Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The foster care Twilight Zone

    Quick: How many children are trapped in foster care on any given day?

    The usual answer is about half a million.

    But a new study suggests this figure may be way too low. It suggests the existence of a foster care Twilight Zone that traps another 300,000 children who never show up in state or federal statistics.

    The good news: These 300,000 children at least are in kinship care, which cushions the blow of foster care.

    The bad news: This kind of kinship care clearly is foster care by any common sense definition. But states are getting away with keeping these placements off the books.

    So even as state and federal policymakers claim that the number of children in foster care has been declining, in fact, we don't know if it's true.

    Even as a very, very rich foundation called Casey Family Programs sets a noble goal of cutting the number of children in foster care in half by 2020, it's not clear that there will be any way to know if that goal is achieved.

    All this emerges from a careful reading of a new report on kinship care from a group called Child Trends, available here.

We've tended to think of two kinds of kinship care: Entirely private arrangements, in which, say, a parent asks her own parents to take care of the kids for awhile, and the CPS agency never so much as hears about it, or formal kinship care in which the CPS agency takes the child away, assumes custody and places the child with, say, a grandparent.

This report suggests that there is a growing category in-between. It's best described in a flow chart on page 14. And even within this category, there are wide variations from state to state and perhaps even placement to placement.  No one knows how large this category is.  But while the number of children in "official" kinship care is 125,000, the report cites one study, on page 5, which suggests that another 280,000 to 417,000 may be in the foster care Twilight Zone.

This category is described repeatedly in the report as being used to "divert" children from foster care. The authors used this term in a questionnaire sent to child welfare administrators. But it sure looks like foster care to me. In these additional 280,000 to 417,000 cases, the child welfare agency, and sometimes a court, "determine" that the child should not live with the birth parents and the agency approves where the child will live. What happens afterwards varies.

But that alone should be enough for it to "count" as a foster care placement.

Indeed, the federal AFCARS database does not require that a child be in state "custody" for the removal to be deemed an entry into care. Rather, a removal counts as an entry into care if the child is under the "placement care or supervision responsibility" of the state or local child welfare agency.

I suspect the regulations were written this way to avoid states simply not counting all situations in which children are returned home before the first court hearing. (As has been noted often on this blog before, including the previous post, Kansas does this anyway, exploiting a loophole in the regs or simply ignoring them, depending on your point of view.)

In any event, I would think that, at a minimum, any case in category 5a on the flow chart should count as an entry into foster care. And, in fact, all such cases should count: If the state forces you to put your child someplace other than your own home, it's foster care.

Indeed, this all looks uncomfortably like a return to a practice that was common at least through the 1980s – coerced "voluntary" placements into foster care.

I'm not suggesting that having a category of placements like these – in which a child is forced into kinship foster care, but there sometimes is less ongoing butting into the family's business -- is wrong. On the contrary, these kinds of placements are likely to be better for most children most of the time than the kind in which CPS exerts even more power over the family.

But we need to be honest about the fact that many, if not all of these placements fit a common-sense definition of "foster care." At a minimum, we need solid, specific, loophole-free definitions of what constitutes "foster care" and what constitutes an entry into care.

    Unfortunately, the last person likely to act on this is President Obama's choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius – since, as is discussed in the previous post, she had no problem with her state's version of HHS fudging figures on entries into care to an extent that is probably worse than any other state.