Ways to Limit Foster Care to Those Who Need It

Posted June 4, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog waystolimitfostercare 2017

The num­ber of chil­dren in fos­ter care grew dur­ing the past three years, ris­ing to near­ly 428,000 kids in 2015, up from 397,000 in 2012. The sto­ry behind the num­bers is com­plex, but experts sug­gest that three fac­tors account for much of the increase:

  1. more par­ents are strug­gling with opi­oids and oth­er drugs;
  2. more judges have reser­va­tions about juve­nile jus­tice facil­i­ties and make refer­rals to child wel­fare instead; and
  3. many child wel­fare agen­cies are grap­pling with inad­e­quate deci­sion-mak­ing practices.

In Casey’s work across the coun­try, we see that child wel­fare agen­cies are under pres­sure to help chil­dren and par­ents when drugs are involved,” says Tracey Feild, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group. But suc­cess­ful approach­es exist and can be imple­ment­ed. Does your com­mu­ni­ty have evi­dence-informed prac­tices? Are they fund­ed and read­i­ly avail­able? These are the ques­tions com­mu­ni­ties need to be asking.”

Feild explains the role of judges in ris­ing fos­ter care num­bers. As more judges under­stand the harm that juve­nile jus­tice facil­i­ties can do to chil­dren, more are order­ing chil­dren to child wel­fare place­ments instead.” There can be some ben­e­fits to that choice, she says, although she points out that serv­ing the needs of those chil­dren often is not a strength of child wel­fare agen­cies. She pro­pos­es an alter­na­tive. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, we believe com­mu­ni­ties should be invest­ing in diver­sion pro­grams — pro­grams that meet kids’ needs for men­tal or behav­ioral ser­vices or pro­vide help with fam­i­ly con­flict res­o­lu­tion while kids and teens live at home, rather than in fos­ter care or group placements.”

In addi­tion, child wel­fare agen­cies can improve deci­sion mak­ing to ensure that only chil­dren or teens whose safe­ty is at risk are brought into fos­ter care. Two key approach­es can help child wel­fare sys­tems make bet­ter deci­sions about child safety:

  • Improve how deci­sions are made at the front-end of the child wel­fare sys­tem. A recent study finds that near­ly four in 10 kids are involved in mal­treat­ment inves­ti­ga­tions by the time they are 18. We have to get bet­ter at inves­ti­gat­ing and sub­stan­ti­at­ing child wel­fare inves­ti­ga­tions,” Feild says, not­ing that Casey’s On The Front­line work is explor­ing how to do that.
  • Include more peo­ple in agency deci­sion mak­ing. We have learned through our two decades of part­ner­ing with child wel­fare sys­tems that child safe­ty and well-being are improved when par­ents, kin and fos­ter par­ents, and mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty are involved in help­ing iden­ti­fy solu­tions and resources for a child,” Feild says. One way to do that is to imple­ment Team Deci­sion Mak­ing, a process that brings more peo­ple to the table to deter­mine a fam­i­lies’ strengths and abil­i­ty to meet a child’s safe­ty needs. Oth­er approach­es involve boost­ing agen­cies’ sup­port for and engage­ment with kin and fos­ter care­givers who want the best for kids in their care.

We face today the same strug­gle that has dogged the field for decades: Ensur­ing that you leave at home kids who are safe and bring into fos­ter care those kids who are not. How­ev­er sim­ple that sounds in the­o­ry, it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult in prac­tice,” Feild says. As the num­ber of kids in care con­tin­ues to climb, we must redou­ble our efforts to help agen­cies imple­ment effec­tive approach­es to meet­ing kids’ needs at home or, if being removed from home is a pos­si­bil­i­ty, involv­ing in deci­sion mak­ing those who can iden­ti­fy a child’s best inter­ests. When near­ly four in 10 chil­dren encounter the child wel­fare sys­tem from birth to age 18, it is impor­tant to get this right.”

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