The Foster Care System Was Unprepared for The Last Drug Epidemic. Let’s Not Repeat History

Foster care is an imperfect system, often criticized for its failures, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and poverty and racial bias, leading to the harmful and unnecessary removal of children from their homes, disproportionately from homes of poor families of color.

Nevertheless, foster care can be a lifesaving intervention as a system of last resort that we depend on to ensure the safety of the most endangered children. As we face the third drug epidemic in recent decades that threatens to overwhelm some state foster care systems, we have an opportunity to learn from the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Many of today’s legitimate complaints and general frustration about a foster care system that continues to allow more than 23,000 children to age out without safety, family or a home, can be traced to the system failures that emerged during the crack cocaine epidemic.

The child welfare system and the professionals and families working to keep children safe are now squarely between a rock and a hard place. There’s a growing recognition that removing children from their homes is, in itself, traumatic for children and that the services provided to families – including birth, kin and foster – fall short of what’s needed to promote quality parenting. We have more families that need supports and services, but have not made the investment in the substance abuse, mental health or poverty safety net supports needed.

Current policies and practices do not adequately promote quality parenting in all foster care settings. Although quality of care has long been an issue, the current opioid problem brings much urgency to the need for quality foster parenting in communities across the country.

Local and state child welfare systems are on the front lines of the national response, helping families and children affected by the devastating epidemic. For months, media has reported that increasing numbers of children are coming into foster care in many areas as a result of parental drug addiction, particularly to opioids.

Reports by federal and state public agencies responsible for foster care services indicate that the rise in parental substance use, including opioids, and the limited availability of other alternative responses, is likely a key driver in the uptick in the number of children entering foster care.

As long as the current trend continues, there will be continued pressure on child welfare systems to provide timely and appropriate services to children and families. Having more children in foster care will intensify what is already a problem in many states; namely, recruiting and retaining enough good foster homes for children who have been removed from their families.

As state leaders continue to respond to the devastating consequences of the opioid epidemic, we urge them to avoid past mistakes. We now know that responses to earlier drug epidemics made too little investment in strategies that could ensure safety and preserve families and which could have helped more children avoid the trauma of separation from parents.

We also know that many child welfare systems, having become overwhelmed by the drug epidemic, too often lowered standards and failed to provide children in foster care with the intervention of quality foster parenting.

In each drug epidemic, the negative impact on family life has been exponential, and unfortunately, intergenerational. This intergenerational impact is seen in the children and sometimes the grandchildren.

During the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged poor urban communities in the 1980s, many children impacted were removed into foster care. Far too little investment was made in strategies that might ensure safety and preserve families, such as family residential substance abuse treatment. Instead, thousands of children were simply removed from their families and communities.

Parents struggling with substance abuse often were criminalized, rather than provided access to the recovery programs, resources and supports that might have helped them remain intact as families or reunite with their children. Child welfare systems were overwhelmed, and often failed to provide children the safety, stability or parenting that would provide positive short- and long-term outcomes.

During the height of the cocaine epidemic, the number of children in foster care who had been prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol increased from one quarter (1986) to nearly two-thirds (1991). The number of children in foster care rose dramatically from 400,000 in 1990 to an all-time high of 567,000 in 1999.

Finally, in 2012, we saw a decrease, down to 5.4 per 1,000 children, but that was more than 25 years after the cocaine epidemic captured national attention. For far too many children, a system that was supposed to be a temporary safe haven became their permanent childhood.

The CHAMPS initiative – Children Need Amazing Parents – supports a network of collaborating organizations that encourage policymakers to adopt policies based on promising approaches that are grounded in evidence. We know that prioritizing parenting in our policy and practice and changing child welfare organizational culture is possible because states and local jurisdictions across the country are engaged in this important work through the Quality Parenting Initiative (QPI), the Youth Law Center’s effort to strengthen foster care by realigning policy, practice and culture around excellent parenting as the highest priority.

QPI was initially adopted by three pilot sites in 2008, but has grown to sites in 10 states and more than 70 sites. It is the statewide approach in four states. A major objective of QPI – and now CHAMPS – is increasing the number of committed families, including kin, who can provide excellent parenting to children in care, in a manner that supports excellent practice and strives to ensure that every family can and does meet the child’s needs.

The current opioid crisis creates an urgent need for state and local leaders to ensure that every child who is removed and placed in foster care has the parenting they need and deserve. Quality foster parenting is a critical, ever-present need. It is our hope that decision makers will leverage the lessons learned from history and put policies and practices in place that reflect a clear priority on what children need most to heal, grow and develop: quality parenting.

This piece was excerpted with permission from a larger blog post published by The Brookings Institution, one of several organizations involved in the CHAMPS Initiative.

Jennifer Rodriguez is executive director of the Youth Law Center. Ron Haskins is the Cabot Family Chair at the Brookings Institution. Jeremy Kohomban is CEO of The Children’s Village. 

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