Instances of children missing from foster care and suffering abuse and neglect while under state custody should motivate lawmakers to reform failing foster care programs, according to a new commission that plans to come up with recommendations to help improve the lives of foster children.
The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, established this month through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, plans to seek policy solutions in two areas of foster care: the way the federal government finances foster care and court oversight of foster children.
(Stateline.org is also funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts.)
"Foster care is intended to be a short-term arrangement. In reality, children stay in foster care for an average of three years and have an average of three different foster homes," said Commission Vice Chair William H. Gray.
Gray is a former Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania who now heads the United Negro College Fund.
"The Pew Commission intends to develop recommendations that will help move children more quickly into safe and permanent homes and help prevent children from being placed in foster care unnecessarily," he said.
At a Washington news conference, the commission released a nationwide study that found 53 percent of Americans believe the foster care system overall needs a "complete overhaul."
"Public unease about the safety and well-being of children in foster care is one of the many compelling reasons for the commission's work," Gray said.
Recent highly publicized reports of missing foster children in Florida, Michigan and California and widespread abuses documented in New Jersey have highlighted concerns that state foster care systems are overburdened by the largest national caseload in history, over half a million children.
In addition, the number of available foster families has declined by 25 percent in the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care has targeted as one of the roots of this problem federal financing incentives that favor foster care over other services and options for children and families.
"There are financial incentives to place children in foster care to keep them safe, but also to keep them there longer than is necessary," Carol Emig, executive director of the commission, said.
The way state and local courts oversee child welfare cases also prolongs stays in foster care, Emig said. The commission plans to develop recommendations to provide judges with tracking and management tools to reduce the number of foster children languishing in the legal system.
The average stay in foster care is three years, but some children spend much of their childhood in the system and stay with 10 or more families, the commission reported.
"The foster care system is a complicated, bureaucratic snarl, and children are the victims," said Bill Frenzel, commission chair and former U.S. Representative (R-MN).
Members of the commission include child welfare experts, heads of state and local child welfare agencies, judges, social workers, foster and adoptive parents and former foster youth.
The commission will operate for two years as a part of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute and will release its final report and recommendations in 2004.