In a sea of overwhelming political motivations and agendas, it is becoming easier and easier to overlook issues that are not considered “pressing.” This is one of the many excuses that both political parties have used to justify their lack of action on one daunting issue: the foster care system.
A quick Google search about the foster care system reveals quite a bit about the lack of urgency this issue is treated with in our society. The top results only explain the basics of what the foster care system is, and it isn’t until one reaches the bottom of the page that they find any recent news articles about the topic. Even in articles that are about child care, the focus is mainly on improving what is considered an acceptable family in modern America through things such as foster home placement and adoption, with a strong leaning towards the nuclear family, but exceptions have been made for improving single parent households, (e.g. improving child care options for single mothers). While these issues are by all means worthy of attention, the main political parties, the government, and the average American are quick to neglect a system with an intake of children that has been increasing since 2012.
The lack of attention paid to the foster system in recent years gives rise to several questions. What exactly is the problem with this system? If a majority of the United States, a nation that prides itself on the rights and well-being of its children, has yet to witness widespread movements and protests related to this topic, then how bad can it really be? Questions like these require an in-depth examination of the national policies on childcare and child welfare, as well as an examination of how those policies have negatively affected the foster care system and the children who live within it.
The idea that the United States focuses on the importance of children’s well-being is one that must be seriously questioned. In his 2014 State of the Union Address, former President Barack Obama talked about how child care should no longer be pushed to the side and proceeded to dole out $200 billion over the next decade to support the child care system in his budget proposal. However, this budget proposal lacked specific provisions for the foster care system, and, as a result, the intake of children in the system still increased in those four years of his presidency. Recently, President Donald Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was placed on hold for two months after the government included it in a bill that cut back on unnecessary spending in an attempt to keep the government from shutting down. Trump described this bill as one that is trying to keep children from entering the foster care system in the first place by providing funds to the state for assisting parents of children who are suffering from mental illness or drug addiction. If the situation reaches the point where the child does need to be removed from the home, the bill then incentivizes a decrease in the usage of congregate care, such as group homes, “in favor of more desirable family atmospheres” by no longer reimbursing the state for children who are in congregate care for more than two weeks.
This is supposed to be a way to encourage placing children from these congregate cares into foster homes that could eventually lead to adoption, in yet another effort to preserve the “nuclear family” in the United States. These two aspects of the bill make it so that prevention of entering children into the government funded aspects of the foster care system, such as congregate care, is the most important task and if those tactics fail, then the government makes it so that there is more incentive to move children through congregate homes into foster homes, which are significantly less expensive to fund than the group homes that most foster care children are in.
The problem with this stipulation to the act is that foster care parents are participating less in the child welfare system due to a lack of responsiveness from representatives in the system. On average, 47–62 percent of foster parents terminate their status as foster parents due to poor agency relations. The misallocation of funds in the child care system is the main reason for an unresponsive agency. Social workers are underpaid because of the lack of funding and are overworked because of a lack of staffing in the agencies. With the Family First Prevention Services Act, the government is forcing the hand of agencies all over America without also providing funds for the workers who will have to ensure the placement of these children. This could mean that children will be placed in homes that could negatively impact their mental and physical health even further. While the congregate system is not necessarily the best option for traumatized children, yet another area of the foster care system that requires more attention than it is garnering, it is preferable to hasty placement decisions made by states in order to prevent spending more money than the federal government has allotted them on children.
Both of these acts are representative of a somewhat disfigured view of what can actually help children in these situations. Under President Obama, there were no specific provisions for the foster care system, and under President Trump, the existing provisions mainly affect children at risk of entering the foster care system, rather than children who are already in the system, those that are already suffering at the hands of the underfunded group homes. Furthermore, in the case of President Trump, there is more of a focus on maintaining the structure of family than on acting in the best interest of the child.
As a result, the Family First Prevention Services Act fails to address various issues. At what point does the government decide that a parent is no longer fit to take care of their child? How traumatized does the child have to be by possible relapses before the state decides that removal of the child is better than rehabilitation of the parent? What provisions will be made for the mental health of children in such homes that were traumatizing enough to warrant consideration of interference by the state?
The most significant problem in this bill is that an increased focus on maintaining the structure of the family can sometimes seriously damage children more than it can help them. The general goal of the bill directs the focus of the system to the family unit and misinterprets the idea that the foster care system exists, and has always existed, for the sake of abandoned and forgotten children. Rushing through placement in order to decrease the amount of time children spend in congregate care could result in placement in bad homes. There are also issues with keeping children and abusive parents together solely for the sake of maintaining the family unit. If a child is in danger, then their parents’ rehabilitation might not be enough to save them, and without any indication in this bill about what the threshold is for removal over rehabilitation, children could stay in traumatizing situations for longer than necessary.
There have also been reports that take an in-depth look at the issues of the foster care system, and most of them discuss how damaging conformation to the typical family ideal can be. One foster care child who eventually aged out of the system stated, “[M]any family courts prefer reunification over adoption, even when there is no real family to preserve. In my case, after seven years and twenty-nine placements, I found a foster family who wanted to adopt me, but the state would not terminate the parental rights of my abusive, mentally ill mother. As a result, I continued to drift from one temporary placement to the next, and was never adopted.”
This is where President Trump’s stance fails: it fails to consider that sometimes children perhaps should not be kept in their “true family” if the people within that family are the ones damaging them the most. This mentality focuses on the best interest of the parents instead that of the children, which embodies the reason why measures like family court often end up failing: they fail to recognize that their job is to protect children, not the idea of a “true family.”
This aforementioned testimony from a child within the foster care system who was negatively impacted by the idea of true family above all else reveals yet another issue: children are removed from homes in which they have most likely suffered severe emotional and physical trauma and are placed into congregate care facilities. This could be the reason for 70–85 percent of children who need mental health services within this system not receiving said services, and children younger than three are even less likely than older children to receive any attention in this area. The concept of mental health within the foster care system is fascinating because this country has had many a debate about mental health in recent years, yet very few have referenced how America’s mental health epidemic affects the foster care system. Not only do these children come from incredibly violent and traumatic homes, they are traumatized even further by the lack of stability in their lives. They move from home to home with no guarantee of permanency, so they are more likely to grow used to the idea that nobody truly cares about them.
As of 2011, the average amount of time that kids stayed in the foster care system was twenty-four months. That length of time combined with the lack of treatment for any sort of mental illness derived from trauma can extremely damage these children. This issue worsens the older the child gets. There is a stigma that exists with older children in the foster care system, and, because of that, they are not as likely to be adopted as the younger children in the foster care system, which can delay their recovery. In 2016, it was found that the average age for kids that exited the foster care system was 7.8 years. This same study also showed that the number of children with ages ranging from one to ten amounted to about 158 hundred thousand, whereas the number of children exiting the foster care system from ages ten to eighteen amounted to about eighty-five thousand children, with the eighteen year olds making up around eighteen thousand of those children. These facts show that the older a child gets, the less likely they are to exit the foster care system through things such as adoption.
The exception to this rule, however, is eighteen year olds. In their case, they experience the process of “aging-out.” This term describes when a child becomes of the age at which they are deemed capable of taking care of themselves, so they are no longer offered the services of the foster care system. These children are expected to live on their own and support themselves almost as soon as they reach their eighteenth birthday. Oftentimes, the reason these children have been in the foster care system for so long is that they have been deemed “unadoptable” due to their age and increased “violent behavior” (behavior which is more often than not related to their untreated trauma).
Aging out has extremely negative impacts on these children. Picture an eighteen year old who is angry at the world that seems to have abandoned them, with no way to support themselves. Sometimes, these kids are still in high school when they age out, and so the likelihood of them dropping out of school in order to take care of themselves is incredibly high. The University of Chicago conducted a study in 2010 on the effects that aging out can have on these teens in the long run. According to this study, only 6 percent of the youth that age out receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by the age of twenty-four. This study also shows that 34 percent of youth that left the foster care system at seventeen or eighteen, either due to emancipation or aging out, ended up in jail by the age of nineteen. Considering this country’s opinion on growing violence in the streets and the multifacetedness of this issue, one would think that a little more consideration would be given to the foster care system, which can breed violence in children because of the treatment they receive while in it.
Now that some of the facts have been laid out, there is a question that must be answered: why hasn’t the United States taken more action to improve the conditions and efficacy of the foster care system? There is some concern about it, of course, as can be seen in articles written about the issue and the actions of Obama and Trump, but when was the last time the foster care system was brought up in a presidential debate?
The reason this issue needs to be written about is merely the fact that hardly anyone seems to know about it. The more information is spread, the more likely public action is to occur, eventually forcing the government to reevaluate their stance. So what can America do about this growing epidemic that’s taking place right under its nose? The first step is education. Movements are born out of passionate Americans who are willing to take the first step of education, and the more people who know about these problems, the more likely it is that a movement is created to fight for policies that would help children whose suffering has gone relatively unnoticed by the general public for far too long.
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