Sharp rise in the number of children in foster care means more kids at risk

The disturbing headlines and heartbreaking stories of children failed by foster care continue to fill newspapers and websites. The tragedies are also likely to become even more common if the strain on America’s foster care system isn’t alleviated, as the number of children in foster care in the U.S. rose sharply, for the first time in nearly a decade. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) annual report, the foster care population in Fiscal Year 2014 rose to 415,129 children from just under 401,000 children in Fiscal Year 2013.

Sometimes the stories are about one unfortunate child, like Eric Dean, a three-year-old Minnesota boy killed by injuries caused when his stepmother threw him across a room, after fifteen separate abuse reports by day care workers failed to get authorities to intervene.

And sometimes the stories show system-wide problems, like the 184 children who were abused or neglected while in state custody in Massachusetts last year. According to the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) “investigated and substantiated about 630 allegations of abuse and neglect,” meaning many of these children were the victims of multiple incidents of abuse or neglect. Even more troubling, these numbers represent “an 18 percent increase from 2013, when 538 allegations of mistreatment were substantiated, and a 36 percent increase from 2012, when 465 allegations were found to be valid.”

Jeremiah Oliver sadly didn’t even survive his time in foster care. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families “lost track” of him after failing to conduct regular home visits, and his body was found on the side of a road. In August, a two-year-old girl died and a 22-month-old baby was found in “dire condition” in one foster home, just three days after a DCF worker had visited.

Arkansas is another state that has reported problems, with reports showing troubling signs of how overburdened the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is. DCFS had such a shortage of available foster homes, that during January and April of this year, 22 children slept in the DCFS offices.

These disturbing real life examples of a failed system should signal the need for serious reforms. But, all too often, the response to negative headlines about tragedies within the child welfare system calls for more social workers to be hired, more training programs, and more taxpayer dollars dumped into a broken system with terrible outcomes. While things like providing improved training and decreasing caseloads for front line workers are necessary, the implementation of reforms too often fail, resulting in a repeat of the same problems year after year. Children deserve better than the status quo, and it’s time that policymakers to do the hard work necessary to ensure that no child becomes a cautionary tale.

The problem is nationwide. Arkansas is far from the only state to report overburdened case workers, and Massachusetts is not the only state with spiking rates of abused and neglected children in foster care. Seven years ago, the Mississippi Department of Children and Family Services was ordered to implement reforms to its foster care system as part of a lawsuit over the state’s failure to adequately protect the children in its care. In July, the agency publicly admitted in a filing with the court that they had failed to implement the required reforms. In Minnesota, after the death of little Eric Dean, the three-year-old who was the subject of 15 ignored reports of suspected abuse, a special task force recommended a complete overhaul of the state’s child welfare system, over 100 reforms in all.

Voters have seen too many of these headlines to trust government to properly care for at-risk kids. The Foundation for Government Accountability recently commissioned a multi-state poll that showed voters across all demographic and ideological groups strongly prefer – by a 70% majority – private, community-based options like charities and churches over government programs for responding to the needs of children and their families.

One of the most successful programs with a strong track record of not only protecting children, but ensuring that they never enter foster care, is a national charity called Safe Families for Children.

Since 2002, Safe Families chapters, which exist in 27 different states, have handled more than 20,000 placements. According to the Lydia Home Association, 90 percent of these placements successfully achieved reunification without ever entering foster care. In contrast, government-run foster care successfully returns only 51 percent of children to their biological families.

Even better, children hosted through Safe Families spend, on average, only 29 days away from their families, while children in foster care languish there for over 700 days.

These incredible results are achieved at little or no cost to taxpayers as most Safe Families chapters are funded through private charity donations. While government-run foster care costs taxpayers $25,000 or more per child each year, Safe Families costs only $1,500 per child in mostly private funds.

It is all too easy to feel despair when there are so many tragic headlines about vulnerable children being abused, neglected, and even dying while in foster care. But we can turn that despair into hope by seizing this opportunity to make life better for families and reduce the number of children entering a broken system. Those who care about our kids and our families can encourage policymakers in their states to commit to prioritizing innovative, community-based solutions, like Safe Families, that give states another tool in the toolbox to help children realize their basic right to a family.

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Kristina Ribali is the Senior Coalitions Director for the Foundation for Government Accountability. Follow her on Twitter, or contact her at [email protected]

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