Meeting the Challenges of Contemporary Foster Care

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Over the past two decades, the foster care system experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of children in out-of-home care, significant changes in the policy framework guiding foster care practice, and ongoing organizational impediments that complicate efforts to serve the children in foster care. This article discusses the current status of the foster care system and finds:

* Agencies often have difficulty providing adequate, accessible, and appropriate services for the families in their care.

* Children of color, particularly African-American children, are disproportionately represented in foster care, a situation which raises questions about the equity of the foster care system and threatens the developmental progress of children of color.

* Foster families can find the experience overwhelming and frustrating, causing many to leave foster parenting within their first year.

* Organizational problems such as large caseloads, high staff turnover, and data limitations compromise efforts to adequately serve and monitor families.

The challenges before the foster care system are numerous, however the authors believe promising policies and practices aimed at strengthening families, supporting case workers, providing timely and adequate data, and infusing cultural competency throughout the system, can move the foster care system forward in the coming years.

The foster care system faces serious challenges in the twenty-first century. Major societal problems such as high rates of child and family poverty, homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, unequal education, family and community violence, and racism have a deleterious effect on families and directly impact child well-being and the child welfare system. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "These factors have contributed to the development of large caseloads of families that have multiple and complex needs. The child welfare system must respond to these needs, while protecting the rights of children and families and ensuring the safety of children." (1)

The primary goal of foster care is to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children. In that spirit, the principal provisions of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) were developed to decrease the time to permanent placement, increase the incidence of adoption and other permanency options, enhance states' capacity for reaching these goals, and establish performance outcome measures to increase accountability. (2) (See the article by Allen and Bissell in this journal issue.) The foster care system is expected to meet these goals while simultaneously facing a decrease in the number of unrelated foster homes, long waiting lists for substance abuse treatment, a lack of affordable housing and child care, increased unemployment, shortened time limits for public welfare assistance, and heightened public scrutiny.

This article discusses the status of contemporary foster care and the challenges currently faced by the child welfare system. The article begins by discussing some of the factors that lead to children being placed in foster care and provides a demographic profile of foster children. It also explores factors that contribute to the disproportionate representation of children of color in child welfare. The article then discusses the foster care experience from both the child's and the foster parents' perspective, and it explores the institutional challenges in meeting both children's and parents' needs. The article closes with policy and practice recommendations for improving foster care and the child welfare system in the twenty-first century.

Major Challenges Facing the Child Welfare System

The child welfare system faces multiple challenges in serving and supporting the families and children in its charge. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, child welfare caseloads grew substantially. …