Foster Care System Not Always Best Option for Kids

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Marie CohenSome of the most selfless and heroic people I have ever met are foster parents. These foster parents treat children as their own. They take them to the therapist, doctor and dentist. They attend back to school night and parent conferences at school.

They see themselves as part of the child's treatment team. They get to know the children's birth parents and often take the children to visit them. Perhaps most importantly, they understand the traumas their foster children have experienced and that their difficult behaviors are a response to these traumas.

Unfortunately, there are too many foster parents who, far from treating children as their own, refuse to visit their foster children's schools, pick them up when they are sick or take them to the doctor or therapist. One foster parent I worked with had never (in a whole year) been to the school of one of her foster children for a meeting, back to school night or performance. The child was never able to attend an evening activity at her school because the foster parent would not take her. The foster parent even refused to go to the school to pick up the child when she was throwing up.

Another foster parent refused to go to a meeting I was trying to schedule in order to improve the child’s school performance. She said, “If I cared, I would go, but I don’t care.” A third foster parent knew her two foster children were getting on a public bus to get to school. But she had no idea what bus they were taking, where their schools were or that the 15-year-old was letting the 6-year-old get off the bus and find her way to school on her own.

The impact on children of this type of neglect is hard to overestimate. It is bad enough for these young people to have their status as foster children constantly on display by being picked up for appointments by paid staff and missing activities that occur after school hours. Think of a child who is picked up and brought home from therapy by a social worker or aide. What is the use of a 45-minute session once a week if the foster parent does not communicate with the therapist?

More important is the lack of emotional support that these young people so desperately need. As is the rejection these children often suffer from foster parents who criticize their behavior or demand that a child be removed as soon as he or she talks back or misbehaves.

Anyone who has been a foster care social worker, at least in the District of Columbia, knows that some people foster for the money. Foster parents in the District of Columbia receive $1,000 to $1,500 per month depending on the age of the child and the level of their needs. Foster parents are expected to spend all their stipends meeting the expenses of caring for their children.

However, while the best foster parents often spend more than their stipends, some foster parents spend way less. Children in the homes of these foster parents may have only one school uniform or the foster parent makes them pay for necessities out of their personal allowance, which is not allowed. A foster parent who spends the bare minimum on the foster child can definitely siphon off money to pay her personal expenses and many do.

What can be done? We must tell foster parents what is expected of them. If they cannot or will not meet these expectations, their homes must be closed. In order to fill the gap this will cause, we either need to decrease demand for foster parents, increase supply or use another sort of residential option.

Many jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, have been very successful at reducing the demand for foster care by keeping children in their homes whenever possible and placing them with relatives when not. To increase supply, we can step up foster parent recruitment and try recruiting among people who have not traditionally been foster parents.

However, it is unlikely that these measures will fill the entire gap. Therefore, we should look to other residential options such as family-style group homes for some of the older, more troubled youth who tend not to thrive in family foster homes.

Marie Cohen (MSW, MPA) gave up a career as a policy analyst and researcher to become a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia for five years. She is now blogging at fosteringreform.blogspot.com and on Twitter @fosteringreform.