The Fatal Flaw in Pew’s Foster Panel

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The foster care system is broken and needs substantial overhaul. That much is evident. It is also clear that most of the recommendations that have been made over the years for improving that system have failed.

Which brings us to the latest effort, from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

The commission released a report last month recommending significant changes in foster care financing and ways to strengthen the courts to better help foster children. As a former foster child, my concern is not about how many of the recommendations will become policy or if they would work. Both are impossible to predict.

What disturbs me is the composition of the commission.

I agree that improving foster care must be a priority. I lived in more than 15 foster homes. I understand the misery of feeling alone, unwanted and unloved. I have experienced the difficulties of life both in and after foster care.

The 16-member commission includes one foster care alumna. In the old days, people of color called this kind of representation “tokenism.”

The commission lacks the alumni participation to be credible. The participation of alumni at the table of power is essential to the design of foster care policy, practice and resource allocation. Yet the views of foster care alumni are barely included.

Instead, a cartel of the usual suspects has commandeered the process, which will result in the same old sorry “reforms” being rained upon foster kids – without the input of those in care or formerly in care, who are the real experts.

Few of us would endorse the findings of a civil rights commission composed of 15 Caucasians and one person of color. Few would embrace the conclusions of a women’s commission composed of 15 men and one woman. Why would anyone embrace the views of a foster care commission that systemically denies the importance of a representative alumni role and partnership?

In my communications with the Pew Commission more than a year ago, I urged that more alumni be included on the commission. The commission staff informed me that “focus groups” would gather the input of alumni and that views from those now and formerly in care would be gathered through the Internet. Therefore, there was no need for increased alumni participation on the commission.

The commission apparently doesn’t realize that for many alumni, this patronizing approach renders its findings suspect. The composition of the commission cannot reflect the views of the population it purports to represent. Rather, its elitism and exclusion continue a pattern of stifling participation, denying empowerment and marginalizing its consumers.

If the Pew Commission were a business, millions of former foster kids would boycott it.

While consumer inclusion might seem radical to the Pew Commission, the involvement of consumers on boards and commissions is not uncommon in other fields. The United States Commission on Civil Rights, for instance, is a diverse and balanced group of eight people, including Caucasians, African-Americans, a Native American and a person with a disability. The Michigan Council on Developmental Disabilities includes people with developmental disabilities, family members of people with such disabilities, and professionals from agencies charged with improving opportunities for developmentally disabled people.

Similarly, former foster children must be an integral part of the decision-making process for improving foster care policy and practice. Clearly, those in charge of foster care have not done a good job on their own. One thousand blue-ribbon panels made up of non-consumers cannot fully know how to improve the foster care system.

I urge Congress to take no action on the Pew recommendations until a commission of foster care alumni reviews the report and issues its own findings. We cannot continue to harm foster children through ignorance and arrogance. Otherwise, we risk following the adage, “If you want more of the same, keep doing what you’re doing.” 

John Seita is on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. His most recent book is Kids Who Outwit Adults.