How Many Children Are in the Foster Care Twilight Zone?

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform executive director Richard Wexler head shot

richard wexlerWhen cases involving children needlessly torn from their families would arise in Texas — like this one and this one — advocates for taking away more children had a stock reply: The cases are aberrations, they would claim, Texas takes away relatively few children.

But thanks to a report issued late last year we know that’s not true. In fact, when Texas tells the federal government how many children it places in foster care in a given year, Texas simply leaves out nearly two-thirds of the placements.

The state is cheating, big-time; keeping the majority of its placements out of official statistics.

The good news, to the extent that there is any, is that these cases involve kinship care — placing children with relatives or family friends. That’s almost always the least harmful form of foster care. The bad news: It’s still foster care. It’s still disrupting a child’s life and taking the child from her or his own parents.

Texas is not alone. Many states hide children in what amounts to a foster care Twilight Zone.

In the placements at issue, the child protective services agency “suggests” that the family “voluntarily” place the child with a relative — without all the fuss and bother of going to court. But does anyone really believe that, if the family refuses, the caseworker will then say “Oh, OK, never mind; sorry to bother you”?

As a “roundtable” of “stakeholders” convened by the Texas Supreme Court Children’s Commission pointed out in the report, these placements “are not really voluntary when the alternative is removal of the child.” The roundtable participants complained about the “coerciveness” of the placements and noted that, since the state doesn’t have to go to court first, “the parent does not have a lawyer or understand the child welfare or legal system.”

The federal government recognizes that these placements are, in fact, foster care.

Federal regulations define foster care as:

“24 hour substitute care for all children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the State agency has placement and care responsibility.”

Note that it does not say “custody” of the agency, only “placement, care or supervision responsibility” (question 21).

The regulations make no exceptions for so-called “voluntary” placements or placements with relatives.

The only real difference between this kind of placement and foster care is a euphemism: Texas calls them “parental child safety placements.”

[Related: Stop TANF from Being the Child Welfare Slush Fund]

And the number of such placements is staggering. Officially, of the 415,000 children trapped in foster care on any given day, 120,000 are in kinship care. But a 2002 study, cited in this Child Trends report, suggests that, at that time, another 280,000 to 417,000 children may have been in the foster care Twilight Zone.

In Texas 63 percent of children removed from their homes wind up in these off-the-books placements.

Why does it matter?

  • It allows advocates pushing to take away ever more children to claim that child welfare systems are more restrained in using their power than they really are.
  • It means we have no good way of knowing how many children really are in foster care and whether we are making any progress in reducing that number.

There’s also an Orwellian twist:

In theory, federal law requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together before resorting to foster care. In fact, this has never been enforced and the law is full of loopholes. But Texas actually claims that, if they put a child in foster care and call it a “Parental Child Safety Placement” they’ve met the “reasonable efforts” requirement — because, supposedly, that’s not foster care.

Unfortunately, some people who should know better are inadvertently encouraging the deception. Child Trends published a new Issue Brief in July on these types of placements, based on interviews with various “stakeholders,” to try to get a handle on how and why such placements are used.

But there are two key flaws in the report. First, the stakeholders did not include any birth parents who “voluntarily” surrendered their children to these placements. Worse, the report repeatedly refers to the practice as “‘kinship diversion,’ in which children are placed with relatives as an alternative to foster care” (emphasis added).

But it’s not an alternative to foster care. It’s foster care.

The federal Administration for Children and Families should start enforcing its definition of foster care, demanding that these kinds of kinship care placements be included in data submitted by the states, and penalizing states that cheat.

In the meantime, everyone please repeat after me:

Kinship care is foster care.

Kinship care is foster care.

Kinship care is foster care.

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

More related articles:

Child Maltreatment History Should Be a Bar to Being a Foster Parent

From New York to LA: The best of Our Foster Care Coverage

GAO Calls for Reducing Barriers to College for Foster and Homeless Youth


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