We can, and must, end the foster care trap

We can, and must, end the foster care trap
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We cannot reform the nation’s foster care system by “improving the quality and training of foster parents and social service staff” within the system, as a recent Princeton University report suggests. The greatest problems are inherent in the system and improving its function will not accomplish reform. That would be like trying the change the flow of a river from a boat riding midstream. The only hope to ensure that the system protects children is to replace it.

I do not make such a recommendation lightly. I have witnessed firsthand how insidiously the foster care system destroys children and families with its “helping hand.”

For more than 50 years, the system has treated children entrusted to its care as a commodity. Once a child is legally declared a ward of the state, there is resistance to reuniting the child with his or her parent(s) or finding an adoptive family. Decades ago, as a young social worker in a small town near Philadelphia, I witnessed this “foster care trap.”  


One mother facing hard times followed the advice of her caseworker and voluntarily committed her three children to temporary placement. After six months, she had secured a job and requested the return of her children. The agency assessed the living conditions in her home, and then said she needed an additional bedroom. There were other requirements, and the financial cost of compliance was beyond her means. Her bitterness about the situation confirmed to the caseworker that she should not care for her children.

In another case, agency representatives found a 12-year-old babysitting his younger siblings while his mother shopped for groceries. She was given a warning but when this happened again, the children were removed from the home. The agency would not provide the mother with money for a babysitter, and required her to visit her children in their foster home 20 miles away, even though she did not have a car, or risk the permanent termination of her parental rights.

In these instances, the agency collected $15,000 annually for each child in reimbursements from the state.

A third example was the most heartbreaking for me. My caseload included a 6-year-old girl, Cathy, who as an infant was placed on a farm in the care of an elderly woman also caring for another foster child. Cathy's case file contained no indication of an agency site visit during her six years of foster care.

When I met Cathy, I learned she could neither speak nor hear, and I asked how long she had been like that. The foster mother explained that as a baby, Cathy developed a dangerously high fever. The foster mother had called her social worker repeatedly but received no response, so she administered a home remedy. I took Cathy to a Philadelphia hospital and learned that had her rheumatic fever been treated, she would not have lost her hearing and speech.

Our trip to Philadelphia happened during the Christmas holidays and I took her to see Santa at a downtown department store. I will never forget the joy in her eyes. I removed Cathy from the isolated farm and placed her with a family with four foster children and enrolled her in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Had I the means, I would have adopted her myself.  

Throughout the country, children of all races and ethnicities have been damaged by the long arm of their “rescuers,” the foster care system, but the toll has been taken disproportionately among black children. One reason often given for the failure to place black children in stable, permanent families is the purported unwillingness or lack of interest among blacks to adopt children. In 1977, Dr. Robert B. Hill, then the research director of the National Urban League, conducted a study that challenged this assumption.

Using census data, he found that, although blacks make up just 13 percent of the population, they account for 50 percent of non-relative families caring for children. This begs the question: Why are so many black families willing to care for foster children but not adopt children?  

The answer may have to do with the system’s gamut of rules, regulations and restrictions. A number of years ago, 150 families responded to an aggressive public ad campaign to recruit black adoptive families in Chicago. Only four families successfully made it through the system’s hoops to adopt a child. The system is organized to screen out potential adoptive parents, rather than to facilitate children’s placement in permanent homes.

However, there is hope for these vulnerable children. Community- and faith-based organizations have recruited volunteers to host struggling families during crises and prevent children’s entry into the system and facilitate timely adoptions. Harvest of Hope in New Jersey, created to address the shortage of black foster care homes, has successfully placed more than 1,400 children in loving homes and facilitated 300 adoptions. Other effective private-sector initiatives include Foster Haven, Love in Action, Safe Families for Children, and the Foster Care Closet. Because most such effective organizations exist within the neighborhoods they serve and work without fanfare, we need to take an inventory of similar programs that work to preserve families or facilitate adoptions.

Congress could play a role by passing outcome-focused legislation to address the child care crisis. To this end, the Family First Prevention Service Act passed this year prioritizes keeping children in stable homes by providing help for families struggling with drug addiction or other self-destructive behaviors. It also provides states with incentives to reduce the institutionalization of children in group homes that are not only expensive but associated with lower academic achievement and higher risk of delinquent behavior.

One way to ensure that this law works to realize its promise would be to establish an alliance of private-sector groups to work with five state governments to reduce their foster care population by 50 percent. On the foundation of that pilot initiative, the program could spread throughout the country, enabling us to eventually end the tragic morality play that reserves the worst parts for the most unprotected among us.

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.