Monday, May 16, 2011

Foster care in America: Research vs. the tyranny of personal experience

Everybody knows that the outcomes for most children who grow up in foster care are dismal.  They are far more likely to wind up on welfare, homeless or in jail than other young adults.  One study found that seven years after being released from “residential treatment” 75 percent of institutionalized children were back in the only places where they knew how to live – other institutions, like psychiatric centers and jails.  In contrast, only two percent of children who “age out” of foster care graduate from college.

we also know that, thanks in no small part to the mad rush to terminate parental rights in the wake of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, the number of children “aging out” with no home has soared 70 percent since 1998.

So it’s no wonder that groups like the Child Welfare League of America love to fixate on the exceptions.  They and other bastions of the child welfare establishment are all over Twitter “re-tweeting” any treacly feature story they can find about that incredibly rare, inspiring former foster child who overcame the almost-impossible odds and succeeded. 

The young people themselves more than deserve that attention.  Their stories really can be inspiring – all the more so when they turn their attention to helping others, as many do.

But as always, with what I’ve come to call the foster care-industrial complex, there’s an ulterior motive: Use the two percent to distract attention from the 98 percent; use their success to deflect blame for everybody else’s failure.  In short, focus on the kids who beat the odds to avoid talking about how the system needs to reform in order to change those odds.

It gets really scary when someone who is, himself, among the two percent does it.


Which brings me to some downright weird comments from Bryan Samuels, who runs the federal governments Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.  ACYF is a division of the Administration for Children and Families (causing no end of confusion), which is, itself, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services.  Samuels was interviewed by the trade journal Youth Today.

Samuels is part of that elite two percent.  In his case, I don’t think he has any ulterior motive.  Rather his is a classic case of the tyranny of personal experience.

Samuels was institutionalized – living in the same institution for 11 years.  Unlike most, he was able to cope with it. So now he’s suggesting that maybe those rotten outcomes from foster care are simply the fault of all those no-good parents, telling Youth Today:

We ought to challenge the assumption that it is the child welfare experience itself that is causing bad outcomes instead of the maltreatment being the root cause.

But it’s Samuels who is making an unfounded assumption: that all foster children are there because of maltreatment.  In fact, many are there because family poverty has been confused with “neglect.”

In contrast, what Samuels chooses to brand an assumption is, in fact, exhaustively-documented fact.

Of course some children really are brutally abused and they suffer enormously for it.  But other children are not harmed until they enter foster care.  And for both groups, the question is: Is the foster care experience making things better or worse?

Again, there certainly are some cases where the abuse was so bad at home and/or the foster care experience so exceptional that foster care definitely was the less detrimental alternative.  But good policymaking requires understanding what happens to most children most of the time.

The evidence that, for a great many children, foster care makes things worse, has been piling up for decades, at least since Intensive Family Preservation Services programs started producing better results than foster care with a better track record for safety than foster care.

And it was confirmed by three studies, the two massive studies from MIT and a smaller study from the University of Minnesota, all of which, in effect, asked exactly the question Samuels is asking.  All three studies found that, in typical child welfare cases, on outcome after outcome, children left in their own homes, typically fared better than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

So there should be no more excuses for the failure of the child welfare system.  It’s a fact: A key cause of the rotten outcomes for children in foster care is foster care.  But apparently, since the research doesn’t jibe with his personal experience, Samuels wants to use his position to undermine the research.

Also: The last time I wrote about Samuels it was to ask if he might be a friend to true child welfare finance reform.  Looks like the answer is no.  His comments to Youth Today suggest tepid support at best.   So don’t expect him to stand up to the efforts from CWLA and others to “yes, but…” reform to death.

 IN A FUTURE POST: Why Samuels also is wrong about class-action lawsuits to reform child welfare.