There are a couple of studies that I cite so often on this blog and elsewhere that I once suggested readers could run a betting pool to guess which paragraph would contain the reference.
They are the two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases conducted by MIT researcher Prof. Joseph Doyle. The longitudinal studies compared children in typical child welfare cases who were placed in foster care to children experiencing the same sort of alleged abuse or neglect who were left in their own homes.
The studies didn’t guess what happened to these children based on subjective assessments. And the studies didn’t track the children for just a few months or maybe a year or two. These studies tracked the children all the way into late adolescence and young adulthood and looked at what actually happened to them. Typically, on measure after measure, the children left in their own homes did better. A second, even larger study, confirmed the findings.
That was a decade ago. In all the time since, the study has remained definitive. Nothing has matched it for size, scope or rigor. The closest that foster-care apologists could come to finding a flaw is their claim that the studies didn’t follow young children. (In fact, they followed children as young as age 5.)
So the only straw at which the foster-care apologists could grasp was the hope – with no evidence – that the results would be different for even younger children.
But that ignored still another study, (also discussed here) from University of Minnesota researchers. Using different methodology and outcomes, but again tracking actual outcomes all the way into adolescence, this study looked at children who first entered foster care anywhere from birth to age 9. This study also was an apples-to-apples comparison. The researchers looked at children under comparable circumstances and it, too, found that the children left in their own homes did better.
OK, the foster care apologists might say, but what about just infants. If we limit the study to just infants will we get the results we want? No. Not even when the infants are born with cocaine in their systems.
University of Florida researchers studied two groups of such children; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out. Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.
None of these studies is perfect, of course. But compare the rigor of these studies to the best the foster-care apologists can come up with.
The latest study
And now comes study #5. Unlike the others, this one concerns children in Finland. Once again it directly examined comparable cases. Once again it tracked the children all the way to young adulthood. And, like the Minnesota study, this one was limited to young children – ages 2 to 6. Once again, the children left in their own homes did better.
The researchers note one point about their child welfare system that they seem to think might make it different from the one in the United States. They write:
…in the Finnish context, the main reason for placement is not abuse but some level of neglect or inability to care for the child as a result of parental poor mental health, financial difficulties or the accumulation of problems.
But in fact, those are the main reasons for placement in the United States as well. And, as this investigative report from Finland’s public broadcaster YLE makes clear, the Finnish system’s denial of due process and penchant for needless removal are depressingly similar to the American system.
The fact that researchers got these results in Finland is important for a very different reason: In America foster-care apologists constantly blame the rotten outcomes of foster care on the fact that the system is underfunded. If only we had more money, they claim, we could fix it.
But Finland is a world leader in social welfare spending; by some measures it’s #1 in the European Union. If money is the problem, then the results from Finland should be vastly different. That they are not is still more evidence that foster care is inherently so traumatic for a child that it is fundamentally unfixable.
(And, for the record, still another American study reached a similar conclusion. This one created a mathematical formula for how much better the awful outcomes for foster children would be if the system were magically made perfect. The answer: 22.2 percent.)
It is, of course, well worth trying to achieve that improvement. And none of these studies suggests that no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. The horror stories are very rare but they’re also very real. There are cases in which the trauma of removal, bad as it is, is less bad than leaving the child in her or his own home.
But the Finnish study is still more evidence that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used much more sparingly and in much smaller doses than it is used in America today. And the study is still more evidence that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it.