It is one of the most tragic and shocking problems in our country. At any given time, there are about half a million American children in our foster care system after they have been brought out of situations of abuse or neglect.
But national child welfare expert Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute has an even more provocative and disturbing case to make. She argues not only that there are millions more left in dangerous situations for too long, but also that children at risk are being used as pawns in a broader social agenda that, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous for those who end up in the limbo of foster care.
About him Big Ideas Podcast With Matt Robison, Ms. Riley described how the system is failing and how better data, more coordination with civic groups, and better priorities could improve the lives of millions of American children.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
What are the basics of the foster care system?
About 3 million calls are made to child abuse hotlines each year. Approximately 800,000 of them are substantiated, which means that we can determine that there is some measure of abuse or neglect. During the course of the year, around 600,000 children are in foster care at one time or another. About a quarter of them are eligible for adoption, which means that parental rights have been terminated or are in the process of being terminated.
What happens when the children leave?
Children can be placed by family court with extended family, individual families, group homes of various sizes, and sometimes even psychiatric institutions. But even to get to that point, child protective services must conduct an assessment. That is a very difficult job. It can be very difficult, even dangerous, and we don’t train people well enough. Some child welfare agencies have a 40% turnover rate, so we have a lot of relatively newbies doing the job.
This is a difficult topic, but what kinds of situations lead to elimination?
Most cases in the child welfare system are actually neglect, not necessarily physical abuse. And most of our child abuse deaths in this country, and there are about 2,000 a year, are actually due to neglect.
The more difficult problem is that the underlying causes of neglect are often intractable problems in the family: mental health, drug addiction, and extreme poverty. But as difficult as those things are, in the context of child welfare, the question we have to ask ourselves is how long and how many opportunities do you give that parent to rehabilitate before determining that the child needs to be removed for their safety. ? Because in this country there are programs so that no child goes hungry, without heating, without clothes.
The law says that if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months, a state is supposed to take steps to remove parental rights. Unfortunately, that law is violated throughout the country. Family courts and child welfare agencies consider that parents are also victims and that they should always have one, three more, seven more chances. So the average amount of time a child spends in foster care is now 20 months. That’s a lot in the context of a young child and devastating to their development.
Is that the basic problem you are describing here in the book?
Yes. The child welfare system has been oriented around the needs and sensitivities of adults and no longer around the best interests of children. We must have enormous empathy for the adults who are struggling and try to offer them as many ways as possible to help them fix their lives. But the question is, how do we compare that to the child’s needs?
It presents a specific case of misguided activism around racial issues.
In the early 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers said that we do not believe that black children should be placed in foster care or adoption with white families. And that kind of thinking is still present throughout the system, but studies show that black children who are adopted by black families and black children who are adopted by white families have the same results. And what we’ve learned from a scientific perspective is that as the brain develops, particularly between the ages of zero and three, the need for a child to form a secure bond with a particular adult is critical. Therefore, it is urgent to achieve a faster installation.
There is a very difficult history in this country with the adoption of racial minorities. Is there something inherently wrong in saying, when possible, that we keep children within a cultural and ethnic setting that matches their personal backgrounds?
Today, black children in this country are abused at roughly twice the rate of white children. Black children die from abuse at a rate three times that of white children. So we have to ask ourselves: are we meeting the needs of black children in this country? Do we keep them safe?
People always ask what is the ideal location. This is not a luxury that we have. We do not have enough stable homes to place the children. The only alternative for these children is to stay in unsafe homes, languish in the foster care system, or sleep in offices. There are 400 kids this year in Texas alone who slept Offices. This is unacceptable. So where can we find a family that cares for and loves a child? I think it’s crazy to get stuck trying to find an ideal cultural or ethnic partner.
How can we improve this situation?
There is a chapter in the book called Moneyball for Child Welfare, which is about the innovative use of predictive analytics to help us get on the front lines of the child welfare system. I would love to see that every child welfare agency in the country has access to those kinds of resources so they can understand which child has the most urgent need. And generally, we must reorient what we do around the best needs of children.
Each week we share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions to problems. Subscribe and to learn more about addressing issues in the foster care system, check out the full episode at Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Automatic switch, Pocket, Public Radio, or Stapler
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on the demographic, psychological, political, and economic trends that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as the Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three members of Congress, and also served as a senior adviser, campaign manager, or consultant in various Congressional races, specializing in New Hampshire. In 2012, he participated in a race from behind that national political analysts called the biggest surprise victory of the election. He continued to serve as Policy Director in the New Hampshire State Senate, successfully helping coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive work in the private sector on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a BA in economics from Swarthmore College and an MA in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.