Back in November, when I wrote, “7 Reforms I’d Like to See in Private Domestic Adoption,” I was asked when I was going to do the post for foster adoption. May is National Foster Care Month, so I thought now was a good time. This post was a lot harder to write. Like many people, I believe that the foster care system is terribly broken. It’s hard to single out specific reforms when you think that the entire system needs to be razed to the ground.
1. Replace the confusing patchwork of state and county laws with federal laws.
This was the first reform in my DIA post too. Frankly, I think federal-level adoption laws in foster care and foster adopt are even more important than they are for private adoption. Who lives in the same county as their entire family? Because the foster care system is county-based, relatives may not find out about kids in foster care for months. Adopting a foster child across state lines can be very difficult, and some states apparently won’t do it at all. Home study requirements should be the same for everyone in every state. With this one simple move, ICPC could be abolished, and kids could come home faster.
2. Improve communication.
Social workers should communicate everything that they know about the children to the foster parents. CASAs and GALs should communicate with the foster parents and the children to gain clearer pictures of their situations. Foster parents should communicate with prospective kinship carers and prospective adoptive parents to ensure that transitions are smooth. If a child has abused another child, that information must be disclosed to prospective foster parents prior to that child being placed in their home.
3. Give everyone counseling and do it sooner, rather than later.
Everyone involved in the foster care system needs counseling. Foster parents need support from other people who have been where they’ve been. Children need counseling due to the trauma they experience. Biological parents need counseling to help work their service plans. Far too often, however, counseling is unavailable. Foster children are waiting months to see counselors who may or may not be competent.
4. Take a long look at the budget, and put money where it’s going to help children and families the most.
The foster care system essentially functions on a “cash for kids” quota basis. Counties receive money based on the number of kids in care. Counties receive more money for special needs children. Counties also receive money based on how many children are adopted from foster care. These kind of incentives have unintended consequences. For example, statistics show that almost one in four foster kids are on at least one psychotropic medication. Incentivizing adoption may cause social services to work harder on placing children in adoptive homes instead of trying to preserve biological families. Let’s not base money on quotas at all. We need some out-of-the-box thinkers to get on this problem and come up with a solution that results in better care for children and families.
5. Define “neglect.”
This may sound simplistic, but social workers are left to their own devices to define what constitutes neglect. More than 75% of children taken into care are taken due to neglect. In 2001, more than 100,000 children who were removed from their families were returned because there was no abuse or neglect. These kids were put through the trauma of losing their families for little to no reason. According to some social workers, neglect is allowing children to walk home from school or play at park by themselves. That’s not neglect. What else is not neglect?
- Home births
- Asking for a second, third, or fourth opinion from a medical professional
- Choosing not to vaccinate according to the CDC schedule
- Qualifying for WIC or SNAP
- Living in an extended-stay hotel
- Speaking only a foreign language
- Being non-white
6. Lighten those loads for social workers.
Social workers in almost every county seem to have more cases than they can reasonably handle. Visits are supposed to happen at regular intervals, but, because of heavy case loads, some kids don’t see their social workers for months.
7. Listen to the child’s voice.
When I was about 9 years old, a social worker came to my school to talk to me about a phone call I had made to the police. I told her that I did not want to go home. She did not listen to me. People don’t give kids enough credit. Too often, the adults project their own feelings and even words onto children. Children who are old enough to talk should be allowed to do so, without interruption or manipulation. Every child should have a guardian ad litem who is not employed by social services. Those GALs should not treat those kids like case numbers (really, no one should), and should be given every opportunity to determine what is truly in each child’s best interest.
8. Social services cannot continue to operate above the law.
In most instances, social services operates as a self-policing entity. There is little to no accountability for lying or falsifying evidence. When an issue arises, social services is allowed to investigate itself. This is not acceptable. Social workers should face penalties for lying. They should need warrants to enter homes. They should have to prove that removing a child is in that child’s best interest. Which brings me to my next point . . .
9. Children and their biological families deserve due process.
Due process refers to the legal way of ensuring that each case is handled to protect the rights of all people involved. No case may result in the unfair, arbitrary, or unreasonable treatment of an individual. There must be a clear and compelling reason for children to be removed from their homes. Once they are removed, everything must be done as efficiently and fairly as possible. The clock starts ticking at removal and includes weekends and holidays. Either side must prove its case definitively to not leave the child in limbo. If abuse is proven, address the problem or terminate rights as quickly as possible. If a claim is unsubstantiated, send the kids back home. Find kinship carers and approve or reject them quickly. There must be a way to vet kin that ensures that the children are not left in the care of strangers unnecessarily, while also ensuring that they are not in harm’s way.
10. Recruit foster parents who support reunification.
The primary goal of foster care is reunification with biological family. Social services needs to recruit foster parents who want to help other people build their families. A foster parent’s primary goal must be to take care of the child with the intention of returning him or her to the family of origin. Adoption may be a secondary goal. If a family’s primary goal is adoption, only children who are already legally free for adoption should be placed in their homes.
11. Recognize that race matters.
In 1994, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) was passed to prohibit agencies from using race as a factor in determining foster and adoptive placements. That is, for example, a black social worker couldn’t refuse to put a black child in a white home. Two years later, the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA) was passed, eliminating MEPA language about cultural considerations. The result is that many states do not provide any training for parents who are fostering or adopting transracially. Not all people are equipped to parent a child of a different race. While race should not be a reason to discriminate against anyone, it does need to be considered. Foster and adoptive parents must understand the additional responsibilities of transracial parenting.
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking I’m done. Sadly, I still have a long list of improvements to be made:
- Don’t just match children with empty beds. Think ahead to minimize moves. Somebody should be held responsible for making every attempt to find a good permanent placement.
- Realize that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really fit anyone.
- Normalize life for kids in care. Allow haircuts, playdates, sleepovers, and so on.
- Reduce the power that judges—who may not know any specifics about a case—have in the process.
- Provide support for safe and appropriate levels of openness in foster adoption.
- Make every decision with the best interest of the child as the first factor.
- Give foster parents a voice; allow them representation in court.
- Transition plans should be mandatory and transitions should be slow unless a child is in danger or being kicked out of the current home.
- Ensure that biological parents work their plans consistently. Make requests reasonable and provide support. Don’t order unnecessary services. However, if parents don’t put in the work, don’t let them continue indefinitely.
- Provide better services, including housing, for teens who are aging out.
- Eliminate anonymous calling.
- Provide better resources for families in the first place, so kids don’t have to be removed.
- If a placement is disrupted, look at “previously interested parties.”
- Improve the foster parent training and allow it to be done online.
- Don’t barter: Relinquishment should not be a way to avoid criminal charges.
Any you can add?