04/02/2006 - Our nation's foster care system is far from perfect, and its casualties are vulnerable children. As a young woman who spent more than half of her life in foster care, and a judge who oversees foster care cases, we witness its impact firsthand.On average, children remain in foster care for three years, and move three times. They are separated from friends, siblings and family for long, uncertain periods of time, and can grow out of foster care without becoming part of a loving, permanent family.
Only half of foster youth graduate from high school; just 1 percent graduate from college.
Of those who grow out of the system, more than 25 percent will be incarcerated within two years of leaving foster care. Significant numbers will become unemployed, homeless or experience other problems.
There is hope. Recent efforts aimed at reforming foster care hold promise to improve the lives of our nation's 500,000 foster children.
The bipartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care completed a comprehensive study of foster care. The blue-ribbon panel included child-welfare experts, administrators, legislators, advocates and foster and adoptive youth and parents. The commission focused on two areas of reform: federal financing and court oversight of foster care.
On the first issue, the commission recommended that states have a flexible, reliable source of federal funds, new incentives and increased accountability for the children in their care. Current federal financing guidelines restrict the flow of money -- it can largely be used only to pay for foster care, rather than provide preventive services that may reduce the need for children to enter care.
The other issue is court reform. Courts determine whether a child enters foster care, when they can leave and where they go when they leave. Yet, despite these responsibilities, the commission found that courts are under-resourced and overburdened.
The commission recommended providing courts with the resources, information and training they need so judges can track cases, child welfare agencies and courts can collaborate and children can have a voice in the process.
The commission's recommendations have led to real action. Sixteen states have formed or announced the formation of commissions on children in foster care to assess and tackle their own specific needs.
Teams of judges and child welfare administrators from all 50 states recently attended a groundbreaking National Judicial Summit, crafting plans to improve their child welfare systems. State legislators have held hearings to assess their foster care systems and propose reforms. And Congress has passed several of the Pew Commission's recommendations into law.
All of these issues were discussed recently on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress joined child-welfare experts and children and families from across the country whose lives have been affected by the foster care system. Adoptive parents, former foster youth, a birth mother and a grandmother raising her grandson shared their stories and illustrated the real impact that reform can have on the lives of foster children.
We must work together to ensure that children in foster care receive the safe, permanent homes they need and deserve. We must fix foster care now -- our nation's 500,000 foster children deserve nothing less.
Maura Corrigan is Justice, Michigan Supreme Court, and served on the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. Jackie Hammers-Crowell was a foster child.