Law in Contemporary Society

The Foster Care System: A Charted Path

-- By JenniferGreen - 16 Apr 2010

Comments are on the original, the re-write will be below. You took on a really tough topic with sensitivity- hope it comes across that I take the issue as seriously as you do! -- AlisonMoe - 25 Apr 2010

Life Chances

The irony of the child welfare system is that while it removes children from unhealthy living situations with their biological parent, purporting to do so to increase the child’s life chances, in reality, the statistics that reflect this so-called strategy demonstrate a pattern of exactly the opposite. A study published this month, reported by the New York Times, shows that young adults who have aged out of the foster care system lag behind their counterparts across several major categories. These include homelessness, educational attainment, reliance on public assistance benefits, and interactions with the criminal justice system. These differences should come as no surprise; however, it begs the question, do the costs of removing a child from their biological family – barring clear cases of abuse, neglect, and endangerment – outweigh the benefits of having them raised in the foster care system?

To be fair, there are some living situations that are so egregious that no child should have to endure the stress and potential harm. Notwithstanding the moral obligation to remove children from such situations, the state also faces potentially liability for failing to intervene when it has truly compelling reasons to do so. Isn't this just your balancing test, worked the other way? In other words, at some point, the cost to the child who has to stay with her parents outweighs any benefit she gains from staying with her family. Your paper wants to cabin the issue of neglect/abuse and do a cost/benefit analysis of lower-threshold parental ineptitude. Shouldn't you be looking at the totality of circumstances, and examining the costs and benefits to the child in any circumstances? However, where the causes for removal do not reach this level of harm to the child – such as parenting skills that are less than ideal, but where no substantial and immediate harm is inflicted upon the child – separating a child from their biological family should be a final resort, not an initial option. Why are social workers removing children from homes in "unclear" situations? Is it for lack of other remedial options? Is it because it's difficult to tell what's going in people's homes?

A Balancing Act

From a human perspective, the analysis turns, at least in part, on determining the value of separating a child from their biological parent – again, in cases where there are no clear signs of abuse and neglect – versus providing support services to improve home life. This, in fact, would be more efficient and cost-effective in the short- and long-term. The statistics suggest that it is more cost-effective for the state to provide support services for struggling families, in an effort to keep them together, since the alternative amounts to higher costs in the short term by placing the child in foster care or a group home, as well as long-term, by subsidizing social welfare programs and paying for the increasingly expensive prison system. This is confusing- earlier, you framed your argument in terms of costs to the child. Now you're arguing about costs to the system What's the relationship? Are we intervening in people's families because we care about individual children's success in life, or because it's more socially efficient to do so? I think your argument is most persuasive when you focus on the costs to individual children. However, determining whether it is in the child’s best interest to be removed from the home with their biological parent versus allowing them to remain there – with the state intervening only to provide support services – is a balancing act. The decision should balance between considerations about the likelihood of an increase in the child’s life chances in the short-term versus the long-term. Do you mean, the balance between the present quality of life and the future quality of life? Or are you balancing the present threat of the home (in terms of probability) verses long term welfare? The reality is that, absent this type of assessment, the system could be, in effect, grooming children for exactly the opposite of its stated aim – this includes illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and a life of crime.

System Reform

To suggest that by remaining in the home with their biological parents, would-be foster children automatically fair better in the long term, would be overly-simplistic. After all, statistics across the categories already discussed point in similar directions – crime, homelessness, and lack of education are closely linked to poverty and race. And, poverty is inextricably linked to one’s ability to adequately care for a child and correlates with the likelihood that the system will intervene and remove the child from the home. I'm having a hard time following this.* Do you mean: crime/homelessness/education are usually a result of having been raised in a poor/minority household? Or that minorities/poor people are more likely to be homeless criminals? It reads this way, and I don't think that's what you mean*. However, as the study suggests, 79% of study participants felt “very close”, and another 15% felt “somewhat close” to their biological families – indicators of former foster children re-integrating themselves back into their biological families’ lives or simply maintaining strong ties over the years. What's the value of those ties to your argument? Do they show that children can be removed from their families and then returned? Or that children suffer emotionally when their bonds are severed? If you're trying to point to the benefits of staying with a family, or the costs of leaving, be more explicit. Given the statistics, the system should rethink its strategy by committing itself to keeping the family intact, seeking to place children with biological relatives where it is not possible for the child to remain with their parent, and actively facilitating relationships between the foster child and the biological apparent in an effort to reunite them where appropriate. The first two clauses of this sentence are the gist of the paper: when determining when to remove children from their homes, the system is getting it wrong. The rest of the sentence goes to other ways the system can help children when they don't remove them. Keep these ideas separated, because your argument is not really about how the system as a whole can be reformed (certainly a topic for more than 1000 words), but rather about the decision to remove children.

Several policies have been enacted to attempt to narrow the gap between young adults who have aged out of the system and their peers. But isn't the comparative focus of your paper children who stay with their families versus foster care children? Arguably, foster care and bio care kids from risk families will both lag behind peers. For example, in some states, foster children “age out” of the system at 21 instead of 18. Also, several states offer free tuition for post-secondary public education within the state to former foster children. Both of these policies, which are not exhaustive, are admirable, especially considering the budgetary constraints many states are experiencing. Still, these, and many other such programs, may intervene in the child’s life when it is too late. This info is interesting, but you could better bring it within the scope of your argument if you made the point that states would need to employ fewer corrective measures if they were intervening less in the first place, right? And, to a certain extent, no amount of intervention can account for the emotional trauma a child experiences when they are removed from the only family and environment they have ever known – regardless of how “unhealthy” the system may deem it. This, perhaps, is the “pink elephant” in the room; the system should be guided by recognizing this, which may underlie the disparities between former foster children and their counterparts. I thought your argument was that it DOES create the disparities between these children. Your point was that this emotional tax factors into the cost-benefit analysis involved in choosing to remove children from families.

A Case for Keeping Families Together

There is still great opportunity for reform in the system, notwithstanding the policies already enacted, that will help ease the transition of young adults out of the foster care system and into mainstream society. However, the principle reform that is needed is simply a mentality shift; the state’s primary objective should be maintaining the family unit when at all possible. Right, but you've also argued that resources should be directed to support the intact family, instead of supporting the foster kid. The choice isn't between foster care and nothing, it's between foster care and family support. Making the determination about whether the situation would best be served by such efforts is not formulaic; it can only effectively be done on a case-by-case basis. Failure to consider this as an option can and does have dire consequences, as demonstrated by the study. By failing to do so, the state effectively takes on the role of grooming a constituency for social welfare programs and prison systems – bearing exorbitant costs now and in the future – both of which are morally undesirable and fiscally unsustainable.


The Foster Care System: A Charted Path Life Chances Though the child welfare system attempts to help children by removing them from their families, in many cases terminating parental rights does more harm than good. A study published this month, reported by the New York Times, shows that young adults who have aged out of the foster care system lag behind their counterparts across several major categories. These include homelessness, educational attainment, reliance on public assistance benefits, and interactions with the criminal justice system. These differences are unsurprising, but they invite the question: in cases where abuse is not present, are the costs of terminating parental rights always outweighed by the benefits of life in the foster care system? How should the welfare system make the decision to remove children from their families? To be fair, there are some living situations that are so damaging that the benefit to the child of remaining with biological parents is negated. Notwithstanding the moral obligation to remove children from such situations, the state also faces potential liability for failing to intervene when it has truly compelling reasons to do so. However, where the causes for removal do not reach this level of harm to the child – such as parenting skills that are less than ideal, but where no substantial and immediate harm is inflicted upon the child – separating a child from her biological family should be a final resort, not an initial option. A Balancing Act From a human perspective, the analysis turns, at least in part, on assessing the cost and value of separating a child from her biological parent, determined on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, it would be more efficient and cost-effective in the short- and long-term to keep the child with the family and provide support services to improve home life. The statistics suggest that it is more cost-effective for the state to provide support services for most struggling families, in an effort to keep them together, since the alternative amounts to higher costs in the short term by placing the child in foster care or a group home, as well as long-term, by subsidizing social welfare programs and paying for the increasingly expensive prison system. However, determining whether it is in the child’s best interest to be removed from the home with their biological parent versus allowing them to remain there – with the state intervening only to provide support services – is a difficult inquiry. The decision should balance considerations about the likelihood of an increase in the child’s life chances in the short-term with the long-term costs and benefits of life in the foster care system. The reality is that, absent this type of assessment, the system could be, with the best of intentions, harming children in the long run. System Reform It would be na´ve to suggest that, by remaining in the home with their biological parents, would-be foster children automatically fare better in the long term. Certainly, many children are benefited by leaving their homes, however emotionally taxing this severance may be. However, as the study suggests, 79% of study participants felt “very close”, and another 15% felt “somewhat close” to their biological families – indicators that foster children have a complicated emotional connection with the families they leave. Given the statistics, the system should rethink its strategy by committing itself to keeping the family intact. As a second resort, children should be placed with biological relatives where it is not possible for the child to remain with their parent. Regardless, relationships between the foster child and the biological parent should be supported whenever possible or appropriate. Many states have attempted to reform the foster care system by mitigating the harms to foster care children. For example, in some states, foster children “age out” of the system at 21 instead of 18. Also, several states offer free tuition for post-secondary public education within the state to former foster children. Both of these policies, which are not exhaustive, are admirable, especially considering the budgetary constraints many states are experiencing. Still, these, and many other such programs, may intervene in the child’s life when it is too late; more importantly, it may be an attempt to fix a problem that is created by separating families in the first place. And, to a certain extent, no amount of intervention can account for the emotional trauma a child experiences when she is removed from the only family and environment she has ever known – regardless of how “unhealthy” the system may deem it. The cost of separating families should be given more weight when determining whether to place children in foster care. A Case for Keeping Families Together There is still great opportunity for reform in the system, in addiction to the policies already enacted, that will help ease the transition of young adults out of the foster care system and into mainstream society. However, the focus of reform efforts should be maintaining the family unit when at all possible. Determining whether the situation would best be served by such efforts is not formulaic; it can only effectively be done on a case-by-case basis. Failure to consider this as an option can and does have dire consequences for children, as demonstrated by the study. If the state does not examine other alternatives to foster care, it will continue to groom children for social welfare programs and prison systems –creating exorbitant costs now and in the future – both of which are morally undesirable and fiscally unsustainable.

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