Hearing the cries of children in need
May is National Foster Care Month. These types of things tend to come and go, but, especially given the unsustainability of the foster-care system due to the opioid crisis, it urgently deserves attention. How can we make a National Foster Care Month matter? What should we be making a priority? Who should be making it a priority?
We’re running this symposium of experts in conjunction with a foster-care forum that the National Review Institute is hosting Thursday on foster care. Please feel free to join us if you can.
The science is in: Children need families. Study after studyhighlights how boys and girls thrive as part of caring families . . . and wither without them. That’s an important confirmation of what common sense and Scripture have always affirmed. It also makes for good public policy, spurring officials to prioritize family-based solutions for kids who lack a safe home, from adoption to kinship care to quality foster homes.
But this also spotlights a massive elephant squatting in the corner: Governments cannot produce families by fiat, especially those willing to welcome and love children from hard places.
In fact, most states already face a big gap between the number of children who need families and foster homes ready to receive them. The opioid crisis is widening the gulf further still.
Could we ever see a day when there are more than enough families for every child in foster care? Absolutely. But revamping how government sees and interacts with foster parents is essential to getting there.
Fresh recruitment strategies will help. Research increasingly shows that certain populations are especially likely to foster and adopt. This includes faith communities. It only makes sense to put special focus here, including faith-friendly policies and partnerships with faith-based organizations that specialize in recruiting and supporting foster families.
But just as important is foster-family retention. Nearly 50 percent of foster parents drop out in their first year. Any business that lost half of its clients annually would do almost anything to change those numbers. For foster parents, three areas are key:
• Respect: Foster parents often feel they’re viewed as contracted providers of housing rather than vested caregivers. Simply listening and giving more weight to their perspective as parents would go a long way to affirming them as true partners in seeking good for children.
• Flexibility: Many middle-class families would be willing to foster if they could integrate an additional child into their existing lives. But that requires that the system flex more with foster parents’ schedules, including aid with transportation, rather than demand that foster parents be on call for any interruption.
• Support: Government can provide foster families many needed supports, from counseling to training. But just as vital are the less formal supports the system can encourage, and sometimes partner to provide, through foster-parent peer networks, faith communities, and other means.
Government cannot create the one thing foster youth need most: caring families. But championing changes like these in the policies and culture of the foster system could make a huge difference — working toward a day when there are more than enough loving families for every child in foster care.
Christian churches historically have stood at the forefront of caring for vulnerable children in need of families. This is because the Old Testament and the New Testament both command the people of God to care for, as James put it, “widows and orphans in their distress.” More of this engagement is needed in the United States right now. The nation is riddled with blue-state and red-state ideological silos, but one of the very few things almost everyone in America can agree on is that the foster-care system is overwhelmed, and those bearing the burden are hurting children.
Even secular Americans with no religious affiliation, even those who disagree strongly with the truth claims of the church, ought to recognize the critical activity that churches and other religious institutions provide when it comes to helping foster children. That’s one reason why governments at the local, state, and federal level should not seek to run confessional Catholic and Evangelical adoption and foster-care in the public arena, because they can’t mouth back culturally progressive ideological shibboleths. When it comes to serving children in crisis, nuns have a far better track record than “nones.” Evangelicals have a stronger history and network than Unitarians do. This should be an issue where we stop our political gamesmanship and recognize that we need everyone involved.
That said, politics is not the primary obstacle to helping the children waiting for stable foster homes; apathy is. If churches take seriously Jesus’ command to care for our neighbors in trouble (Luke 10:37), churches should bear any burden necessary to show the love of Christ to children in need of a home. Over the past ten years, a renaissance has happened, at least among one wing of Evangelical churches, toward doing just that — with many congregations now recognized by their states and localities as the model for mobilizing people for foster care.
The problem is that these churches are, almost without exception, the strongest congregations in the country, often located in stable urban or suburban centers. In many of the places where the need for foster care is greatest — owing to the opioid crisis and other drivers of family breakdown — churches are not as involved, not because they don’t care but because they are weathering the same storm as the communities around them. Family breakdown leads to weakening social bonds, which often leads to weakened churches, which lead to family breakdown — and the circular cycle whirls on. Foster care is key to family stability, which is the key to a healthy social order. One important part of this will be churches healthy enough to welcome children and to help families in crisis to reunite parents with children or to find them safe spaces in which to live and flourish.
— Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches.
“We have newborns sleeping in offices,” the social worker told me. “If you could open a crib, we’d be thankful.” Why are there so many babies, I wondered?
I couldn’t shake the image of newborns lining hallways under the glare of fluorescent lights. So, instead of fostering a teen, as I’d planned, I left the hospital cradling an infant, drug-exposed and shrieking.
This is why there are so many babies.
In short order, I’d mothered seven. Six beat the odds. I founded Generation Justice in honor of the one who did not.
Foster care has never fulfilled its purpose of being safe and temporary, and it will never fulfill that promise as long as children have lesser legal rights than their abusers do. Proposals such as reducing caseloads, increasing pay for social workers, and recruiting more foster-families ignore the real issue: Under the law, children are second-class citizens.
Many of the fundamental constitutional rights that we cherish as Americans are not available to children. In fact, criminals have stronger rights under the Constitution than children do.
For instance, the criminally accused have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. The Supreme Court has ruled that if a case isn’t closed in six months, the verdict may be tossed. Compare the six-month standard for criminals to those for victims of child abuse: I know a teen who has been in foster care for 14 years and yet he is still waiting for the state to make a permanency decision.
Criminals have the right to court-appointed counsel, but children don’t. Half of the states lack traditional legal representation for kids in foster care.
And the legal protections afforded children are weaker than those extended to their abusers. The judge in a severance hearing said, “I’d like to remind everyone that mom’s rights are constitutional, and baby’s rights are only statutory.”
Join us at Generation Justice — in legislatures and courtrooms — to raise the legal standards for American children whose lives hang in the balance.
— Darcy Olsen is the founder of Generation Justice.
A few months ago I was interviewing foster mothers in Northwest Arkansas. One told me that she recently walked into her church with three children she was caring for. She was carrying one and the other two were walking on either side of her. “You got another one?” one of her fellow churchgoers asked incredulously, not bothering to offer a hand. Sadly this reaction is far from unique. When I asked another foster mother in a suburb of Cincinnati what her friends from church and school thought of her caring for foster kids, she replied, “They think I’m crazy.”
At the same time there are churches all over this country where foster care and adoption have become, if not the norm, at least normal. The question for religious leaders is what changes the culture. How do you move from an institution where foster care is not even on the radar to one where every stable family considers it? Obviously, the message from the pulpit is important. I met one pastor who, with his wife, is caring for the children of his niece (an opioid addict). You can bet that his parishioners know how important foster care is.
The fact that churches are doing more to support foster families is important. Giving other members exposure to the challenges and rewards of foster care before they jump in is very useful. But we should keep in mind that it is not just mothers who need convincing. As one foster father told me, he needed to see a man speak about this experience, to acknowledge the kind of inconvenience and disruption this was going to cause to his life and his family’s life. Only then was he willing to sign up.
Fostering is an undertaking that the whole family has to embrace. Siblings also need to be supported. The siblings of foster children I have spoken to often describe the invaluable experience and they are often the ones pushing their parents to sign up again. But children especially do not want their families to seem too odd. We will know foster care is part of the culture when all the cool kids are doing it.
— Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on child welfare and foster-care issues. She is author of Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat: Strategies for Solving the Real Parenting Problems.
The number of children entering foster care is on the rise, and while the recruitment of foster parents is important, more so is the retention of foster parents who leave the system and take with them the stability and experience that our foster-care system desperately needs. Currently, over half of all foster families quit within their first year of service, with many citing frustration, from working with the foster-care agency, as their primary reason for leaving.
Foster-care agencies and advocates need to prioritize better preparation and support of foster parents to keep them informed, engaged, and participating so they can face the challenges of caring for vulnerable children and navigating what many consider a complex, uncaring bureaucracy that does not serve the best interests of children. The more these families know and feel supported, the better they can foresee and overcome the obstacles they will face.
Better retention of foster parents is good for all involved: Foster parents are an investment by the agency. An investment that is lost when they choose to stop being foster parent, whereas their steady involvement relieves some of the burden of ongoing recruitment and training of new foster parents by agencies. With resources spent onboarding new parents, agencies further prioritize other services, such as preventive care, that help keep families together.
The community also benefits from experienced foster parents. They serve as mentors and support new foster parents and one another. They can answer questions and provide an inside look in a way that the agency cannot. As the center of the foster community, they are models for care and service. Most important, consistent foster parents and caregivers create stability for children in foster care. Stability creates continuity of relationships and attachments, both critical to children’s development. It also creates pathways to permanency through longer-term placements and, in many cases, increases the chance that a child will be adopted by the foster family.
The National Council for Adoption (NCFA) is committed to understanding the issues facing foster parents today and is engaged in a multi-state research study on foster-parent recruitment and retention. We want to find out what programs and services offered by public and private agencies to foster and adoptive parents are most beneficial and appreciated by families, and which are not. Once we understand how to help caseworkers better support foster families, many families will remain in their fostering roles when they are convinced they are making a positive difference in the lives of children.
— Trajan Sullivan works at the National Council on Adoption.
Kelly M. Rosati
The foster-care crisis is solvable — as a systemic matter. Unlike so many other societal ills that seem intractable and insurmountable (and perhaps they are), this one is not.
It’s certainly true that as long as there is child abuse and neglect, there will be children and youth in foster care, some of whom will be reunified with healthier, safe birth families and some of whom will need adoptive families if they are unable to return home.
But as a systemic matter, all we need to solve the foster-care crisis are good people willing to offer the gift of their families to children without them. The families we need must be well trained and supported or it won’t work. It’s too hard to do alone. It will take financial resources, public–private partnerships (including with the faith community), and a prioritization of the needs of abused and neglected kids among public-policy makers across the political and ideological spectrum.
All aspects of the system must become trauma-informed, because we now know so much more about the neurological impact of early trauma. Along with that, we know more about what works and what doesn’t to help bring healing to a hurting child. Investment in the training and resources necessary is a must. And investment in support of families who are willing to get involved has to be a non-negotiable.
We need to raise awareness of the need. Many don’t know or understand, so they can’t take action to help. To raise awareness most effectively, people with power and influence need to leverage it on behalf of those who have none; the least among us, abused and neglected children. The last must be put first. They must be championed in both word and deed. Talk won’t cut it. We need action as well.
And as the needs of the children become more widely understand, we need a sweeping move of compassion that lifts ordinary, flawed people beyond handwringing and headshaking to the place where they ask these questions: How might I play a role in helping those children? How can my family, my church, my community be part of the solution? How can I make space in my schedule, in my heart, in my head, and maybe even in my home, to be part of the change that will save lives? Not everyone will be able to foster or adopt, but everyone can play a role in making sure that no abused or neglected child in our nation goes without a loving and supportive family. It’s the very least we should do.
— Kelly M. Rosati is the chief executive officer of KMR Consulting and a co-author, with her husband, John, of Wait No More: One Family’s Amazing Adoption Journey.