The State of the Children: An Examination of Government-Run Foster Care

Policy Reports | Social

No. 210
Friday, August 01, 1997
by Conna Craig and Derek Herbert

Government-Run Foster Care: An Overview

Figure I - Children in Foster Care

For most of America's history, the care of parentless children was handled by private, often faith-based, entities. This was to the benefit of needy children. Privately funded organizations must prove their efficacy to stay in business; funders will cease to support a charity that is failing its constituents. By contrast, today's government-run foster care is essentially funded to fail. The system has developed into a monopoly run by state and county bureaucracies, but substantially directed through funding by the federal government. Government-operated child welfare is charged with the care of the nation's most vulnerable citizens. One major aspect of child welfare is foster care, a system of "temporary" substitute care designed to protect children whose biological parents cannot or will not provide safe homes for them.1 More than half a million American children are in government-run foster care today. About 650,000 children will spend all or part of 1997 in this system, placed in foster homes, group homes, children's shelters or other institutions.2 [See the sidebar on What Is Foster Care?]

The system is expensive. In fact, Americans spend more on the foster care "industry" than we spend on major league baseball.3

  • This year America will spend $12 billion on public agency (that is, government-operated) child welfare.4
  • A year in foster care costs an estimated $17,500 - not including counseling and treatment programs for biological parents or foster and adoptive parent recruitment.5
  • The Child Welfare League of America estimated in 1994 that the annual per-child cost for group home care was $36,500.6
  • In Michigan, per-year, per-child costs for institutional placements can average $42,000.7

"By most accounts, the government-run foster care system is failing."

By most accounts, the system is failing. The well-publicized stories of child death in foster care offer the most vivid examples of this failure; an Arizona newspaper called a stay in foster care more dangerous than being a fighter pilot.8 Far more frequent, however, are the stories of loving foster parents who want to adopt a child who has been a part of their family for years, but are turned down because their race does not match that of the child, or the stories of generous, compassionate families willing to adopt an older or handicapped child who are turned away by a state system that is too inefficient to respond to their interest.

The data on foster care outcomes paint a dreary picture of a childhood in limbo, or sometimes lost. Despite a 1980 Congressional mandate that every foster child have a "permanency plan" - for reuniting the foster child with the biological family, or preparing for adoption or another outcome - established within 18 months after the child enters substitute care, permanency planning has not guaranteed permanent homes for children.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 1993 that one in four foster children remains in care 4.3 years or more; one in 10 stays in care longer than seven years.9
  • About 30 percent of foster children who were in care at the end of fiscal 1990 had experienced three or more different placements (different foster homes, group homes or shelters) during the preceding three years.10
  • Although most foster children who leave the system return to their biological families, about one-third of those children eventually reenter the system.11
  • Some 15,000 youngsters will reach the age of majority this year and leave foster care without a permanent family - for example, New York City alone will discharge some 4,000 foster care "graduates" out of the system when they reach the age of majority.12

"Child abuse, neglect and drug use by parents account for much of the foster child population."

Why Children Enter Foster Care. Entry rates are driven in part by the number of substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect. According to the National Committee of Prevent Child Abuse, reports of abuse and neglect increased steadily during the past 10 years (45 percent nationwide since 1987), but increased by only 1 percent between 1995 and 1996.13 In 1996, 31 percent of the reports, or an estimated 969,000 cases, were substantiated - that is, abuse or neglect was found to have occurred and thus led to the involvement of a child in protective services (including in-home care such as family preservation and out-of-home foster care).14 The number of substantiated cases fell from 1994 to 1995, and again from 1995 to 1996; in fact, the 1996 figure was the lowest since 1991.15

An oft-cited reason for the growth of the foster care population is increasing rates of drug use among women. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services Internet site attributes the heightened numbers of children in foster care to "an explosion of substance abuse and domestic violence."16 In 1990 the House Committee on Ways and Means reported that officials in New York City attributed a 300 percent increase in child abuse and neglect by substance abusing parents to the introduction of crack cocaine.17 A longitudinal study of foster care in Oregon found that 54 percent of parents whose children entered care between 1991 and 1993 were abusing drugs or alcohol.18 A National Institute on Drug Abuse survey designed to estimate the drug use of women who gave birth in 1992 found that "221,000, or 5.5 percent of the women used some illicit drug during pregnancy," including an estimated 34,800 who used crack.19 The American Public Welfare Association reported that in 1990:20

  • Just over 50 percent of children who entered foster care entered because of abuse or neglect.
  • Another 20 percent of children entered the system due to parental abuse or parental condition such as incarceration, drug addiction and/or illness.
  • Only 2 percent entered due to a handicap or disability of the child, and 11 percent due to status offense (such as truancy) by the child.
  • The other 15 percent entered for other or unknown reasons.

"Fewer children are leaving foster care than are coming in."

How the System Has Expanded. The size and scope of America's public agency child welfare system has grown exponentially in the past three decades. As of 1990, the number of children in substitute care was growing at a rate 33 times greater than the U.S. population of children in general.21 As Figure I shows, the substitute care population grew from 262,000 at the end of fiscal 1982 to 468,000 at the end of fiscal 1994.22 The Institute for Children found that on the final day of fiscal year 1996, with all states reporting, there were 526,112 children in substitute care.23 As noted above, we believe that 650,000 children will spend all or part of this year in foster care.24

Fewer children are leaving foster care than are coming in. For each of the years from 1983 to 1994, more children entered than exited the system.25 The American Public Welfare Association has documented how the growth in the substitute care population has been influenced more by declines in exit rates than increases in the number of children entering care.26

A Growing Proportion of Racial Minorities. The Children's Bureau reports that girls and boys are represented almost equally in foster care. Of those who entered care in fiscal 1990, 47 percent were white, 31 percent were black and 14 percent were Hispanic.27 Minorities are becoming an increasing proportion of children in care. In a study of 12 states, the APWA found that although the actual numbers of black and Hispanic children who left care between 1984 and 1990 increased, the rate of exit "consistently lagged behind the rates of exit among white children throughout the period."28

The Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago studied foster care trends in five states (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Texas) in which almost half the nation's substitute care population is concentrated. The study found that controlling for variables, black children could be expected to stay in foster care 32 percent longer than white children. In California, black children could be expected to stay 41 percent longer.29

Younger Children, Longer Stays. The average age of children in foster care is declining - and an increasing proportion of foster children are infants. [see figure I]

  • The median age of children in foster care has declined steadily from 12.6 years in 1982 to 11.5 in 1986 to 8.6 in 1990.30
  • The Chapin Hall study found that, controlling for variables, children who entered foster care as infants could be expected to stay 22 percent longer than children entering at ages 1 to 5, and 20 percent longer than those entering at ages 6 to 8.31

In other words, infants, who would be expected to leave sooner, are likely to stay in longer than older children entering foster care.

Poor Prospects for Graduates of the System. The social costs of foster care's poor outcomes are staggering. In New York City, more than 60 percent of the homeless population in municipal shelters are former foster children.32 The costs are especially high for youngsters who leave the system at age 18 (or another age determined by the state) without having been adopted.

Westat, Inc., of Rockville, Md., found that 2.5 to four years after youths left foster care, "46 percent had not completed high school, 38 percent had not held a job for more than one year, 25 percent had been homeless for at least one night and 60 percent of young women had given birth to a child. Forty percent had been on public assistance, incarcerated or a cost to the community in some other way."33

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