Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care Releases Sweeping Recommendations to Overhaul Nation's Foster Care System

Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care Releases Sweeping Recommendations to Overhaul Nation's Foster Care System

After a year of intensive analysis, conversations with professionals, parents, and children, The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care today released far-reaching recommendations to overhaul the nation's foster care system.

The Commission, a national, nonpartisan panel funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and composed of leading experts in child welfare, undertook the first-ever, comprehensive assessment of two key aspects of the foster care system: a federal financing structure that encourages an over-reliance on placement of children in foster care at the expense of other more permanent options for children who have been abused or neglected, and a court system that lacks sufficient tools, information, and accountability necessary to move children swiftly out of foster care and into permanent homes. Reform in these two areas, the Commission determined, will have far-reaching effects for children in foster care and is a critical first step to solving many other problems that plague the child welfare system. 

“The nation's foster care system is unquestionably broken,” stated Commission Chairman Bill Frenzel (R-MN), a twenty-year veteran of Congress and former Ranking Minority Member of the House Budget Committee. “The Commission's recommendations focus on what states and courts must do to help children get safe and permanent homes.” 

“Our recommendations call for greater accountability by both child welfare agencies and courts. They give states a flexible, reliable source of federal funding, as well as new options and incentives to seek safety and permanence for children in foster care. Further, they help courts secure the tools, information and training needed to fulfill their responsibilities to children, and help children and parents have a strong, informed voice in court proceedings.” 

Adds Commission Vice Chairman William H. Gray (D-PA), former Majority Whip and Chairman of the House Budget Committee, “The foster care system is in disrepair. Every state has now failed the federal foster care reviews and we've seen far too many news stories of children missing from the system or injured while in care. We must act now on behalf of the half a million children currently in foster care.” 

The Commission's recommendations offer a bold, achievable plan for improving outcomes for children in foster care and those at risk of entering care. The Commission proposes a fundamental restructuring of existing resources, as well as targeted new investments that will provide real returns to our children and our nation. Additionally, the Commission's court recommendations give children a much higher priority in state courts, give courts the tools to better oversee foster care cases, and help to ensure that every child and parent have an effective voice in court decisions that affect their lives. 

Foster care protects children who are not safe in their own homes. For some, it is life-saving. But for too many children, what should be a short-term refuge becomes a long-term saga, involving multiple moves. Almost half of children spend at least two years in care, and move to at least three different placements. This turbulence and uncertainty can have lasting consequences, for which children and society pay a price. 

The Role of Federal Financing
Current federal funding mechanisms for child welfare encourage an over-reliance on foster care at the expense of other services that might keep families safely together, allow children to return safely home, or move children swiftly and safely from foster care to adoptive families or permanent legal guardians. 

The Commission's recommendations require stronger accountability for how public dollars are used to protect and support children who have suffered abuse and neglect. They require redirection of current funding, and give states the freedom to decide whether foster care is the right choice for an individual child, or whether there are other options that might keep children safe and secure. 

The key components of the Commission's financing recommendations are:  

  • Preserving federal foster care maintenance and adoption assistance as an entitlement and expanding it to all children, regardless of their birth families' income and including Indian children and children in the U.S. territories; 
  • Providing federal guardianship assistance to all children who leave foster care to live with a permanent legal guardian when a court has explicitly determined that neither reunification nor adoption are feasible permanence options; 
  • Helping states build a range of services from prevention, to treatment, to post-permanence by (1) creating a flexible, indexed Safe Children, Strong Families Grant from what is currently included in Title IV-B and the administration and training components of Title IV-E; and (2) allowing states to “reinvest” federal and state foster care dollars into other child welfare services if they safely reduce their use of foster care; 
  • Encouraging innovation by expanding and simplifying the federal waiver process and providing incentives to states that (1) make and maintain improvements in their child welfare workforce and (2) increase all forms of safe permanence; and 
  • Strengthening the current Child and Family Services Review process to increase states' accountability for improving outcomes for children.

The Role of the Courts
For years, the courts have been the unseen partners in child welfare-yet they are vested with enormous responsibility. Along with child welfare agencies, the courts have an obligation to ensure that children are protected from harm. Courts make the formal determination on whether abuse or neglect has occurred and whether a child should be removed from the home. Courts review cases to decide if parents and the child welfare agencies are meeting their legal obligations to a child. Courts are charged with ensuring that children are moved from foster care and placed in a safe, permanent home within statutory timeframes. And courts determine if and when a parent's rights should be terminated and whether a child should be adopted or placed with a permanent guardian. 

The Commission's court recommendations call for: 

  • Adoption of court performance measures by every dependency court to ensure that they can track and analyze their caseloads, increase accountability for improved outcomes for children, and inform decisions about the allocation of court resources;  
  • Incentives and requirements for effective collaboration between courts and child welfare agencies on behalf of children in foster care;  
  • A strong voice for children and parents in court and effective representation by better trained attorneys and volunteer advocates; 
  • Leadership from Chief Justices and other state court leaders in organizing their court systems to better serve children, provide training for judges, and promote more effective standards for dependency courts, judges, and attorneys.

“Children deserve more from our child welfare system than they are getting now,” stated Chairman Frenzel. “Yet, for this to happen, those on the front lines of care-caseworkers, foster parents, judges-need the support necessary to do their jobs more effectively. And the public needs to know that, with this support, every part of the chain of care-from the federal government to the states to the courts-can reasonably be held to high standards of accountability for the well-being of children.” 

About the Pew Commission
The nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care was launched on May 7, 2003. Supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, the panel includes some of the nation's leading child welfare experts. The panel was charged with developing practical, evidence-based recommendations related to federal financing and court oversight of child welfare to improve outcomes for children in foster care, particularly to expedite the movement of children from foster care to safe, permanent families and to prevent unnecessary placements in foster care. 

For additional information about the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, or to obtain a copy of the Commission's report, or 50 state data about foster care, please visit the Commission Web site