Noel Anaya “aged out” of the system after 20 years in foster care. He was 21. At his final court hearing, he read a compelling statement about how he felt the California foster care system had failed him.
California is not alone. Throughout the nation, our current foster care system is suffering from a shortage of foster homes, unacceptable delays and failure in achieving permanence for our children in limbo, and the continuing reliance on yesterday’s solutions to address today’s changed family lifestyles.
Our current system was founded on two-parent families with stay-at-home moms who generously volunteered to take one or more foster children. The foster child was to stay in the foster home for a brief period until he or she could be reunited with the birth family or, failing that, relocated to another permanent family through adoption.
This was never fully effective, but this structure is in shambles today. The two-parent family with one stay-at-home member has become a rarity. More common is two full-time breadwinners, coming home from work with decreased time and energy, and attending to their own children and their needs. For such families, taking on additional children is unfeasible.
And still today, foster parents are expected to volunteer their time an indefinite period. The per diem foster parents receive does not usually cover expenses. In no other social situation do we attempt to resolve a serious social need with unpaid assistants. Child care workers, home health care workers, and those who serve the elderly may be poorly paid, but they are not expected to volunteer.
Let’s return to basics. To remedy the foster care crisis, we must spotlight the desired outcome: permanence for the child within one year or less. That is the goal. Foster care is, or should be, a way station on the road to reunification or adoption within “child time.”
Every child has a need and the right to a permanent home. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Too often, we make the details and policies of foster care itself our primary focus. We lose sight of the goal while the child drifts in temporary care. So long as the child has food and shelter, we may relax while we wait for the miracle of permanence to happen. What can we do to improve chances for permanence?
Follow the law. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that a termination of parental rights (TPR) be filed after 12 consecutive months, or 15 of the past 22 months in care. To accomplish this, check and screen relatives for possible placement at once. If reunification appears hopeless, file for a termination of parental rights immediately. ASFA allows for the case plan to be changed from reunification after six months when appropriate. While we wait, opportunities for permanence decrease with age.
Pay foster parents a living wage. Provide the stay-at-home parent with the needed second income. Volunteers are no longer a viable solution to care for homeless damaged children. At the same time, we must find a way to offer comparable assistance to foster parents who adopt so that long-term foster care is not a more attractive option.
Explore cooperative adoption. A birth parent may fight hard for a child they cannot raise but do not want to lose. When appropriate, an adoption may be facilitated by granting the birth parent some post-adoption visitation rights.
Make interstate adoptions easier. This would allow states with more families available to offer permanence to those who have an overflow of homeless children. Access to adoption should extend beyond state boundaries.
A nation that can spend over half of its national budget on its military surely has the means to aid its temporarily derailed future citizens. But do we have the will?