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By Howard Shiffman, MA

I recently reviewed an article sent to me by CWLA titled, “6 problems with the foster care system — and what you can do to help.” This article was written by Katie Dupere, a Social Good reporter at Mashable, covering activism, identities, and social impact. Many of us know that Mashable is one of the popular blogs for social media. As of November 2015, I have learned that Mashable had over 6,000,000 Twitter followers and over 3,200,000 fans on Facebook.

This piece peaked my interest because our country appears focused on improving the foster care system and with this comes a lot of new research and ideas on ways to accomplish this goal. We all recognize that the foster care system has problems, and I was curious as to what this reporter saw as the top areas needing attention. Here is a brief summary of these problems and solutions as reported by Ms. Dupere:

  1. Group homes are too often a go-to. The article reveals that more than 56,000 children in child welfare systems are living in group settings and this does not make advocates for children very happy. Advocates argue children have more success when placed in family settings from the start, and that defaulting to group settings as an initial placement is a poor practice. The voice that is heard about this problem often originates from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group headed by Tracey Field. He states, “We believe all kids who have to be removed from their families should be placed with other families, and that’s the most important criterion for placement-or should be.” Tracey Field continues with the following statement, “there’s one major obstacle when it comes to getting children out of group care: There are rarely enough foster families to achieve that goal.”My Comments: Most of us in the field know that finding a good family that is capable of providing a foster setting for youth and retaining them is a difficult task. We also know that there always seems to be a shortage of homes available for teens, especially those that have active behavioral acting out issues. The author suggests that one solution is for additional people to step up and consider being a foster parent. Yes, I agree, but the system has to find ways to support foster families in an improved and supportive way. Foster families need training, respite, timely crisis assistance, and perhaps financial incentives to compensate them. How can we argue against the fact that kids need a family? We can’t. But professionals placing children have yet to find the best ways to recruit, train, retain, and reward those citizens willing to open their homes to difficult children and youth. There is much work to be done in this area.
  2. Teens age out of the system without proper support. This article reveals that, the realities of aging out of the system are devastating for youth. One in five young people who age out of the system will become homeless. One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care. It’s also estimated that more than 40% of youth who age out won’t complete high school. We learn from the article that professionals recognize that many jurisdictions have recently extended foster care beyond age 18 to age 21, and this is because states are starting to understand that young adults are in need of much more support from caregivers and case workers. The author suggests that one of the solutions is for people to become a mentor for foster youth in their community and be a “vocal advocate for stronger transitional measures for young adults aging out.”My Comments: Who can argue with this solution? I fully agree, especially with becoming a vocal advocate for a system that can provide a stronger transition for our youth aging out. I recognize and am encouraged by the state’s efforts to expand foster care services to age 21 and beyond. I recently reviewed an article by OPEN MINDS titled, “Ohio To Extend Foster Care Services Through Age 21,” which shows that Ohio has passed legislation in this area. I strongly believe our government must continue to provide financial support for these youth and help them to connect to supportive adults, hopefully in a family setting.
  3. Foster parents need more support to achieve success. Tracey Field from the Casey Foundation states that, “With almost half of all children in the child welfare system living in foster homes with non-relatives, early support while families are forming relationships is especially key to curbing disruptions in placement. And because it’s common for foster kids to hop from placement to placement, addressing that trend through child and parental support is crucial.” The author offers us solutions surrounding the idea that we all must support the efforts of foster parents, advocate for this system, and donate to groups that are supportive of foster parents.My Comments: States need to recognize that prevention is paramount when it comes to helping children to remain in their families and altogether avoid extraction from their homes. That being said, who can deny that foster parents need more support! I addressed this earlier and stand firm that the system must change the methods that support those people willing to open their homes to children. I also believe that states need to get on board with the new technologies that are emerging that can predict the best foster family available to assure a better chance for children not to bounce around from home to home. Yes, this already exists, and you might want to check out an OPEN MINDS article I wrote about the technology advancements in the child welfare system or a white paper available by a company called Foster Care Technologies at their website (www.fostercaretech.com).
  4. There isn’t enough focus on reunification. The author states that we speak about adoption or aging out as main options after foster care, and she reminds us that reunification with a parent is often overlooked or not considered. The author, Ms. Dupere offers us the following solution, “Reframe how you talk and think about foster care. Don’t assume parents who have children taken away are forever unable to provide for those children.”My Comments: There does not seem to be a lot of information or stories in the media, or research for that matter, on reunification. I like that the author of this article points out that reunification is a viable option and should not be ignored. From my professional experience and my contact with caseworkers presently working in the human services field, reunification is a goal that is in the forefront of their actions. In order for reunification to increase, payers must financially support services geared to help solve family issues and provide assistance with the social determinants that contribute to the problems family members experience.
  5. Children’s needs often go unheard. The author points out, as do the professionals she interviewed, that the reason for children not being heard is the anger being displayed by the child in articulating their needs. This blocks adults from actually grasping the needs. The solution offered is one of a request for all involved in the foster care system to understand the anger as a result of the trauma experienced by the child, emanating from their past and present experience of being removed from their family of origin.My Comments: I agree. We must all try to see what is behind the anger and frustration experienced by foster care children. However, I recognize that this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Hearing the voice of children regarding their needs and feelings has to occur from the onset of placement and not just during episodes or explosions of pent up feelings. Our system needs to incorporate methods and systems for allowing children to participate in voicing their opinions and feelings in a constructive manner. They need regular opportunities to participate in their treatment commensurate with their age and level of maturity.
  6. The system is filled with too many rules, regulations and players. The author of this article states that there are often a lot of players in the lives of foster children such as guardians, advocates, social workers, and courts. “You have to go through 12 layers of people to find the right person to talk to about something,” Field representing the Casey Foundation viewpoint says. “You are bound by the rules of the system — and they are not the normal rules a parent would have for a child.” The author states that one solution is to “become a court-appointed special advocate for foster youth, if the new role fits your life. A special advocate in the courts ensures foster youth are getting all their legal needs met by getting to know those children and their situations, and then vocalizing their opinions of a positive and sensitive care plan in the courts.”My Comments: I am a huge supporter of CASA, and I believe they do provide a foster child with additional assistance. But, this solution is not really addressing the main concern that foster children are part of a very complex system with many professionals involved and that the child is often engaged in multiple systems. I believe that solutions for this problem revolve around the case coordination function and the cooperation of the interdisciplinary team of players. I think that the foster care system has to be revised to address this problem. Someone needs to be the “supreme coordinator” of the child’s case. A neutral person that coordinates, forces collaboration, keeps everyone on the same page, eliminates duplication and conflicts of systems interests, etc. When a court ordered settlement around a state social service system fails, the judge appoints a special agent of the court to assure compliance. This is the idea that I am drawing from in suggesting a neutral person to assure the best decision making for the child. Yes, I recognize that this is expensive but the only solution I can come up with. Perhaps you have a creative solution that you are willing to email me!

I believe that we will see more journalists addressing these types of issues being faced by children in the foster care industry. I will keep you informed regarding their solutions and interviews with professionals in our field. If you come across articles of this nature, please  forward them to me at hshiffman@openminds.com.

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