Panel Calls for Sweeping Foster Care Fixes

 

The country's ailing foster care system lets children languish too long in temporary rather than permanent homes and is in need of a two-tiered overhaul targeting federal financing and court oversight, according to a report by a panel of child welfare experts.

But states may be wary to embrace the new proposal wholeheartedly because they will likely need time to examine how the proposed changes would impact foster care funding and flexibility.

"Children need the grounding of a permanent home. You don't get that in foster care, you get that in a family," said William Gray, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and vice chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, which called for the bevy of foster care reforms.

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 commission found fault with 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 the poor and disabled.

Under the current system, states rely too heavily on the foster care net, instead of other preventative services such as family reunification and community-based support, the commission said.

To remedy the flawed financing system, the commission recommended that:

  • The federal government join states in paying for all foster kids care, not just those whose parents are poor and meet income eligibility levels. 
  • Congress allocate $200 million for one portion of federal foster care funding in the form of block grants to states to provide flexibility and create incentives for them to invest in a wide range of child welfare programs.
  • The federal government provide assistance to children who leave the system in the care of a legal guardian rather than an adoptive family.

Court oversight of foster care is the second root problem in the deficient system, according to the commission, which said courts play a central role in making decisions about foster kids' fates.

"No child enters or leaves foster care without a judge's decision. The courts are crucial to the system," said Bill Frenzel, chairman of the commission and a Brookings Institution scholar. "Despite this critical role, the dependency courts also lack sufficient tools and information to move children swiftly out of foster care into permanent homes."

The commission suggests the following to improve court involvement and prevent children from languishing in the foster care system:

  • State Supreme Court chief justices should help lead statewide reform efforts. Justices in Michigan, California, New York and Minnesota have already taken leadership roles to some degree, the commission said. 
  • State courts need to better track and analyze caseloads and should increase collaboration with state and local child welfare agencies. 
  • States should give children and families a stronger voice in courts by providing better trained lawyers and volunteer advocates.

 Going forward, the commission faces the tough job of selling their reforms to court leaders in all 50 states and convincing influential members of Congress and the administration to take up the proposed changes, but they've just left the starting block.

"States don't control who's eligible for this program. It's unfortunate circumstances that govern whether a child ends up in our system," said Sheri Steisel, director of human services policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "We have to make sure that there is adequate funding, as well as flexibility in the child welfare system."

The recommendations in some ways mirror President Bush's suggested reforms, which call for optional foster care block grants to states. But despite significant differences in the proposals, a top administration official praised the Pew commission for advancing a national debate on the issue.

"I do think that there's a growing chorus of voices in the states that believe that part of the problem is that the funding structure itself is flawed and that pumping money into the system isn't going to help them fundamentally reform the system until the flaw in the funding mechanisms are corrected as well," Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told Stateline.org.

Horn said that all states need improvement in some areas and that the Pew commission's findings come as bad news for defenders of the status quo. "If the status quo was doing such a bang-up job, why did no state pass every single one of our measures in the child and family services reviews? If the current structure of funding was doing a good job, shouldn't the state performance be pretty good?" he asked.

To try to expedite the commission's recommendations on the state level, the Pew Trusts also launched a public education campaign in June 2003 called "Fostering Results" that targets 10 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The campaign plans to partner with judges, child welfare caseworkers, youth advocates, adoptive families and the news media in each state to call attention to the commission's findings. 

 
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