The fundamental failure of “Fostering Connections”

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The child welfare establishment couldn’t stop gushing over the Fostering Connections and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. It was sold as the panacea that would significantly reduce the dismal outcomes for foster youth. 

The law did make one real improvement: Providing federal aid for subsidized guardianship. There was other tinkering around the edges of that massive failure known as the foster care system.

But the change that got the most attention was the guarantee of federal foster care payments through age 21 for any state choosing to extend foster care for that long. There is some logic to this. Real parents usually don’t kick their kids to the curb as soon as they turn 18, so when the state is the parent it shouldn’t be doing so either.

But a key reason for all the enthusiasm is that it pumps more money into America’s foster care-industrial complex, the network of public and private child welfare agencies that lives off of a steady supply of foster children.

Another reason for all the enthusiasm is that the Fostering Connections Act mentioned not one word and spent not one dime on the far better alternative that threatens the foster-care industrial complex: Keeping young people out of the system in the first place.

Two studies from that bastion of child welfare establishment “scholarship,” the Chapin Hall Center for Children, shed some light on how this is all working out.  Both are based on a sample of foster youth from three Midwestern states that the center has been following for nearly a decade, since they were 17. 

One of the revealing studies came out nearly two years ago. The study found that extending foster care to age 21 reduced homelessness among young people aged 19-21.  I believe the scientific term for that is: Duh. But by age 23, these young people were just as likely to be homeless as those who aged out earlier.

As the authors themselves acknowledge:

If foster youth who are allowed to remain in care until age 21 are as likely to become homeless after they age out as foster youth for whom that is not an option, as our data would suggest, then perhaps states would be doing nothing more than postponing homelessness by extending foster care. 

But in the very next paragraph, the researchers return to their comfort zone: Do more of the same. From the report:

Alternatively, if extending foster care to age 21 does not prevent foster youth from becoming homeless after they age out, then perhaps we should provide these young people with supports, including housing assistance, beyond age 21.

But the latest study from this same sample suggests that’s not likely to work too well either. That study, released just last month, checks in on the young people at age 26.

The results are just like the results from all the other studies: dismal. The former foster youth lag far, far behind the population at large in education and income.  They are well ahead when it comes to homelessness, arrests and imprisonment.

And some of the young people are repeating a tragic cycle: More than 16 percent of the mothers have a child who is not living with them, compared to 2.2 percent for the general population. Eight percent of the young women in the study have at least one child in foster care.

So having pumped billions into extending foster care and more “services” and special programs to try to undo the damage foster care did in the first place, the result of doing more of the same is: More of the same.

It all reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon in which everyone is desperately trying to find ways to keep Snoopy warm when he sleeps on top of his doghouse on cold winter nights.  Finally, Linus suggests that Snoopy sleep inside the doghouse. The other characters just roll their eyes. 

The equivalent in child welfare would, of course, be taking some of those billions being spent on extending foster care and using it to stop more young people now “aging out” of foster care from ever aging in to the system in the first place.

The young people themselves seem to know it.  The Chapin Hall study also found that  as soon as the system gets rid of these former foster youth at age 18 or 21, a strikingly large proportion go home,  back to the “abusive” and “neglectful” parents from whom they were taken in the first place.

As the study puts it: “Despite having been removed from home and placed in foster care, almost all of the Midwest Study participants had maintained family ties and, in many cases, those ties were quite strong.”

? 21 percent had lived with one or both birth parents at some point since aging out.      

? 29 percent had lived with another relative at some point since aging out.

? 52 percent said they had a very close or somewhat close relationship with their mother.

? 31 percent said they had a very close or somewhat close relationship with their father.

? 46 percent said they had a very close or somewhat close relationship with their grandparents.

? 47 percent reported contact with their mothers at least once a week.

? 19 percent reported contact with their fathers at least once a week.

As the rest of the report makes clear, through its findings about how poorly these young people are faring, those connections have not been enough to undo the damage of foster care and help these young people overcome what foster care did to them. That’s not surprising, given what we know from other research, such as the two massive studies of 15,000 children which found that young people placed in foster care typically fared far worse in later life even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes.    

What the proponents of Fostering Connections failed to consider is that a roof over a young person’s head isn’t enough. He also needs to share the space under that roof with people who love him – not people who will throw him out as soon as the checks stop (a problem, it turns out, even for some adopted children).

What kind of outcomes would we get if we stopped taking a lot of these young people away, needlessly in the first place? What would the results be if we spent some of the money we’re lavishing on extending foster care on helping these young people reconnect and live together?

And what if Charles M. Schulz still were alive and he drew a sequel to that Peanuts cartoon?  Linus wouldn’t be working in child welfare.  The rest would be working for foster care agencies – or doing research for Chapin Hall.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org