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Creating a Better Child Welfare and Foster Care System in America

America’s child welfare and foster care system faces many challenges: limited funding for prevention and intervention, foster home shortages, high caseloads and a workforce struggling with turnover all create barriers to ensuring the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and families. By addressing these challenges with research, we can institute practices and policies that benefit children and families.

Research and the Real World

I began my career as a child welfare caseworker in a rural Pennsylvania county. I worked in a family preservation unit that focused on partnering with families to address and prevent child maltreatment related problems. For eight years, I coordinated and delivered prevention and intervention services to children and their families. While most this work was delivered to families in-home, our unit also made use of foster care placements when children were at risk of serious or ongoing maltreatment. Most often, the goal of foster care was to remediate maltreatment related risks and return children to their families. When maltreatment episodes or ongoing risks were so severe that reunification was not possible, we sought to ensure children had permanent family connections through legal guardianship or adoption arrangements.

During my time in direct practice I noticed a number of barriers that made working with families difficult; high caseloads made it hard to devote the time needed to truly understand a family’s situation, and the few resources and service options that were available to families weren’t always effective in addressing risk and preventing future maltreatment. When children were at serious risk, locating foster homes was challenging, particularly for sibling groups and older youth. A revolving door of employee turnover made ensuring quality and continuity of services even more difficult. It was through these work experiences I realized that, to truly make a difference in the lives of children and families in the child welfare system, structural changes to how services are organized and delivered are needed.

As a social work professor, I am invested in ensuring my research is situated at the intersection of theory and practice. Through intervention research, program evaluation and teaching, my work strives to address the practical issues facing the child welfare field. I am committed to the development of practices, programs and services that are both sustainable and useful to the children and families the child welfare system serves.

The Consequences of the Foster Care Shortage

Children enter the foster care system for many reasons including neglect, physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse, as well as exposure to family and community violence. Many children entering care have experienced more than one type of maltreatment, and prolonged exposure to abuse and neglect can negatively influence developmental trajectories across physical, mental, behavioral and social domains. Children entering foster care often have multiple developmental needs that, if left unaddressed, could result in long-term negative consequences.

Unfortunately, the United States is currently experiencing a crisis-level shortage of foster homes. In many states, children who’ve been ordered into foster care for their safety are sleeping in hotels or child welfare offices, spending extended periods of time in residential shelters, being placed into questionable home environments or left to remain in dangerous family living situations. Caseworkers spend considerable time trying to locate foster homes or move and stabilize children through a series of placements when attention could be better directed to family engagement, case planning, service coordination, and intervention delivery. Foster care shortages may contribute to sibling separation, school changes, and placement instability.

In an ideal child welfare world, children and families would receive services that reduce the risk of maltreatment and prevent the need for foster care intervention. When maltreatment episodes and related risks indicate the need for foster care placement, children would enter short-term substitute care arrangements while the caseworker and family collaborate to resolve the issues which created an unsafe home environment. Children would be placed into foster homes based on the fit between the children’s needs and the experience, expertise and abilities of the caregivers to meet those needs. Caseworkers would continually assess and support the development and well-being of children in substitute care while providing services and interventions to family systems to promote reunification, guardianship, or adoption.

Fortunately, research may help address some of the barriers to effective child welfare practice. A growing body of literature suggests kinship care (the use of extended family members as foster care providers) is a viable option to promote stability and continuity for children who need foster care intervention. Recent research also suggests sibling co-placement promotes continuity, preserves family attachments and is beneficial to children’s foster home integration and placement stability. Interventions designed specifically for siblings in foster care appear promising to alleviate problems commonly associated with maltreatment exposure and foster care intervention such as emotional distress, mental health problems and behavioral issues. Coupled with these policy and programming innovations, brief, reliable assessment tools which rapidly and accurately assess the social, emotional and behavioral well-being of children in foster care are being developed to support caseworkers and service providers in their efforts to ensure children are doing well in their homes and communities.

The challenges facing child welfare systems are significant, but not insurmountable. Through research and practice we can improve child welfare and foster care services for children and families.

Six Ways We Can Improve the Foster Care System to Promote Child Welfare

  1. Make relationship the priority. Research consistently points to the importance of relationship in promoting intervention effectiveness. With high caseloads and paperwork demands it’s easy to forget how important relationships are in affecting true change. Programs, policies and practices should be structured in a way that allows workers and families the time needed to develop and sustain a working relationship with the family.
  2. Focus on prevention. Front-end prevention programming and intervention services that target both general and specific maltreatment risks can prevent the need for foster care intervention altogether. Prevention services should be readily available, culturally appropriate and relevant to the family’s specific situation.
  3. A home that fits. Foster care should be the intervention of last resort. When children do enter care, it’s important the home is a good fit for the child’s developmental needs. In addition to comprehensive pre-placement assessment and tailored foster home matching, prioritizing sibling co-placement and kinship care can promote continuity and stability for children when foster care intervention is indicated.
  4. Strengthened assessments. Caseworkers should be supported with empirically informed assessment tools, resources and continuing education and training to help promote the accurate and reliable assessment of child and family functioning over time.
  5. Integrated services. Culturally informed and evidence based services that support the physical, mental, relational, and behavioral health needs of children and their families should be available and well-coordinated. Comprehensive, integrated community systems of care can make a significant positive impact in the lives of families.
  6. Resources and support for foster families. There are many good foster parents working every day for children in need of a safe and stable home, but more are needed. Ongoing recruitment, training, and support of foster parents is critical to ensuring foster care intervention meets not only safety but the well-being needs of youth in care. The National Foster Parent Association, Family Focused Treatment Association, and Child Welfare Information Gateway provide information and resources for caregivers and those interesting in fostering children in the child welfare system.
Jeffrey Waid

About the Author

Jeffrey Waid

  • Assistant Professor
  • School of Social Work
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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