Even before Cristina Silva entered foster care, she hadn't had a safe and stable home for years. Her mother had a substance abuse problem and often "just disappeared," Silva explains, so at age 11 she started staying with the families of her friends. When she was 14, her father was released from prison. She tried living with him, but he abused her. After six months, taking an action that was as difficult as it was brave, she reported him to a social worker at her Miami high school. Silva was "swooshed away" into the foster care system by the end of the school day.
Foster care can literally save a child's life in cases where the child has been abused or severely neglected. Indeed, in such situations, foster care may be the child's first experience in a safe and nurturing environment.
But that's not what happened in Silva's case. An honor roll student with plans for college, Silva was placed at a residential home "where they send the ‘bad kids'"—kids who have been in and out of juvenile detention centers. "I was terrified," Silva recalls. She left messages for her caseworker every day begging to be moved but never heard back.
When she was finally assigned a foster home three months later, Silva gladly accepted the placement—despite the fact that the neighborhood was crime-ridden and her foster mother expressed little interest in her or the other girls she had taken in. "She never acknowledged birthdays or holidays, never asked about school," says Silva. "And she treated her grandchildren so differently from us. That was hard to see." She lived in this foster home for three years, until she reached the age of legal majority.
Every few months during this time, Silva was assigned a new caseworker, and she says each one ignored her: "I felt that many people who were responsible for me didn't really care about my welfare. There was no communication. I personally had to tell the judge or the lawyer when something was going wrong.
"Most children don't know enough to be their own advocates," adds Silva. "They end up slipping through the cracks."
Every one of the approximately half-million children in foster care in the United States has a singular story. Foster care often provides a needed safe haven, but too many children languish for years in a system designed as an emergency, short-term measure—unsure who, if anyone, to consider their permanent family. Children who enter foster care spend an average of nearly three years there and move through an average of three placements. Some remain in this legal and emotional limbo much longer and may stay with 10 or more families. After the trauma of being neglected or abused, these long and indefinite stays all too often leave children with the impression that nobody wants them.
It is the duty of child welfare agencies and the courts to ensure that children find safe, permanent homes in a timely manner. In a system with high caseloads and limited resources, the appropriate authorities must take on the huge responsibility of deciding whether it is in a child's best interest to return her or him to the birth family or to terminate the birth parents' parental rights and free the child for adoption. Given the frequently conflicting accounts from parents, children, lawyers and social workers, it can take the wisdom of Solomon to determine what action is truly in the best interest of a child.
The question of whether the courts and child welfare agencies are too quick or too slow to separate children from their homes, terminate parental rights and have the children adopted is the subject of vigorous debate among child welfare experts. But there is no debate on this: Children want and need safe, permanent families of their own, and the current foster care system fails to achieve this outcome for far too many of them.
A few years ago, Cristina Silva was a foster child advocating for herself in a Miami courtroom. Last May, she was in Washington, D.C., advocating for major changes to the foster care system. Silva, a senior at New York University, was named to the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, a nonpartisan, independent group formed to recommend policies to prevent children from languishing in foster care. It was established with support from the Trusts through the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute last year.
The commission is chaired by Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and current guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and its vice-chair is William H. Gray III, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and past president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. This pairing sent a strong signal about the commission's nonpartisan nature, which was also reflected in the commission's membership.
The commission's leaders also brought credibility on Capitol Hill. At a hearing on foster care last January, U.S. House Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., ranking member of the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Ways and Means Committee, said, "If we can get Bill Frenzel and Bill Gray together on a report, I know it is going to be fiscally responsible, accountable and compassionate."
In addition to Silva, who offers the first-hand perspective of a former foster child, the commission is made up of leading child-welfare experts, including judges, social workers, administrators of child welfare agencies, a state legislator, a child psychologist and foster and adoptive parents—"the most extraordinary group of people I have ever been associated with," says Frenzel.
Foster care has long been an issue of bipartisan interest. In fact, last year on USA Today's op-ed page, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, jointly called for reform of the federal financing of foster care in order to reduce the number of children in the foster care system and the length of time they stay there. "If a public-policy dilemma can bring the two of us together," they wrote, "it clearly deserves a hard look from everyone." Yet, despite policymakers' willingness to reach across party lines to tackle the problem, policy solutions seemed elusive.
In 2003, the Trusts launched an initiative to advance policies to help prevent children from languishing in foster care. Maureen Byrnes, director of the Trusts' Health and Human Services' program, explains: "After extensive research and consultation with child welfare experts, stakeholders and policymakers, we designed the initiative to focus on two issues that underlie many of the reasons children languish in foster care. First, federal financing incentives favor foster care over other services and options. Second, state and local courts frequently lack the tools and information needed to effectively oversee foster care cases." The Pew Commission was the first part of the Trusts' three-part strategy to address these key issues.
The current federal financing system creates perverse incentives that favor placing and keeping children in foster care. States receive federal matching funds for each eligible foster child, funding that is guaranteed as long as the child remains in foster care. The federal dollars grow as the number of children in a state's foster care system grows.
Conversely, federal funding for services to help the birth parents address the problems—frequently involving substance abuse, inadequate housing, poor child-care or insufficient food or medical care—that led to their children being neglected and removed from home in the first place is limited and capped. Federal dollars to help identify and recruit potential adoptive parents and match them with children awaiting adoption are also limited. And while there is federal adoption assistance once an adoption is finalized, there is no similar guaranteed federal support when a child in foster care moves to a permanent home with a legal guardian, such as a grandparent or other relative.
Figures tell the story: Together, states receive almost $5 billion in federal money annually for maintaining children in foster care but receive less than $700 million in capped funding for the broad range of services necessary to prevent unnecessary placement in foster care or to swiftly and safely move children from foster care to permanent families.
A second root cause of why children languish in foster care is that state and local courts that oversee the cases of children in foster care struggle to make timely, appropriate decisions about them. "Judges are rightfully trained to look at one case at a time. They often don't have the time or the systems support to look at their caseload in the aggregate to identify problem areas," notes Nancy Salyers, a former judge who, during her tenure as presiding judge of Cook County, Ill., Juvenile Court, helped her court become a model for foster care reform. This "case-tracking" data about all of the children under a judge's supervision—for instance, how many of the judge's cases have been in foster care for how long—are often not available. Without such information, judges can't see patterns and practices that lead to bottlenecks, causing children to remain in foster care unnecessarily.
To frame their deliberations, the members of the Pew Commission began by establishing a set of principles identifying what they wanted for children:
The commissioners revisited these principles at each meeting. "When the discussions got difficult, says Carol Emig, the commission's executive director, "it was very helpful to go back to them and link the policy debate to what it really means for children."
At the commission's early meetings, held across the country, people directly affected by the foster care system were invited to share their experiences—problems and successes—and suggestions for reform. Commissioners heard from youth currently in foster care who spoke about the pain of being separated from siblings and the trauma of moving from one foster family to another.
They heard from foster and adoptive parents about how their children changed their lives for the better, as well as how they labored to navigate the court system and obtain the services their children desperately needed.
And the commissioners heard from social workers, judges and child-welfare agency directors, who described the stresses of their jobs and their efforts to identify and provide the services foster children and their families need.
Personal accounts—which formed the core of a report issued by the commission called Voices from the Inside—served as constant reminders, commission chairman Frenzel suggests, that the deliberations on federal financing and court management were really discussions about people's lives.
As the commission was conducting its work, in June 2003 the Trusts initiated the second part of its strategy by creating Fostering Results, a public education and outreach project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fostering Results is working nationally and in selected states to raise awareness of the need to improve the federal financing and court oversight of child welfare cases.
"When you talk to social workers, judges, advocates and others in the field, what you hear are the problems their communities face in helping children in foster care—the lack of substance-abuse treatment services, the lack of post-adoption services to help adoptive families," notes the Trusts' HHS director Byrnes. "But when you peel back the layers, there is something of a common thread that can be traced back to how the federal government funds foster care and how courts manage the progression of the cases. Fostering Results is helping stakeholders, policymakers and the media make those connections and understand the role federal financing and courts play in the local problems people are grappling with."
This past May, the commission released its recommendations, which aim to change the federal financing structure to facilitate timely and safe movement of children from foster care to permanent homes and reduce the need to place children in foster care in the first place; and to provide courts with tools and information to facilitate better and more timely decisions to help ensure children's safety and move them to permanent homes more promptly. (See Commission's Financing Recommendations.)
"We wanted to align incentives with the goal of helping to give every child a safe, permanent family," says Frenzel. "Our recommendations give states the flexibility to achieve that goal and a federal-state funding partnership they can depend on. And they give courts the tools, information and training they need to fulfill their responsibilities to children. We also call for greater accountability from both child welfare agencies and courts for the results."
As Frenzel notes, often the debate on financing issues is framed as either maintaining the status quo of entitlements that guarantee dollars but limit flexibility, or dispensing block grants that offer flexibility but limit dollars. Many state and county managers of foster care want more flexibility in the use of federal funding to meet the variety of needs of abused and neglected children, but are reluctant to risk losing federal foster care entitlement money that would grow if the number of cases surged, as it did with the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
In proposing its recommendations, Frenzel points out, the commission has identified common-ground solutions. For example, it recommends preserving federal foster-care maintenance and adoption assistance as an uncapped entitlement and expanding it to all children, yet also creating a Safe Children, Strong Families grant that would give states the flexibility to develop an array of services to help keep children safely at home or move them more quickly to safe, permanent families.
As Commissioner Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of Montgomery County, Ohio, Children's Services, has said: "The flexibility of the new indexed ‘Safe Children, Strong Families' grant would allow me to frontload my system so that more children can remain safely in their own homes. You know, as the system is now, we end up removing children when they could remain safely at home if we had the appropriate services to offer them. We often intervene with a sword when a scalpel would do."
Also, as children move to permanent homes, allowing states to redirect the funds that would have been used for their foster care placement to this flexible, indexed grant creates an additional incentive to move children to permanent families without penalizing the states if they succeed, Frenzel notes. Such flexibility, he adds, will give all states the option to implement the proven best-practices that states have developed through federally approved "waivers."
Indeed, through waivers, a few states have dramatically and safely reduced their foster care rolls by creating a range of innovative pilot programs —- for example, using federal foster-care entitlement funding to subsidize permanent legal guardianship. As Vice-Chair Gray says: "There is tremendous progress in individual states, communities and courts across the country to help children leave foster care safely or to stay safely with their own families in the first place. It's time for their successes to be the rule, not the exception."
In considering court oversight of child welfare cases, the commission has recommended the adoption of court performance measures developed jointly by the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to help judges better understand the dynamics of their caseloads. It calls for some new funds to implement this recommendation without necessarily entailing an expensive technology infrastructure or a new bureaucracy.
When she was on the bench, Judge Salyers began collecting her jurisdiction's figures with pencil and paper, charted them with a simple spreadsheet and held meetings to discuss bottlenecks. Aggregate data have helped some courts with tight budgets to do a better job than others with greater resources. "It is human nature," says Salyers. "Once you know that your activity is being measured, you pay more attention to the goals."
The commission also calls on Chief Justices and other state court leaders to organize their court systems in ways that better serve children. As the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Commissioner Maura Corrigan has created a task force to overhaul the dependency courts in her state. She says bluntly, "The buck stops here, with the states' highest courts."
Newspapers across the country weighed in with editorials praising the commission's recommendations and calling on Congress and state judicial leaders to adopt them. The San Jose, Calif., Mercury-News: "It's time to fix the system. The Pew Commission has provided the tools to get the job done." The Kansas City (Mo.) Star: "Every word in the recent Pew Commission report on problems in foster care systems should be read by legislators and judges who handle children's cases." The Cleveland Plain Dealer: "This is a report that policymakers dare not ignore." The Detroit Free Press: "Following the Pew recommendations would reap huge benefits for children—and society—far into the future." The Washington Post: "If the Pew report can help jump-start a serious effort to fix a broken system, that in itself will be a worthy achievement."
Others whose support would be crucial for instituting reforms welcomed the report. The Conference of Chief Justices, the association of the highest judicial officers in the states, endorsed the commission's recommendations. The Judicial Council of California, the policy-making body of the California state courts, which are responsible for one-fifth of the nation's children in foster care, issued a resolution commending the commission's "groundbreaking" work and committed itself to acting on the recommendations. And the Texas Supreme Court Task Force on Foster Care also commended the commission and "urge[d] careful consideration" of its court recommendations.
Congressional leaders of both parties also embraced the commission's efforts. The leaders of the House of Representatives subcommittee with jurisdiction over foster care, representatives Wally Herger, R-Calif., and Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., each commended the commission for its thoughtful work. In fact, soon after the recommendations were released, the subcommittee held a hearing on federal child welfare financing at which commission chairman Frenzel was invited to testify.
Subcommittee Chairman Herger subsequently introduced legislation—the Child Safety, Adoption and Family Enhancement Act of 2004—which incorporated several of the commission's recommendations. The bill is the first of what are likely to be many steps by policymakers which draw on the commission's work to address the problems in foster care system.
"I am very proud of our recommendations," says Chief Justice Corrigan. "I've been involved in government for 30 years. I wish government could function the way this commission functioned."
Christina Silva also valued the experience. "As a kid you want an immediate response. The public is like that, too. When they hear about a terrible case where a foster kid is murdered, they want an immediate response—fire the director of an agency. But it's not that simple," she reflects. "As a commissioner, I realized there is a certain process that we need to go through. You have to work within the system and think in the long term to make things change."
The Trusts is working to accelerate that change. With the release of the commission's recommendations, the Trusts will be collaborating with other funders and organizations on the third and final part of its strategy, which is to raise awareness of the commission's recommendations and encourage support for action on them to help the thousands of children languishing in foster care find a permanent home.
To see the commission's full report and supportive materials, visit its Web site at pewfostercare.org. The commission is located at 2233 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 535, Washington, DC 20007, and its phone number is 202.687.0948. Fostering Results is located at the Children & Family Research Center, 2 N. LaSalle St., Suite 1700, Chicago, IL 60602. Its phone number is 312.641.2505, and its Web site is www.fosteringresults.org.
The commission's financing recommendations involve:
The commission's court recommendations call for:
As presiding judge of the Juvenile Court in Cook County, IL, Nancy S. Salyers once had 6,000 cases on her docket. “How much time could I have spent with each individual child?” she told a Washington Times reporter in July.
The occasion was the release of View from the Bench, a national survey of judges on what they see as the barriers to finding safe, permanent homes for children in foster care. The 2,200 judges who responded to the survey (of 5,100 polled) reported that they were most hampered by the lack of services for children and families and by overcrowded court dockets. Among judges with dockets comprised of more than three-quarters abuse and neglect cases, nearly two-thirds said overcrowded dockets delay finding safe, permanent homes for children in foster care.
The survey was sponsored by Fostering Results, which Salyers co-directs. This nonpartisan outreach initiative is a Trusts-supported project of the Children and Family Research Center at the School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mark Testa, Ph.D., a noted child welfare researcher, is the principal investigator for the project.
Fostering Results was created last year to help highlight the ways federal financing and court issues contribute to children languishing in foster care and to engage the media and stakeholders on the need to address these issues. To support its nonpartisan research and education activities, Fostering Results works with organizations in selected states—Arizona, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin—and with national organizations .
Fostering Results, which represents the second part of the Trusts' foster care strategy, began its work shortly after the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care was launched. It immediately helped raise the profile of how financing and court issues affect children in foster care. View from the Bench is typical of the project's work, linking particular issues within the child welfare system to the root problems examined by the commission.
The project's other research efforts have included The Foster Care Straitjacket, a report that demonstrated the ways current federal foster-care financing mechanisms limit states' ability to find safe, permanent families for children; and a report looking at states' success in doubling the number of adoptions from foster care after the federal government created an adoption incentive program—documenting the value of aligning federal financial incentives with desired policy outcomes.
Working with its state partners, Fostering Results also regularly presents at national and regional conferences, meets with editorial boards to discuss federal financing and court oversight issues and engages state and local child-welfare agency and judicial leaders on key issues confronting their community.