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May 2019Vol. 20, No. 4We Know a Better Way to Provide Foster Care

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

A good friend who does incredibly important child welfare reform work commonly says, "when we know better, we do better." When it comes to foster care in the United States, we know better. It is time to do better by families and youth. Despite the good intentions of caring people across the country, the combination of research, outcomes data, and the stories of parents and youth with lived foster care experience tells us—resoundingly—that our current foster care system needs to change. Brain science, our knowledge of the importance of the parent-child bond to healthy child development, our understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences, and our growing understanding of trauma and its often lifelong affects place us clearly in a position of knowing better. This knowledge and information puts us on notice that it is time to change our approach and the very nature of what we perceive foster care to be; it calls us to be better.

The knowledge and information we have must serve as a reckoning.

We need to come to terms with the fact that the foster care system as we know it has and continues to add trauma in many situations, despite our well-intentioned efforts and our need to use it to keep children safe. The Children's Bureau's vision for our child welfare system is one that is family centered and oriented toward primary prevention of child maltreatment. We can articulate that vision as creating the conditions for strong and thriving families and communities where children are free from harm.  There is a strong role for the foster care system in realizing that vision.

We would all like nothing more than to eliminate the need for foster care altogether and are committed to reducing the need for it dramatically by going after the root causes of family vulnerability. However, we are clear eyed that foster care will likely always remain necessary for some percentage of children when it is not safe for them to remain home and where kinship options do not exist.

To the extent foster care remains necessary, we have a moral and ethical obligation to do better and make it a radically better, healthier, and more positive experience for all involved—one that promotes the well-being of parents and children alike and supports those that serve as foster or resource parents.  We can do this by putting the knowledge we now hold to work.

Foster care today looks more similar than not to the way it did a few decades ago. We remove a child from his or her home to keep him or her physically safe. We most typically place that child with a well- meaning stranger. That well-meaning stranger more often than not lives in a different community or zip code than the child's family. If school aged, very commonly that child will move to a different school.  The child may or may not be placed in the same home with his or her siblings. That child may or may not know where his or her siblings are or if his or her parents are okay. In a blink of an eye, all that is familiar and a source of comfort to that child is taken away, absent—gone. That child may or may not have the ability to process and comprehend what has happened and why.

Once in foster care, that child will likely see his or her parent once or twice a week for "visitation." That visitation may likely occur in an unnatural setting, such as a county office with someone sitting in the corner watching—providing supervision—for an hour or two at a time. The child may or may not have visitation with his or her siblings.

The well-meaning strangers—foster parents—may have received very little training and support to help the child in their care deal with trauma. The foster parents were likely encouraged not to interact with the parents of the child in their care—and perhaps were told that the parent or parents were dangerous. The foster parents may be providing foster care with the hope and intention of adopting the child.

The parents of that child likely will not know where their child is and have no way to reach him or her other than by communication through a third party. The parents of the child are undoubtedly experiencing a great deal of stress. The parent of that child will worry about where their child is and how he or she is doing even if they are not in a position to live under the same roof at that moment.

This situation may, and often does, continue for months on end.

All of the above is deeply traumatizing for children and parents alike. Each individual component of the above brings additional trauma and the cumulative result can be overwhelming. It also is very hard on foster parents. 

A young man in Louisiana recently described this situation. He said he was 6 years old when he was removed from his home. He said he knew his mother was using drugs, and even at the age of 6 he knew they made her sick. He was worried about her. He knew she loved him and she took good care of him most of the time, but he worried when she was sick and it made him afraid. He tried to care for her in the ways he knew how. Now he is 21 years old, but he remembers the night of his removal vividly. He remembers that no one took the time to explain to him what was happening or to let him know that his mother—his lone caregiver—was going to be okay. He remembers the longing to see her and hear her voice, but weeks went by before he did. He recounts that this will stay with him always, even now as a grown man with a strong relationship with his mother.

We do a poor job of explaining to children, in developmentally appropriate ways, what is happening during the time of removal and why removal is necessary. Recent research defines the situation this young man described as "ambiguity" and identifies it as deeply traumatizing for young children, even for short periods of time.   

This way of serving children and families is not producing the results anyone would hope for. We can change the way we do it. We have outstanding examples of what foster care can be.

Rather than "rescuing" children, we can—as one outstanding parent attorney explains her work to her own children—"save families." Foster care can and should be a way to strengthen families, by building their capacities and giving them the support they need to heal and function in safe and healthy ways. It is not currently designed to operate in such ways.

At the Children's Bureau, we believe strongly that foster care can and should be reconceptualized as a service to the entire family, as a key component in the need to create the conditions for strong and thriving families and communities where children are free from harm. Resource or foster parents can be specifically recruited and trained to be a support to families and to help create those conditions, to work alongside parents as mentors to help them realize their full potential. Foster care can be a way to form meaningful relationships and human connections, even under less-than-ideal circumstances. Foster care can be a way to wrap support around a family and promote child and parent well-being, family integrity, and parental agency.

Picture how different the foster care experience would be for all involved if it was designed to bring families closer together rather than hold them apart.

What if placing children with kin or people that they knew was the norm?

Where nonrelative care is necessary, what if children were placed in their own community?

What if a child did not have to change schools and separate from friends?

What if children lived close enough to their parent or parents that they could see each other on a daily or near daily basis?

What if children were placed with or near their siblings so they could continue important relationships and bonds?

What if foster parents invited parents into their homes?

What if parents and children in out-of-home care were able to spend time together in the foster home doing the normal kinds of things parents and children do together, such as reading, playing games, doing homework, eating meals, and performing bath and bedtime routines?

What if foster parenting looked more like coparenting, coaching, and mentoring?

What if children knew there were multiple adults in their lives who loved them and were there to provide care for and nurture them?

What if foster parents and parents got to know and respect one another and build a trusting relationship?

And what if foster parents were recruited, trained, and supported to foster as a support to the whole family?

How differently might a child experience foster care if this were the case?

How differently would a parent experience foster care if this were the case?

How differently would a foster parent experience foster care if this were the case?

I know this can be the case because I have seen it firsthand in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Ottawa County, Michigan; and the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. I've met foster parents in other parts of the country who have taken it upon themselves to work directly with parents, completely on their own accord as they saw it as the right thing to do. It is one of the rare approaches in child welfare that need not cost an additional dime and could, in fact, save money and prove a powerful return on investment.

We know better. Now, it is time to do better. There is nothing stopping us from beginning today.