Time for Reform: Too Many Birthdays in Foster Care

Time for Reform: Too Many Birthdays in Foster Care


This report provides an introduction to the foster care system and describes what life is like for the more than 500,000 children in foster care who are waiting for reforms that would help them return to their families or find new permanent families. Foster care provides a temporary place for children and youth to stay when they are removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. But what was intended as a temporary solution has become a long-term state of uncertainty for many children. The reality is that too many children spend too many birthdays in foster care On average, children in foster care will spend at least two birthdays in the system Each year, more than 24,000 teens “celebrate” their birthday by aging out of the foster care system without ever having been placed with a permanent family to call their own.


Periodically, newspapers report foster care tragedies—stories of children where the efforts of the child welfare agency proved to be too little, too late, or where a child was removed from his or her family only to be abused or neglected by foster parents. There are, however, many important success stories for children in foster care.

Foster care provides a crucial safety net for hundreds of thousand of children who have experienced abuse and neglect and cannot remain safely with their families. Social workers, attorneys, judges and others ensure that children are safe and receiving the services they need while working with their families to resolve the problems that brought their children into care. And, after decades of growth, the number of children in foster care has been on a steady decline, falling from 552,000
children in care in 2000 to 513,000 children in care in 2005.1

As a result of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and the efforts of child welfare agencies all over the country, more and more children are leaving foster care each year through adoption and permanent legal guardianship when reunification is not possible. Adoptions from the nation's foster care system increased 46 percent between 1996 and 2005—from 27,761 to 51,000. In 2005, nearly 13,000 children left care to guardianship.2

Despite these important gains, many challenges remain. Some children enter foster care when preventive services might have kept them safely with their families; too many children remain in foster care too long, waiting to return home or for families through adoption or guardianship; and services are often unavailable for families after children leave foster care. One key reason for these ongoing challenges is the structure of the nation's current child welfare financing system which encourages an over-reliance on foster care. Federal dollars represent the largest share of money spent collectively by federal, state and local governments on child welfare; as a result, the federal financing structure has a dominant influence on the lives of children in care. According to the Urban Institute, the federal government invests roughly $3.8 billion in out-of-home care each year.3 This federal financing structure results in the widespread use of foster care services instead of other services that could either prevent the need for a foster care placement or reduce the time a child spends in care. Sadly, inflexible federal funding streams bring with them a number of restrictions that tend to extend rather than reduce a child's time in foster care.

Foster care is necessary to protect vulnerable children, but no one would argue that being in foster care is better than living with a safe, permanent family of one's own. While in foster care, children are wards of the state, waiting in limbo for a court to decide what will happen to them. Sometimes they are removed from their families with only the clothes on their back. They are often uprooted from all that is familiar. They may not have been told where they are going, or understand why they are being taken away from the only family they know. They have little to no say about where they will live or whether they will be able to see their biological family again. Children will likely be moved from one foster placement to another—three times on average—with some children moving more than 10 times. Their medical records may be incomplete because of multiple moves from one foster placement to another. They may fall behind in their education because they are moved in and out of schools as their placements change. In most communities, there are not enough foster families who are able to care for large sibling groups, and as a result, children can be separated from their brothers and sisters and placed with different families. In addition, the lack of foster families for teens may mean that children are placed in group or institutional settings even though they could and should be cared for by families.

Federal financing reform of foster care would help address some of these problems, and several possible strategies have been proposed, including comprehensive recommendations issued by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, a national, nonpartisan, blue ribbon panel of child welfare, policy, and judicial leaders and others with a stake in the foster care system.

As the stories and quotes in this guide to the foster care system illustrate, children and youth in foster care often feel scared, alone and unwanted, and they long for a safe, permanent family of their own. Although we will never be able to eliminate the need for this vital safety net, there are meaningful reforms that could be undertaken to help many of these children and reduce the length of time they languish in the system.

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