Five Commentaries: Looking to the Future

The Future of Children, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Five Commentaries: Looking to the Future


To provide an array of perspectives on the future direction of foster care, we asked five experts across various disciplines and backgrounds to respond to this question: "How can the child welfare system be improved to better support families and promote the healthy development of children in foster care?" Their responses follow.

COMMENTARY 1

Susan H. Badeau

My husband and I first became foster parents in 1982. In the 20 years since then, we have fostered more than 50 children and teens, adopting 20 children along the way. At the same time, in my career as a child welfare caseworker, I was involved in placement decisions for hundreds of children and their biological, foster, and adoptive families. With those experiences in mind, I would argue that a conversation about improving the system should begin with a discussion of guiding principles. If policymakers and practitioners at the federal, state, and community level were to agree to a basic set of guiding principles, multiple strategies to serve children and families would emerge and would likely be successful. As a way of beginning this conversation, I propose six key principles.

1. Do no harm

Any policy discussion or shift in practice should begin with a strong commitment to ensuring that no child or family will be worse off after intervention than they were before. No one works in child welfare with a goal of hurting children. Yet the cumulative effect of the patchwork approach to child welfare policy and practice is that children and families are often hurt more by the system than they were by the circumstances that brought them to the system in the first place.

One of our first foster care experiences was with a teenage boy, "Jerry." When he arrived in our home at the age of 14, he was desperately behind in school, severely depressed, and addicted to sniffing glue, paint, and other chemicals. We eventually learned that Jerry had been a "healthy, normal" six-month-old when he was removed from the care of his developmentally disabled mother, ostensibly because of neglect. In the ensuing years, Jerry experienced 17 foster care moves, and was physically and sexually abused in at least 3 of these placements. During the same period, his mother, despondent over the loss of her son, became depressed and lost her job. She received no supportive services, and, as a result of chronic unemployment and homelessness, eventually became a prostitute. Throughout his teenage years, Jerry was involved in escalating criminal activities, and he is in prison today. Jerry and his mother were clearly harmed more by the system's intervention than by the "neglect" that first brought Jerry to the attention of child welfare workers.

Children who have spent time in foster care have negative outcomes in numerous areas, including physical and mental health, educational achievement, and social development. Although some of these outcomes can be attributed to factors that were present before a child came into contact with the child welfare system, prolonged foster care, particularly involving multiple placements, undoubtedly contributes to the negative outcomes.

2. FOCUS on the whole child, in context

Policy and practice must be structured to serve children within the context of families and communities. The structure should provide opportunities and incentives for multiple systems--including health, mental health, education, employment and income support, and justice as well as child welfare--to collaborate on behalf of children before, during, and after their involvement with foster care. Although some strides have been made, serious gaps exist. For example, children in foster care are entitled to receive health and mental health care services through Medicaid, but no policy initiative ensures continuity of health care coverage for children who return home after a period in foster care. Services that "wrap around" both the child and the family should be a high priority in discussions regarding improvements in the child welfare system. …

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