Is the Solution Really for More Children to Enter Foster Care?

Vivek Sankaran
Vivek Sankaran, University of Michigan Law School

Last week, in a provocative op-ed in the Washington Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley – a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute – argued that the problem in America’s child welfare system is “not that we’re taking too many children away from their parents. We’re not taking enough.”

To support her claim, she cited a mishmash of statistics, including an increase in the national child fatality rate, and then some isolated data from two jurisdictions involving re-entry rates for children returned home and the number of termination of parental rights petitions filed and adoptions finalized.

She then broadly concluded that this isolated data demonstrates that “many parents are … not capable of caring for their children.”

I appreciate Riley’s controversial piece because it surfaces feelings that we know exist among judges, lawyers and caseworkers working in child welfare – that more children would be better served by taking them from their parents. Although there is much to be written on why Riley is wrong, here are three key reasons why Riley – and more importantly, decision makers within those systems who agree with her – are wrong.

First, she ignores the overwhelming research about the harm that removing children from their parents inflicts on them. A recent petition signed by thousands of psychologists, social workers and therapists concludes:

“From decades of research and direct clinical experience, we know the impact of disrupted attachment manifests not only in overwhelming fear and panic at the time of the separation, but that there is a strong likelihood that these children’s behavioral, psychological, interpersonal and cognitive trajectories will also be affected.”

Removal permanently alters the lives of children because the stress it creates can cause long-term damage to the brain. Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard, explains, “[T]here is so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

In other words, removal is the “nuclear option” for children. Once it happens, the damage can never be undone. So, as a matter of public policy, it serves the interests of children to take steps to keep them at home. Hence the statutory requirement that state child welfare agencies make reasonable efforts to keep children in their homes.

Second, Riley overlooks the fact that the United States has never provided adequate funds to support effective prevention programs. Recently, Dr. Jerry Milner, associate commissioner at the Children’s Bureau, stated that the federal government spends approximately $6 billion on foster care, yet it only spends $83 million on prevention programs.

We know these underfunded programs can safely keep children with their families. For example, studies have documented the effectiveness of programs like Families First, in which families get resources and support to keep children in their care. A study done by Dr. Sacha Klein, a social work professor at Michigan State University, found that Head Start was effective in reducing the need for foster care placements. And another study found that raising the minimum wage by just $1 reduced the number of referrals to child welfare agencies by nearly 10 percent.

These are but a few of the interventions we know that can be effective. But our country has never adequately funded any of them. Again, Riley doesn’t mention any of this.

Finally, Riley assumes that foster care is a benign intervention that can swiftly place children in loving adoptive homes. But as someone who has represented children in foster care for over 17 years, I’m unsure what system she is describing. Children in foster care commonly experience multiple placements, change schools, leave their communities and have their physical and mental health needs go unmet.

As a result, at least 15 states are under a federal consent decree for failing to meet the needs of these children, and in the last federal audit, the federal government found that every state child welfare system failed to be in “substantial conformity” with many federal requirements. Unsurprisingly, a comprehensive study by Joseph Doyle, an MIT economist, found that children faced with two options – being allowed to stay at home or being placed into foster care – have generally better life outcomes when they remain with their families.

And when kids exit foster care to adoptive homes, we have no reliable data on how they fare after they’ve been adopted, or how many of those kids re-enter foster care. The recent tragedy involving Devonte Hart and his siblings – all of whom were adopted out of foster care – at least highlights that not all adoptions end up with the fairy tale ending that Riley assumes.

In short, much remains unchanged from 1991, when the National Commission on Children declared, “If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child-welfare system.”

Consistent with this, one child, interviewed by social work professor Dr. Monique Mitchell, described his experience in foster care in the following way:

I had so many losses, man. I felt like my life was tooken away, I felt like I didn’t have no freedom, no independence, it was, to be completely honest with you really, it was one of the worst experiences in my life, going on 21 years that I’ve been on this Earth that was definitely one of the worst experience in my life, right there … You know, it was terrible. You know, I, I lost my strength, I lost my life, I lost myself. It was, it was, it was hell man.

So is the solution, as Riley proposes, really to put more children into this system? For the interests of the children I work with, I hope not.

Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.

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