By Christine James-Brown
For those of us who work in the nonprofit arena, making a case for investing in programs and efforts that help those less fortunate is central to what we do. Even with great research, it can be difficult to convince others that investing money and time, in a smart and strategic way, will make a difference for vulnerable people.
That’s why it was so exciting to see recent figures released by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services showing a significant decline in the number of children in foster care. In a decade’s time, the number of children in the system declined from 540,000 to around 424,000 this year.
While the total is still appallingly large, the drop is sizeable enough to be more than an aberration. That drop is still good news and the result of a multitude of factors, but at its roots, it is the product of a sustained and coordinated effort to change how children are treated. The numbers are proof positive that investing in families – through the collective efforts of child welfare professionals, legislators, nonprofits, and state and local governments – works.
How did it happen? As the number of children in foster care exploded, major national and grassroots public relations and direct service efforts evolved that put the issue on the radar for more Americans. The idea that the nation’s foster care population was greater than several mid-sized U.S. cities, such as Miami and Kansas City, was inconceivable and unacceptable. Unfortunately, foster children are often faceless to the larger community.
But as the issue received more attention, a larger effort was made to put a face on the issue.
Public awareness events grew, such as Heart Galleries, National Adoption Day, National Adoption Month, Wednesday’s Child, Angels for Adoption, and National Foster Parent Month. Celebrities like Bruce Willis and Patti LaBelle provided needed voices. Major funders – like the Dave Thomas Foundation, Freddie Mac Foundation, and Casey Foundation – gave the issue wings. Legislators joined in as well, forming the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, implementing the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and passing the landmark 2008 Fostering Connections Act. And of course, the national and local nonprofit and child welfare communities advocated for their young wards and invested in their success.
The growing chorus led to serious discussions and debates about: preventing abuse and neglect, increasing kinship care, emphasizing reunification, the effects of aging out, who could and should be foster parents, what to do with foster children who are older or have special needs, racial disparities, and adoption as a goal for children.
The debates were good because they caused movement on all fronts. Today, more children are reunited with their parents when possible, thanks to prevention efforts through models like Healthy Families America.
Also, more people now consider being foster and adoptive parents. Increasingly, similar financial and service supports are being provided to relatives to be foster parents, ensuring that more relatives, especially grandparents, are able to take in and provide care to their young. Finally, the concept of family-centered foster care has grown and contributed to moving children out of the system faster.
Overall, the results are fewer children in foster care, greater awareness of the issue, and more parents who have honed their parenting skills.
Even with this great success, 423,000 children remain in foster care. Also, the new numbers show that a majority of the success came from a few large states that had major improvements.
We cannot rest on our laurels or lessen our investments just because we’ve tasted success. We have to learn from the successes of those states. After all, hundreds of thousands of children still need us to do our best on their behalf since they have been failed by many in their short lives.
In the long run, more attention and focus must continue to be put on prevention of child abuse and neglect as a means to keep more children out of the system and in safe, healthy homes. To do so, proven prevention services such as parenting classes, home visiting, appropriate housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, and child care assistance must be more available and accessible. Also we must continue to develop higher quality, more responsive systems of services for all children, as it’s always a challenge to get this diverse system of services to work together better.
A White House Conference on Children and Youth is a long-overdue means to convene a national discourse on the topic of vulnerable children and would be a means to evolve important debates about helping children succeed. In a decade that has seen much forward movement for foster children, it’s time for the president to embrace a White House Conference, giving it the green light to move forward. A dialogue that engages leaders and stakeholders from around the nation is needed to continue to build cohesiveness and drive system and thought changes.
The evidence that we are headed in the right direction is in the numbers. But children are more than numbers, and we must not let the digits obscure the fact that we need to forge ahead. We need to continue evolving the way we work together, strengthening and enhancing the services we provide, and having constructive, inclusive and honest discussions. The ultimate proof of our success rests with the 423,000 children who are still counting on us.
Christine James-Brown is president of the Child Welfare League of America.