A family is hard to define. A spouse, two and a half kids, a golden retriever, and a picket fence – this might be the stereotypical American family. But families can have two parents or single parents, have eight kids or no kids, live in a mansion or a trailer. Yet it is clear that the integrity of a family is questioned when a child is removed because of abuse and neglect . And while the child’s removal may be intended to be temporary, this protective measure can lead to a lifetime of difficulties.
Defining an “unfit parent” is a challenging task. Different families treat children in different ways, and there is no one right way to be a parent. New foster agency workers will remove more children from their homes than experienced workers just because they are unsure of how to draw this line. In To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam opens by describing a single mother who leaves her two-year-old in the apartment hallway; she has hoarded too many items to wheel a stroller inside and wants her daughter to finish her nap. Beam, a professor at Columbia, NYU, and Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility, is the parent of a foster child.
About 250,000 children enter and leave foster care each year in the United States, and there are roughly 400,000 foster care children at any given time. There are only about 200,000 registered foster care homes, 30 to 50 percent of which lose or give up their status each year. A 2001 study in New Mexico, Oregon, and Oklahoma found that 47 to 62 percent of foster parents “burn out” after just one year. The study found that the distribution of child placement is not very even; one-fifth of the parents care for 60 to 80 percent of the children and represent the most stable and successful families. Furthermore, while the maximum recommended number of cases for a social worker is 17, some states assign workers three or four times that amount. The overload of cases and the scarcity of available parents often make social workers desperate to find homes. Foster families can send children back to the agency if they fight too much or habitually misbehave. A 1997 law prohibits a child from spending more than 15 months in a foster home before being returned to his family or the agency (though this law is often ignored in practice). The constant instability in these children’s lives forces social workers to ask the difficult question: Is foster care really an improvement on the child’s original situation?
The foster system is broken. Children are often shuttled by the agency to multiple homes where they never feel welcome. They get into trouble and no one bails them out: Instead, they are sent back to the agency or put in institutionalized care. According to Beam, the trauma of moving so much makes children feel un lovable . Foster children grow tired of constantly “auditioning” for potential parents and feel like they have to become an idealized version of themselves in order to belong.
Compare this limited personal experience to the circumstances prevailing in foster families. Children are expected to respect strangers and when they do not, they are sent back to the agency as if it is their fault for reacting to the stress and trauma surrounding them. This makes children feel unvalued and like no one wants them.
A quick look at the statistics illustrates the toll foster care takes. Only 2 percent of foster children obtain a bachelor’s degree, compared to the 33 percent of all Americans aged 25 to 29 who have graduated college. The psychological issues of having unfit parents are never addressed and the cycle often repeats itself, with unfit parents having kids too young, who in turn become unfit teenage parents themselves. A 2005 study found that children who had been through the foster care system had an even higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than US war veterans. While most have been physically or sexually abused, 18 percent of those who had not also had PTSD, indicating that the psychological effects of family breakup and moving are enough to incite the symptoms. When children age out of the system at age 18 nearly 60 percent of the men have been convicted of a crime, 50 percent are abusing alcohol or drugs, and 17 percent of women are pregnant.
A criticism of foster care is that children can be sent back to the agency at the foster parent’s whim, making children feel like the foster family is doing them a favor and that it is the child’s fault if no permanent home can be found. Foster children need to believe that they are important, and not just a burden for others. It is important that they understand they do not need to become perfect kids for someone to love them.
Adoption is often held up as the solution to foster children’s problems. It means stability, the ultimate indicator that a child has been accepted into a family. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. When children inevitably realize that they are not always going to get along with their adoptive parents, they have lost all contact with the foster agency, their biological families are still dysfunctional, and their life problems persist, they can slip into maladaptive habits. In fact, many children in foster care have been adopted at some point only to run away and end up back in temporary homes.
About 15 percent of foster children are placed in institutional care or group homes when they do not fit with a family or get sent back too many times. Institutionalized care often mixes juvenile delinquents with foster children, putting criminals with children who have no place to go. This was highlighted in 2010 when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg consolidated the city’s Administration for Children’s Services with the Department of Juvenile Justice. The merger was well-meaning; many foster children are also labeled juvenile delinquents and having one agency meant these children would have one social care worker to report to. However, Beam criticizes this law in To the End of June because consolidating the two groups almost pre-determines that foster children will become delinquents.
Putting foster care children in institutionalized care, where they associate with juvenile delinquents, is also incredibly expensive. In 2009, it cost $210,000 for one year of institutionalized care in New York. Institutional care facilities struggle to provide students with a high school education or adequate therapy for the trauma they have been through. When children age out upon turning 18, the foster agency is no longer responsible for them and many are totally on their own. The foster system certainly does not provide the love and care of a family and often it does not even provide very good friends.
Foster children often adopt coping strategies like fighting or not talking for weeks to try to gain some type of control over their situations. They acquire obsessive-compulsive disorder-like symptoms, stuttering, or symptoms of depression, often as reactions to the things they have been through in their original homes and in foster care. These are serious problems that cannot be fixed by merely placing a kid in a foster or adoptive home, especially when the home is not receptive to the child’s needs. Effective and accessible therapy is as necessary as a stable home. Foster children occupy a unique place in the world: Caretakers have often failed them, and they must rely on strangers for help.
Many have acknowledged that the foster system is failing children. Psychologists in New York started Fostering Connection, a self-described “pro bono” group designed to meet with foster children to talk about their past traumas and help them get good starts on their new lives. But the therapy sessions were in Manhattan and most children lived in other boroughs. Most of the therapists could not relate culturally to the kids. Children did not want to travel for hours to see someone they assumed was judging them. A successful case was that where a therapist who met with her client in a diner once a week for three years. The teenager was more comfortable in the diner than an office so he made the effort to continue the meetings.
It is hard to change institutions overnight, but in order for the foster care system to start adequately meeting the needs of the hundreds of thousands of children who make their way through the system, agencies need to start creating loving environments and accessible opportunities for foster children. The government should not pay foster families to house a child for 15 months; it should look for families which will consistently love children whose lives have lacked love. It should pay for regular therapy in an accessible location for the child. Working through the issues will help children understand that they do have control over their lives and that the family breakup was not their fault. Convenient and consistent therapy will help children deal with the unfortunate circumstances which they have been placed in, likely resulting in more who truly reach their potential. Foster care workers need to find homes for children where they will be accepted for who they are and not expected to be ideal kids when they have hardly had ideal lives.