Academic journal article Policy Review

"What I Need Is a Mom": The Welfare State Denies Homes to Thousands of Foster Children

Academic journal article Policy Review

"What I Need Is a Mom": The Welfare State Denies Homes to Thousands of Foster Children

Article excerpt

John, 10, is one of America's children who waits. He waits for a home, and he has been waiting nearly all of his life. When John was a toddler, his drug-addicted mom lost her parental rights, and claimed not to know who the father was. John has been legally free to be adopted since he was three, but instead has lived in state-run foster homes and group homes. While his childhood slips away, John's social workers debate his best interests and the programs they hope will address them. But this skinny kid who loves baseball knows better: "I'm all wrapped up in programs," he says. "What I need is a mom."

Across the country, there are 50,000 foster children like John, who no longer live with their mother or father and have been declared by courts as free to be adopted, but who languish for months or years in state-run, state-funded substitute care. On any given day, nearly 400,000 other children -- none of them eligible for adoption -- can be found in government foster homes, group homes, and shelters. Many of them are kept there by absentee parents clinging to the legal rights to their children.

Foster care and adoption in America have sunk to a state of near- catastrophe.

According to the American Public Welfare Association, the population of children in substitute care is growing 33 times faster than the U.S. child population in general. During each of the past 10 years, more children have entered the system than exited. Every year, 15,000 children "graduate" from foster care by turning 18 with no permanent family; 40 percent of all foster children leaving the system end up on welfare, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

What was for most of America's history an entirely private endeavor has become a massive, inefficient government system. State agencies consistently fail to recruit enough families for the children eligible for adoption every year; potential parents often are turned down because of racial considerations, or turned off by protracted and unnecessary waiting periods; cumbersome state regulations extend to private adoption agencies and can even prohibit private attorneys from handling adoptions. The result is that tens of thousands of children are now free to be adopted but have nowhere to go.

This is the dirty little secret of the welfare state: Every child is adoptable,

and there are waiting lists of families ready to take in even the most emotionally troubled and physically handicapped children. Government adoption policies are utterly failing in their most basic purpose -- to quickly place children who are free to be adopted into permanent homes.

The problem lies not with the children. What keeps kids like John bound to state care are the tentacles of a bureaucratic leviathan: a public funding scheme that rewards and extends poor-quality foster care; an anti- adoption bias that creates numerous legal and regulatory barriers; and a culture of victimization that places the whims of irresponsible parents above the well-being of their children.

I can identify with these kids. I was a foster child in a family that cared for 110 children. That family -- my family -- adopted me in the early 1970s. Years later, as a student at Harvard, I happened upon a book of statistics on children in state care. I was stunned to learn that decades of research, policymaking, and government funding had only intensified the system's failures. I was one of the lucky ones, but luck will not stem the tide of parentless children. By the year 2000, well over a million children will enter foster care, and tens of thousands of kids will become eligible for adoption. Unless the government apparatus of foster care and adoption is dismantled, these children could spend their childhoods wishing for what most people take for granted: stability, a family that will last longer than a few months, a last name.

Subsidizing Failure

For years the rallying cry of many children's activists has been: "More money! …

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