themselves homeless and without finances unless they are pregnant or have already given birth to a child. Motherhood means they will continue to receive welfare support. Perhaps that is why almost 40% of the girls raised in foster care find themselves pregnant before the age of 18.
At age 18 most boys find themselves alone, homeless and undereducated. It is estimated 25% of these boys will remain homeless. Many become engaged in criminal activity or male prostitution. Few find themselves with positive prospects for the future.
A recent survey of foster care alumni reported that only 20% of the children who have been placed in foster care do well in society once they reach adulthood.
It is the foster care system itself that completely fails the children. Some states operate these programs better than others. Some states have horrible systems. None could be called exemplary.
Illinois can be spotlighted as one of the states having a failed foster care system. Reports on the program are never up to date, but four years ago, with close to 19,000 children in foster care the state had wracked up a significant record of irresponsibility. In its mandate to protect and care for children who were wards of the state, Illinois had 100 children who had been relocated 50 times or more. There were 1,000 children who had been moved to at least 23 different places. There were 750 children who had been placed in ten or more different foster homes. It was among 13 states across the country considered the worst for multiple relocations of children.
Added to its list of failed policies is the Illinois system of sub contracting the foster care of children to private agencies? These agencies vary in quality from strong church operated programs to for-profit groups whose only incentive is the money they receive from the state. To make sure the “wealth” is spread around, the state has a rotation system of passing foster children out to various providers care. The next one in line receives the next child to be placed. No thought is given to how many foster familiesa particular private contractor has in its system or if the correct foster home is available for the child to be placed. Thus a child could end up in a group home with perhaps a half dozen children of varying ages and emotional problems. At the same time another private agency might have an opening for a single child to go to a family with no other responsibilities. However, that agency was not at the top of the rotation list.
But, Illinois is not alone in its multiple failures. In the rich Nappy Valley of California federal standards for foster care have been continuously ignored. Not too long ago Napa was found to be in violation of seven out of the twelve federal standards.
In point of fact, all 50 states have failed to comply with federal child-welfare standards developed to protect children from abuse and neglect. The most frequently ignored standard is to assure there is permanency in the child’s living arrangements.
The Florida system is what many call “The take the child and run program”.
Because of national abuse cases that have been highlighted by news media, case workers in Florida worry they will be blamed if anything happens to a child. The answer for these employees is to remove a child from his or her family when there are allegations of neglect or abuse, even if such charges are not confirmed. Florida now has a child removal from the family record 35 times higher than the national average. Though, in theory, such removal practices may be justified, the reality is these children are separated from everyone they love and who love them in return.
The subject of child protection caseworkers, or social workers is one that really needs to be explored in depth. In many states they are poorly evaluated as to their capabilities. Often there is little to no training. They are all under staffed and under paid.
Children in foster care usually are visited by multiple caseworkers during those months or years they are wards of the state. Some have reported that a single child could have, over a period of time, thirty or more different caseworkers.
Not too long ago a case in Texas made national headlines. Three small children were killed and beheaded by their parents. Police found the home and living conditions to be complete squalor. The parents were deeply involved in drugs. Also, among their findings the police learned there had been a variety of complaints filed against the parents, but no caseworker had visited them in months.
Records reveal that 11 children have died in the state due to abuse and neglect while in foster care. Though this may not be an accurate total and it doesn’t seem to be a large number when viewing the size of the state and its population, it is still ten times the child abuse death rate found in the general Texas population.
According to USA Today, “All 50 states have failed to comply fully with federal child-welfare standards designed to protect kids from abuse and neglect, according to reviews (held) since 2002 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
That report further revealed not a single state met the very important requirement that all children should have “permanency and stability in their living conditions.”
There is a strange paradox to the nationwide foster care debacle. Across the United States voters not only support a strong foster care system, but demand it. When this message is transmitted to those who provide the legislation or governance for the states, there is never enough money, time, talent or training put into developing positive, productive and protective programs.
Extensive investigation needs to be the rule, rather than the exception into all families where children are to be removed for cause. These same investigations need to be the rule for all families seeking to be foster parents
Foster parents, caseworkers…and yes, the families who have lost their children to the foster care system, need to undergo psychological testing and evaluation. They need to receive strong training in childcare and development. They need a regular system of inspection and evaluation of performance …and above all they need the dollars to keep a quality system in place.
Pearl S. Buck once said it best…”If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.”
Thomas D. Segel