FC vs. FP: Track Record on Safety

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
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At the heart of the criticism of family preservation is one overriding assumption: If you remove a child from the home, the child will be safe. If you leave a child at home the child is at risk. In fact, there is risk in either direction, but intensive family preservation programs have a better record of safety than foster care.

To understand why, one must first understand one fundamental fact about foster care: It's not safe. Here's how we know:

National data on child abuse fatalities show that a child is nearly twice as likely to die of abuse in foster care as in the general population. [1]

A study of reported abuse in Baltimore, found the rate of "substantiated" cases of sexual abuse in foster care more than four times higher than the rate in the general population.[2] Using the same methodology, an Indiana study found three times more physical abuse and twice the rate of sexual abuse in foster homes than in the general population. In group homes there was more than ten times the rate of physical abuse and more than 28 times the rate of sexual abuse as in the general population[2], in part because so many children in the homes abused each other.[3]

Those studies deal only with reported maltreatment. The actual amount of abuse in foster care is likely to be far higher, since agencies have a special incentive not to investigate such reports, since they are, in effect, investigating themselves.

In a study of investigations of alleged abuse in New Jersey foster homes, the researchers found a lack of “anything approaching reasonable professional judgment” and concluded that “no assurances can be given” that any New Jersey foster child is safe.[4]

A lawyer who represents children in Broward County, Florida, says in a sworn affidavit that over a period of just 18 months he was made personally aware of 50 instances of child-on-child sexual abuse involving more than 100 Broward County foster children. The official number during this same period: Seven - because until what the lawyer called "an epidemic of child-on-child sexual abuse" was exposed, the child abuse hotline didn't accept reports of such abuse.[5]

Another Baltimore study, this one examining case records, found abuse in 28 percent of the foster homes studied -- more than one in four.[6]

A study of cases in Fulton and DeKalb Counties in Georgia found that among children whose case goal was adoption, 34 percent had experienced abuse, neglect, or other harmful conditions. For those children who had recently entered the system, 15 percent had experienced abuse, neglect or other harmful conditions in just one year.[7]

A study of foster children in Oregon and Washington State found that nearly one third reported being abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.[8]

Even what is said to be a model foster care program, where caseloads are kept low and workers and foster parents get special training, is not immune. When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in their foster homes. Furthermore, this study asked only about abuse in the one foster home the children had been in the longest. A child who had been moved from a foster home precisely because she had been abused there after only a short stay would not even be counted.[9] Officials at the program say they have since lowered the rate of all forms of abuse to "only" 12 percent, but this is based on an in-house survey of the program's own caseworkers, not outside interviews with the children themselves.[10]

This does not mean that all, or even many, foster parents are abusive. The overwhelming majority do the best they can for the children in their care -- like the overwhelming majority of parents, period. But the abusive minority is large enough to cause serious concern. And abuse in foster care does not always mean abuse by foster parents. As happened so often during the Illinois Foster Care Panic for example (see Issue Paper 2), and as the Indiana study shows, it can be caused by foster children abusing each other.

Compare the record of foster care to the record of family preservation.

The original Homebuilders program (See Issue Paper 10) has served 12,000 families since 1982. No child has ever died during a Homebuilders intervention, and only one child has ever died afterwards, more than a decade ago.[11]

Michigan has the nation's largest family preservation program. The program rigorously follows the Homebuilders model (see Issue Paper 10).

Since 1988, the Michigan family preservation program has served 90,000 children. During the first two years, two children died during the intervention. In the decade since, there has not been a single fatality.[12] In contrast, when Illinois effectively abandoned family preservation, there were five child abuse deaths in foster care in just one year. That’s one reason the state subsequently reversed course.

Several states and localities that have bucked the national trend and embraced safe, proven programs to keep families together also have improved child safety.

One state that is leading the nation in reforming child welfare is the last state many people might expect: Alabama.

But Alabama is implementing a consent decree (R.C. v. Hornsby) resulting from a federal lawsuit requiring it to reframe its whole approach to child welfare by following family preservation principles.

Even with an increase in removals in recent years due to methamphetamine, Alabama still removes children at one of the lowest rates in the nation.[13] But re-abuse of children left in their own homes has been cut by 60 percent – to less than half the national average.[14] 

An independent, court-appointed monitor concluded that children in Alabama are safer now than before the system switched to a family preservation model. The monitor wrote that "the data strongly support the conclusion that children and families are safer in counties that have implemented the R.C. reforms."[15]

Another leader is the county-run system in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa.

In the mid-1990s, the child welfare system in Pittsburgh was typically mediocre, or worse. Foster care placements were soaring and those in charge insisted every one of those placements was necessary.

New leadership changed all that. Since 1997, the foster care population has been cut by 30 percent. When children must be placed, more than half of children placed in foster homes stay with relatives, and siblings are kept together 80 percent of the time.[16]

They’ve done it by tripling the budget for primary prevention, doubling the budget for family preservation, embracing innovations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Family to Family program, and adding elements of their own, such as housing counselors in every child welfare office, so families aren’t destroyed because of housing problems.

And, as in Alabama, children are safer. As the foster care population has fallen, re-abuse of children left in their own homes also has declined [17] and there has been a dramatic, sustained drop in child abuse fatalities.[18] 

Illinois also has improved child safety, even as it dramatically reduced its foster care population. (See Issue Paper 2).

Why it works:

There are three primary reasons for the better safety record of communities that embrace safe, proven programs to keep families together:

Most of the parents caught in the net of child protective services are not who most people think they are. (See Issue Paper 5).

When child welfare systems take family preservation seriously, foster care populations stabilize or decline. Workers have more time to find the children who really do need to be placed in foster care. (See Issue Paper 8).

Family preservation workers see families in many different settings for many hours at a time. Because of that, and because they are usually better trained than child protective workers they are far more likely than conventional child protective workers to know when a family can't be preserved -- and contrary to stereotype, they do place child safety first. (See Issue Paper 8)

Updated August 21, 2005

1. About 0.73 percent of American children are in foster care, but 1.22 percent of child abuse fatalities are in foster care. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Child Maltreatment 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001). See chart in Chapter Four, also available online Back to Text.

2. Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, Factors Associated With Child Maltreatment by Family Foster Care Providers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, June 30, 1992) charts, pp. 28,30. Back to Text.

3. J William Spencer and Dean D. Kundsen, "Out of Home Maltreatment: An Analysis of Risk in Various Settings for Children," Children And Youth Services Review Vol. 14, pp. 485-492, 1992. Back to Text.

4. Leslie Kaufman and Richard Lezin Jones, “Report finds flaws in inquiries on foster abuse in New Jersey.” The New York Times, May 23, 2003.  Back to Text.

5. Affidavit of David S. Bazerman, Esq, Ward v. Feaver, Case# 98-7137, United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, Fort Lauderdale Division, Dec. 16, 1998, p.4. Back to Text.

6. Children’s Rights, Inc., “ Expert research report finds children still unsafe in Fulton and Dekalb foster care,” Press release, November 5, 2004.  

7.Memorandum and Order of Judge Joseph G. Howard, L.J. v. Massinga, Civil No. JH-84-4409, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, July 27, 1987. Back to Text.

8. Peter Pecora, et. al., Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study (Seattle: Casey Family Programs, 2005). 

9. David Fanshel, et. al., Foster Children in a Life Course Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 90. Back to Text.

10. How Are The Children Doing? Assessing Youth Outcomes in Family Foster Care. (Seattle: Casey Family Program, 1998). Back to Text.

11. Personal communication from Charlotte Booth, Executive Director, Homebuilders. Even in the one case in which a child died after the intervention, in 1987, Homebuilders had warned that the child was in danger and been ignored. Back to Text.

12. Personal Communication, Susan Kelly, former director of family preservation services, Michigan Department of Social Services. Back to Text.

13. In 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, Alabama removed 13.5 children for every thousand impoverished children. The national average was 24.1. Back to Text.

14. Erik Eckholm , “Once Woeful, Alabama Is Model in Child Welfare,” The New York Times, August 20, 2005.

15. Ivor D. Groves, System of Care Implementation: Performance, Outcomes, and Compliance, March, 1996, Executive Summary, p.3. Back to Text.

16. Data from Allegheny County Department of Human Services, available online at http://www.county.allegheny.pa.us/dhs/brochures/Permanency.pdf

17. See the Annual Reports on Child Abuse, published by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, from 1996 through 2001, which have data on each year’s rate at which children are re-abused after being left in their own homes.

18. Barbara White Stack, “For first time in 15 years, no child abuse fatalities here,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 8, 2005.


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