Facts to move children and families forward.
By Mary Bissell and Rob Geen
What prevents the U.S. child welfare system from doing all it can to protect children and support families? Complex social problems? Insufficient funding? Staff turnover? The truth is, the inability to address these barriers is rooted in a much larger problem--a chronic lack of public will. Despite its best efforts, child welfare faces daunting challenges in making policymakers and the public understand and commit to fixing the system.
Child welfare agencies and service providers rarely have the time, expertise, or capital to invest in strategic communications that promote their successes. And media coverage rarely moves beyond crisis-driven headlines to a more meaningful discussion of the programs and policies necessary to stop a crisis before it occurs. The unfortunate result is that the public understands little about foster care--and the information it does have is often based on anecdotes or stereotypes.
To build support for child welfare innovations, the public first needs accurate information. The following test is designed to help you educate the opinion leaders in your community to distinguish foster care fact from fiction.
Most abused or neglected children end up in foster care. FALSE.
In 2002, more than 3 million children were reported to child welfare agencies for abuse and neglect. About 900,000 of these children were confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect, but only one-fifth were actually placed in foster care, the last resort when they can no longer remain safely with their parents.
In fact, most cases of abuse or neglect aren't serious enough for children to be taken from their families. Instead, child welfare agencies should provide supportive services to stabilize the family. Although child welfare agencies provided these preventive services to more than 1.7 million children in 2002, about 40% of child victims of abuse and neglect received no services at all.
Most children are in foster care because of physical abuse. FALSE.
Nearly 58% of children in foster care have been removed from their families for neglect (for example, their parents have left them unsupervised at home or failed to take care of their basic needs). About 19% of all children who are maltreated are physically abused, 10% are sexually abused, and 7% psychologically abused. The remaining 6% of maltreated children experience educational or medical neglect, cases in which a parent fails to ensure that a child goes to school or receives proper medical care.
Foster parents rarely end up adopting the children in their care. FALSE.
Of the children adopted in 2002, 61% were adopted by their foster parents. Family members adopted another 24%. "Like all parents, foster parents form strong emotional attachments to the children in their care," says Courteney Holden of Voices for Adoption. "Foster parents and children often become forever families by choosing adoption."
There is a national shortage of foster parents. TRUE.
With the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic, the number of children in foster care doubled between 1986 and 1996, while the number of available foster care homes declined. "This trend is expected to continue as an increasing number of foster parents adopt children in their care," says Karen Jorgenson of the National Foster Parent Association. "We now need 130,000 more foster homes to meet the demand."
Grandparents and other relatives can't become foster parents. FALSE.
Increasingly, child welfare agencies are relying on placements with caring relatives for abused and neglected children. Grandparents and other relatives currently provide care for nearly one-third of all children in foster care. "Sometimes, children move through the child welfare system without anyone realizing that the solutions to their care lie right there with the children's families' networks," says CWLA President and CEO Shay Bilchik. "Grandparents and other relatives should be the first line of defense."
Most children stay in foster care for a long time. FALSE.
Even a week is an endless amount of time to a child, but most abused and neglected children do not spend their entire childhoods in foster care. Of the children who left foster care in 2002, 19% spent less than a month in foster care, and 51% spent less than a year in care.
Unfortunately, however, more than one-fourth of children in foster care have been there for at least two years, and 17% of children have been in foster care for five years or more. Equally distressing, an estimated 10% of maltreated children who go home to their parents return to foster care within the year.
Most children in foster care move around a lot. FALSE.
Although media accounts often focus on the experiences of children with multiple foster care placements, 84% of children who have been in foster care for a year or less have had two or fewer placements (and the first placement often is an emergency shelter). Child welfare agencies have far to go, however, to minimize placement disruptions. "Each additional move after the trauma of children's separation from their families only adds to their sense of loss, confusion, and uncertainty," says consultant Madelyn Freundlich, formerly of Children's Rights Inc.
All children in foster care get federal support. FALSE.
A child's eligibility for federal foster care funds is based on whether the child enters care from a low-income family rather than on the child's individual needs. More than 40% of children in foster care are not eligible for federal foster care support. According to Rutledge Hutson of the Children's Defense Fund, "The federal government should have a role in responding to the needs of all children who have been abused or neglected, not just those from very poor families."
In most cases, siblings in foster care are placed together. TRUE.
About 60% of children in foster care are placed together with some or all of their siblings, but it still doesn't happen often enough, according to April Curtis, an Illinois advocate for foster youth. "Agencies also need to do more to help siblings maintain close relationships when they can't be placed together," Curtis notes. "Many states only allow siblings two one-hour visits per month. That adds up to only one day per year."
Foster parents are in it for the money. FALSE.
"There's a difference between doing it for the money and needing money to do it," says Margie Chalofsky of Washington, DC's Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center. "The real question is whether that foster parent is a good parent and the child is well-placed in their home." Foster parents point out that foster care stipends rarely cover even children's basic expenses. Nationally, the average monthly foster care payment for a 9-year-old child is $420. The average middle-class family spends about $780 on a child of the same age, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Child maltreatment is higher in African American families. FALSE.
There is no difference in the incidence of child maltreatment based on race. African American children, however, are significantly overrepresented in foster care, comprising 15% of the U.S. child population, but 41% of the foster care population. "The child welfare system needs to better understand exactly why children of color are disproportionately represented in foster care before we can improve these children's lives," says Ralph Bayard of Casey Family Programs in Seattle.
Abuse by foster parents is rare. TRUE.
Whether perpetuated by birthparents, foster parents, or any other adults, child abuse is wrong. Well-publicized tragedies of children abused in foster care, however, often distort public perceptions of the benefits that foster families provide to children who have experienced abuse and neglect before entering foster care. Of children who experienced abuse or neglect in 2002, 81% were abused by their parents, but less than 1% reported abuse by their foster families.
Foster parents are not permitted to contact a child's birthparents. FALSE.
In addition to caring for a child, foster parents can play an important role in helping birthparents enhance their parenting skills and improve their relationships with their children. "Foster parents are often needed as mentors to birthfamilies," explains Chiemi Davis of Casey Family Programs. "More and more frequently, they are becoming key members of a team that can include social workers, relatives, and, of course, the youth."
Child welfare workers earn about the same as public school teachers. FALSE.
The average starting salary of a child welfare worker is $22,000, one-third less than the average beginning salary of public school teachers. Given the difficult working conditions and poor compensation, it's no surprise that 22% of child welfare workers leave their jobs every year. The average tenure of a child welfare worker is less than two years.
Child welfare workers have higher caseloads than they should. TRUE.
Nationally, average caseloads for child welfare workers are double the accepted standards for good social work practice. In some jurisdictions, caseloads are three to four times the accepted standard.
Most children have bad experiences in foster care. FALSE.
"The most negative part of foster care is usually not where you're placed, it's how other people judge you," says Letitia Silva, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who spent time in foster care. "Too often, people treat children in foster care like they did something wrong."
Although every child's foster care experience is different, it's not always bad. According to the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, the first comprehensive study of children in the child welfare system, more than 85% of children in foster care reported they like the people they are living with, feel like part of their foster family, and believe their foster parents care about them.
The U.S. foster care system faces persistent challenges, but real improvements are impossible unless new policies are grounded in a better public understanding of the realities facing child welfare workers, foster families, and children. Until the public can understand the daily challenges of the child welfare system, we will not have policies that allow children and families at risk to reach their full potential.
Mary Bissell is a Fellow at the New America Foundation. Rob Geen is Director of the Child Welfare Research Program at the Urban Institute. Both organizations are in Washington, DC.
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