The silent scandal: Children behind closed doors

The silent scandal: Children behind closed doors
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The plight of children whose parents entered the country illegally has been broadcast daily, and continually, through new stories, blogs and tweets. Pictures of those crying children have seared into our hearts and generated a response from thousands of Americans. One online funding campaign, launched by a couple in Silicon Valley to provide $1,500 to unite one immigrant mother and daughter, garnered more $20 million from 300,000 donors within just several days.  

Yet, far from the media spotlight and headlines, for decades, hundreds of thousands of American children have been suffering without anyone’s notice behind closed doors. Within the massive bureaucracy of the nation’s foster care system, many youths spend their entire childhood without experiencing the stability and security of a “forever family.” On any given day, more than 400,000 children and youths are in the system.

A version of a foster care system was established by the Children’s Aid Society of New York in 1853 to care for orphans. Widows were paid by the society and various church groups to provide homes for children who had lost both parents. In the early 1900s, this mission was expanded to include children who were abandoned, neglected and abused by their parents. For those children, the goal was to place them with relatives in their kinship network, or in an adoptive home. For others, the first goal was to strengthen the child’s family so they could be reunited with their parents or parent. Since it was expensive for the nonprofit organizations and churches to maintain children in foster care, the moral obligation of quickly finding a loving, permanent home for these children was compatible with the economic interest of the host organizations.


The Great Depression of the 1930s engendered a dramatic shift in the purpose and function of the foster care system, which morphed into a bureaucratic juggernaut that, since those times, has injured children with its helping hand. One young person who had been a ward of the system said it was like being saved from drowning — only to be raped by your rescuer.

Because of the economic turmoil of the Depression, the resources of the private-sector and church-run organizations were depleted and they no longer could provide for the care of foster children. The federal government stepped in and signed purchase-of-service agreements with these provider groups, arranging to reimburse them for the services they provided. The arrangement included one devastating caveat: the government would reimburse only the costs of maintaining children in foster care and would not support family reunification or adoption. Most of these organizations and churches signed this Faustian agreement to continue their roles as service providers.

Soon, a steadily increasing number of children began to pour into the system. In essence, they became a commodity upon which a massive industry has been built. Today, the care of the more than 500,000 children in foster care is a $70 billion business. It is not that the people running and staffing these institutions are bad people who are ill-intentioned. They are trapped in a tangle of institutional arrangements that cause good people to do bad things. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, declared that folly is more difficult to confront than malice. The latter you can confront with violence, but there is no defense against folly.

Studies show that only 3 percent of the children who come into the foster care system have psychological dysfunction. But when they are placed in foster care, it is not uncommon for the child to be moved five or six times because of the turnover of foster parents and caseworkers. With each disruptive move, the child’s behavior and emotional well-being deteriorates. As they begin to act out, they fall deeper into the system — from single homes, to a therapeutic home and, finally, into a mental institution. In sum, with each stage of decline, the level of government reimbursement increases.

These children thus become unadoptable and will remain living in this nightmare until they “age out” at 18 and their value to the system has been exhausted. Every year, more than 20,000 young people age out of foster care without permanent families. Research shows that those who leave care without being linked to permanent families have a much higher likelihood than youths in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults. There is less than a 3 percent chance for children who have aged out of foster care to earn a college degree at any point in their life. Seven out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21. And nearly 60 percent of young men who age out of the foster care system and are legally emancipated have been convicted of a crime. Many will end up homeless, in jail, or in the sex trade, where many will die much too early.

Why,  one could ask, is there such an emotional and passionate outpouring of concern for reuniting children and parents who illegally came across our borders and such indifference to the hundreds of thousands who are spiritually and emotionally starving to death within our own country?

A few weeks ago, I asked Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who was speaking at a foster care conference sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, “You are a Republican governor and your party controls both bodies of Congress as well as the White House. Why does the government seem powerless to fix this broken system?” Not only does Gov. Bevin have the power of his office, but he has first-hand experience as an adoptive father of four children. He had no answer to my question.

But solutions exist, and I will present them in a subsequent column.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.