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Many people believe, as I did in 1992, that child welfare workers rescue children from homes where they are being beaten, burned, starved, and sexually violated, and place them in loving homes where they can grow and thrive. Some do. Yet the single most common factor in families whose children are placed in foster care is not cruelty or rage or sexual perversion; it is poverty. In 2012, about 16 million children in the U.S. lived below the poverty line. Child abuse and neglect occur across all racial, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural lines, yet most children who enter foster care are from impoverished homes. (In the last nineteen years, I recall just two cases in which a parent did not qualify for a court-appointed attorney.) Three quarters of the children who come into foster care have suffered neglect. One in 11 has been sexually abused. One in six, the victim of physical abuse.
The little girl—let’s call her Cali—who fled with a stranger to Long Beach could have ended up dead, but she didn’t. She recently said, “I never felt afraid. I knew I could take care of myself.” She was 10 years old when she first came to live in our home. She and her siblings were camping in a tent with their mom who was pregnant with her fifth child. Mom was hauled to jail on a warrant for unpaid traffic citations, and the children came into care. Eighty-pound Cali arrived with a skirt rolled up in one pocket of her jeans and a shirt rolled up in the other. Everything about her seemed older, from her confident posture to her budding breasts and sassy talk. As I offered her a hug before bedtime, she said, “Call 503-655-8331 and see if my mom is going to be recogged.”
Her mother had been arrested so many times, Cali knew the phone number of the jail. She wanted to know if her mother would be released on her own recognizance. I thought, “This little girl needs a mom.”
ourts have long held that parents have a fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit, and that social and cultural norms for attention, affection, supervision, and discipline vary widely. The intersection of the rights of parents with the child’s rights to safety, permanency, and well-being is at the heart of every child welfare case.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” It’s easy to say that children who are beaten or sexually abused should be removed from those situations, but what of the child left napping in the car while the mother runs into the mini-mart? Or the school counselor who reports that a child has chronic head lice and never brings a snack? What about the mother who loses her temper at the park?
In the U.S. a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds. In 2012, there were more than 3.3 million reports of child abuse. Of those, child welfare agencies confirmed 678,810 cases of abuse or neglect, and in each of them the huge engine of child welfare revved up its motors to respond.
Every year, roughly the same number of children enter and exit foster care, keeping the annual census around 400,000 children at any given time. In 2012, children entering foster care numbered 254,162, while 241,254 left. The child welfare industry employs more than one million adults to serve foster children and their families at an annual cost of $15 to $20 billion. In a 2014 book about the broken foster care system, To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care , author Cris Beam writes, “And yet nobody—not the kids, not the foster or biological parents, not the social workers, the administrators, the politicians, the policy experts—think the system is working.”
The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) requires child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to help the birth parents remedy safety concerns, yet only 11 percent of federal child welfare dollars are earmarked to prevent children from coming into foster care. This means the majority of support is available only after a child is removed from his or her family.
In Oct. 25, 1992, my husband and I had completed 24 hours of foster parenting training, undergone a background check, and had a home visit with a social worker before receiving our certificate of approval. I was required to complete 10 hours of annual training but could meet those requirements with self-monitored activities such as videos or books. Most states average about 25 hours of in-service training, but Minnesota requires only six.
A 2004 study of foster homes in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Oregon reported that the average foster provider’s length of service was less than eight months. The National Center for Youth Law found that there is little research for the efficacy of foster parent training. Many foster parents are unprepared or ill-equipped to deal with the challenging needs of children whose early deprivation or abuse has resulted in complex psychological, medical, and educational needs. This can lead to high turnover rates that make it difficult to have highly qualified, well-trained adults available to provide foster care.