Commission Calls for Foster Care Reforms
By Erin Madigan, Staff Writer
A panel of child welfare experts today called for a bevy of changes to fix flaws in the country's foster care system that have allowed children to get stuck in foster care limbo for too long, suffer abuse and neglect and sometimes go missing.
The new report by the the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care targets two key areas as needing improvement: federal funding and judicial oversight. The commission said its recommended reforms aren't overnight fixes but are a "critical first step" to reforming many problems in the child welfare system as a whole.
The report, "Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being for Children in Foster Care," comes after a year of study by the non-partisan panel, created in May 2003 to develop attainable foster care policy. The commission is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also separately funds Stateline.org.
Foster care, which serves more than a half-million children, is intended to be a short-term refuge for children who cannot live safely in their own homes. But it often ends up being a long journey, resulting in kids being shuffled from one foster home to another, leaving many physical, emotional and social needs unmet, the commission said. Almost half of all foster children spend at least two years in care and move to at least three different home placements.
"The foster care system is in disrepair. Every state has now failed federal foster care reviews and we've seen far too many news stories of children missing from the system or injured while in care," William Gray, the commission's vice chairman and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, said in a press release.
The commission found fault in the federal financing portion of foster care, which is funded jointly by states and the federal government in a matching program similar to Medicaid, the health care program for poor and disabled Americans.
The current system forces states to rely too heavily on foster care instead of other services, such as treatment and prevention, the commission said. It recommended that Congress allocate an additional $200 million for foster care, but also give states more flexibility, create incentives for states to invest in a wide range of child welfare programs and allow them to "reinvest" federal dollars they save by reducing the foster care rolls.
In addition, the commission suggests that federal assistance dollars become an entitlement to all foster children, regardless of their birth families' income level, which currently determines eligibility.
Court oversight of foster care is the second root problem of the deficient system, according to the commission, which urges state Supreme Court chief justices to help lead statewide reform efforts. Justices in Michigan, California, New York and Minnesota already have taken leadership roles to some degree, said Sue Badeau, the commission's deputy director. For example, Michigan Chief Justice Maura Corrigan required that lawyers appointed to represent neglected children visit their clients.
The commission wants state courts to better track and analyze caseloads. It suggests improving collaboration between courts and state and local child welfare agencies and providing children with better trained attorneys and volunteer advocates.
"In our view it's very important that these recommendations be seen as a package," Badeau said. "If you implement some without others, you don't get the benefits for kids that we're trying to promote. Right now we have a system that's out of balance. It's too focused on one part of the system, foster care. We wouldn't want to see that fixed' by making a new lack of balance. ... It really needs to be overall reform."