We Won’t Find a “New Vision” for Foster Care by Looking in the Rear View Mirror

Nearly seven years ago, when the northeast was hit with a snowstorm quickly dubbed “snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon,” The Daily Show used the occasion to make fun of people who assume that their own personal experience has more validity than actual science.

Starting at about 4:50 in this story, one correspondent says global warming, as climate change used to be called, must be a myth because right where he was standing at that very moment it was very, very cold and it was snowing outside. Another correspondent says no, global warming must be real because it’s very, very hot where she is – in Australia.

I think of this clip whenever I read another column in which Marie Cohen says she just knows we should institutionalize more children, because of what she personally saw during five whole years as a caseworker – filtered, of course, through all her own biases – has more validity than actual research.

An Orphanage is an Orphanage is an Orphanage

In her most recent column, she uses all sorts of euphemisms, but a salaried foster parent is no different than a “house parent” in a group home. And a cluster of group homes is an institution.

Cohen calls this “a new vision,” but it’s about as new as a Dickens novel. They’re just orphanages with new names.

To promote this 19th century “new vision,” Cohen derides efforts to place children with caregivers in their own communities. Her “evidence”:

I have seen such caregivers dip into the [foster care] stipend to pay their own expenses, run out of gas by the end of the month, fail to get children to appointments, and lead chaotic lifestyles similar to those of the families their wards were removed from.

In contrast to Cohen’s personal experience, consider what actual research tells us: Kinship care is better for children’s well-being, and safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.” There’s this study.  And this one.  And the studies cited here. And here.

In addition, kinship care parents are far less likely to resort to doping up children on potent psychiatric medication when they become hard to handle. In Florida, when foster children are placed with strangers, whether in homes or institutions, nearly 19 percent of them are medicated. But when foster children are placed in kinship care, only about five percent are prescribed psychiatric meds.

Given that relatives are more likely to be poor than stranger-care parents it’s possible that, as Cohen suggests, they are more likely to run out of gas. But they are less likely to run out of love.

Of course, Cohen doesn’t rely only on her personal experience. As she has so often before, she promotes institutions by showing us what they say about themselves on their own websites. The perils of this approach should have been clear when Cohen gushed about Maryville, near Chicago, years after it had been exposed as a hellhole. Now, she’s done it again. This time she cites SOS Children’s Villages. She says that a “physical community” like SOS is “a way to have more eyes on each family to  make sure there’s no abuse and neglect.”

But that’s not what the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in 2002 when the newspaper exposed what it called the “ugly realities” of the SOS facility there:

Records provided by the Broward County office of the Department of Children & Families show numerous incidents of child-on-child sexual activity; allegations of improper supervision of children; and frequent police involvement at SOS.

Of course defenders of SOS would say: “Well, that was then, now we’re new and improved!” The problem is that institutionalization in general has been proven – by that pesky research again – to be a failure. And as long as such places exist the cycle of descend into chaos – reform – repeat will never end.

Cohen goes on to tell us, again with only anecdotes for “evidence,” that “many” foster parents “do it for the pay.” Even if that were true, there is a problem with her solution: Pay foster parents much more money, she says, and fewer will do it for the money.

Uh, right.

Supply and Demand

But the biggest failure in Cohen’s logic is the assumption that America has too few foster parents. Rather, America has too many foster children.

Yes, foster care numbers are increasing. But two-thirds of the increase since 2013 occurred in five states. At least four of them – Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota – had foster-care panics, spikes in removals of children due not to an actual increase in maltreatment but due to intensive news coverage of deaths of children “known to the system.”

In 2015 and 2016, there as a similar spike in removals in Arkansas. But consultants hired by the state found that the cause of the increase was not a spike in child abuse, it was the culture of the child welfare agency and the courts.

The money Cohen wants to lavish on strangers to care for other people’s children could be far better spent on day care so birth parents aren’t charged with “lack of supervision,” and rent subsidies, so children aren’t taken because of poor housing conditions. It could even go to helping pay for gasoline so kinship caregivers can get children to those appointments Cohen is so worried about – because God forbid the caseworker ever has to drive the children herself.

If every state took away children at the rate of say Alabama or Illinois – two states where independent court monitors have found that an emphasis on family preservation improved child safety, between 72,000 and 135,000 fewer children would be taken away each year nationwide, and all vulnerable children would be safer.

Foster parent “shortage” solved.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).