Is There a Fix for the Foster Care System?

October 29, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


As I mentioned last time, Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s article “Fixing the Foster Care System,” isn’t about, well, fixing the foster care system.  That’s because, as she strongly suggests, there is no fix.

I’ve said it many times before, trying to protect children from abusive or neglectful adults is difficult to the point of impossibility.  Even under ideal circumstances, knowing the difference between a lack of resources and child neglect can be a crap shoot.  Likewise, knowing what sort of abuse is sufficient for a parent to lose a child isn’t always easy.  Should spanking be all it takes?  Some people think so, but, whatever your particular take on the matter, abuse meted out by a parent must be considered against the trauma of separation from that parent.

And that’s if the circumstances are ideal, which they literally never are.  Invariably it seems, case workers are overworked and underpaid.  They have too many cases and are paid less than others similarly educated and experienced who don’t work for state CPS agencies.  Paperwork requirements pile more work on caseworkers who have too little time as it is.  Time and again, we see them filling out forms rather than visiting the homes of children who may or may not be at risk of harm.  Riley gets that.

 The truth is that there is a shortage of good foster homes, public and private caseworkers are overworked and undertrained, and many foster parents are viewed as glorified babysitters, undeserving of information about allergies, abuse histories, or other vital information in caring for children. The result is a system that takes shortcuts when it comes to children’s safety and well-being…

Of course, money plays a role in all this. There are those who argue that because the federal government pays states when kids are in foster care or group homes but does not do as much to compensate them for the preventive services that keep kids out of those situations, we are effectively incentivizing states to warehouse children. But caseworkers also have plenty of incentive to leave children in their homes—removing kids is a bureaucratic morass, requiring court hearings and more paperwork, not to mention the need to find a place for the child besides the caseworker’s cubicle. 

All true, but…

What’s also true is that we often see CPS agencies bending over backward to do more work, expend more money, use more resources, etc., all to hound perfectly fit parents.  How many times have we seen agencies throw multiple caseworkers, managers, lawyers and more at parents only to eventually learn that no abuse had occurred and that the agency had ignored clear signs indicating that, for example, a medical condition had caused a child’s bruising or bone fracture.  If caseworkers are overworked, and they are, how to explain their threats against parents who did nothing more than allow a fully capable child to go to a park alone?  Don’t they have better things to do?

In short, what Riley neglects in her sole focus on money is that governmental agencies have a way of arrogating power to themselves.  CPS agencies are often guilty of running roughshod over the rights of parents and children alike and for the purpose of taking children from their homes.  Doing so may be a “bureaucratic morass,” but if it is, why are caseworkers so enthusiastic about diving in?

As state senators and veteran CPS managers have told us, the flow of federal money to the states occasioned by the 1998 Adoption and Safe Families Act radically altered the behavior of child welfare agencies.  After the ASFA’s effective date, states were far more likely to take children from parents, push them into foster care and then into adoption for the simple reason that Washington was paying them to.  That’s one thing that’s got to change and preferably stop altogether.  Why does the national government have to stick its paws into what is a quintessentially state matter?

Now, I’m sure Riley would respond that taking federal money out of the process wouldn’t remove all money from the process and therefore monetary incentives for particular behaviors.  She’s right.  But then the question would become what incentives states would be offering, i.e. what actions by state agencies would be rewarded.  It’s a fair question.  What metrics would be applied to CPS?  More children taken from parents?  Fewer?

But what if states focused on providing services to parents?  Numerous veteran CPS workers have begged for exactly that over the years.  Why not put the “Services” back into Child Protective Services?  A lot of parents simply don’t know what’s available to them for children in need.  Why not make CPS their go-to agency for information on healthcare, education, psychological counselling, etc.?  Instead of being terrorized by the very thought of CPS, what if parents felt confident that the state would actually help them?

Some kids need to have different homes, but many parents just need assistance to care for their children properly. 

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