What is foster care?

September 5th, 2018

Over the last four years, the number of children entering the foster care system has been on the rise. Although not yet at the historic high reached in 2002 (when the number of children reached a whopping 524,000), 2016 saw a continued rise in the number of children in foster care, reaching 437,500, up from 397,000 in 2012.

According to the United States Children’s Bureau, foster care is the “24-hour substitute care for children outside their own homes.” Children can be removed from their homes and placed into foster care due to “maltreatment, lack of care or lack of supervision,” and children of any age can be placed in foster care, although late teens can apply to be legally emancipated instead. Over the past several years, the age of children being removed from their homes has decreased. In 2006, the median age of a child placed in foster care was 7.5 years old. In 2016, the median age at the time of entering foster care was just 6.3 years old.

Foster care extends to many settings and situations, including the care of nonguardian relatives, nonrelative foster families, group homes, preadoptive homes, emergency shelters and residential facilities. Children may be placed in foster care for a short period of time — hours or days — or remain in foster care for years. The most common length of stay in foster care is one to eleven months, with 35 percent of children staying in that range. Another 28 percent of children will stay in foster care for 12 to 23 months. While reunification with the parents or legal guardians is ideal, only 55 percent of children in foster care have a case plan goal of leaving the system through reunification. Another 26 percent have the goal of being adopted.

As the number of children entering the foster care system rises, there are fewer resources to support them. The Chronicle of Social Change found that “at least half of the states in the U.S. have seen their foster care capacity decrease between 2012 and 2017. Either these states have fewer beds and more foster youth, or any increase in beds has been dwarfed by an even greater increase in foster children and youth.”

Foster care and families

Thirty-four percent of the children removed from their homes in 2016 were removed as a result of substance abuse by a parent. Areas in the country where the opioid epidemic has been at its worst have seen the most dramatic rise in children being removed from their homes and placed in foster care, according to The Atlantic.

“The continued trend of parental substance abuse is very concerning, especially when it means children must enter foster care as a result,” Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families, told NPR in a 2017 article.

Many of these children are entering foster care and staying for long stretches of time. However, this increased demand isn’t being met with an increase in volunteers to be foster parents. This imbalance is particularly evident in rural communities.

While each state sets its own requirements for certification, all families willing to take in foster children must undergo background checks, a home study (visit and inspection of the home), and training and have recommendations of community members on their behalf. It’s no surprise that such a time- and resource-intensive certification program discourages many potential foster families from even starting the process.

In Arkansas, several nonprofit organizations have sprung up to address this specific issue. Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime (CALL) is one such organization. CALL works to make foster family certification easier to navigate. For instance, CALL offers the required trainings at churches over the course of a weekend instead of one night a week for several weeks in government facilities. It also teaches churches and pastors to be advocates for foster children and to recruit foster families.

According to the Arkansas Times, between 2016 and 2017, 220 additional families became certified and took in foster children. While this is a modest number in comparison to the number of foster children in need, it points toward a hopeful trend among nonprofits and church groups who are working to recruit more foster families.

Being a foster child

Children removed from their homes may be leaving behind a bad situation, but they’re not guaranteed a significantly better one in foster care. Sherry Lachman, a former domestic policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, was placed in foster care when she was six years old. In an article for Time magazine, she writes, “I know what it feels like to be the child of the government. . . . In under two years, I was shuttled between three different homes. My first was an emergency placement. . . . Within a month, just enough time to grow attached to my warmhearted foster mother, I was removed.”

Lachman describes being placed with a family who had four biological children and being forced to stand aside as the “real” family took a photo together. Later, when she was sent from their home to another foster family, she found it was because the family had a vacation planned. “I learned that I was less valuable than a weeklong getaway.”

Children may also experience abuse and mistreatment while in foster care, resulting in even more dire situations, as Lachman details. A third of all homeless youth have been in foster care at some point, and less than three percent of foster children graduate from a four-year college. Foster children are also much more susceptible to human trafficking.

“Kids in foster care, they don’t really have parents or certain individuals or a caring safe adult that they can go to or that they can confide in,” said Kristina Fitz, a case manager with the Los Angeles-area Children’s Law Center, in a recent Reuters article. “They’re the quickest ones to fall into the hands of an exploiter.”

Lachman encourages everyday citizens to become advocates. “Let’s not give up,” she writes, “until every child receives the unconditional love and individual care they so desperately need — and that no government entity can come close to providing.”

Teens in foster care

Teenagers who find themselves in the foster care system face struggles that their peers are significantly less likely to face. Just getting accepted by a foster or adoptive family is less likely for teens than it is for younger children. Consider these factors from the National Foster Youth Institute:

  • High school dropout rates are three times higher for foster youth than other low-income children. 
  • Only 50 percent of teens in foster care will graduate from high school. 
  • Less than three percent of youths raised in foster care graduate from a four-year college. 
  • Youth in foster care consistently underperform in school compared to their general population peers. 

Once teenagers have “aged out” of foster care at 18, many of these newly minted young adults have no support system or social safety net. Eric Gilmore, founder of Immerse Arkansas, a nonprofit to support teens who have aged out of the system, has spoken about the lack of support for older foster youths. In a recent Atlantic article, Gilmore recalls one young woman telling him that “the day after her 18th birthday, she was given a bag of clothes, one night’s worth of bipolar medication, and a one-way ticket to some biological family members.” In the end, teens in foster care are far more likely than other teens to end up in the juvenile delinquent system and subsequently more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

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