More than one in three children experience an abuse or neglect investigation before adulthood, and that number is one in two for Black children. Moreover, one in nine Black children and one in seven Native American children spend part of their childhood in foster care.
These are unimaginable statistics. And once children are placed in foster care which is supposed to be a safe alternative for them, their situation is, in some cases, equally distressing. Many of these youth have already suffered from abuse or neglect, and the past traumas don’t just disappear. Foster care should be a place where they can go to heal, but often the experience is equally traumatic, and the following stats prove just how much the foster system is failing young people. 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system were involved in the child welfare system. 50% of foster youth will not graduate from high school on time, 48% of girls in foster care become pregnant by age 19, 33% of homeless young adults were previously in foster care, and 60% of child trafficking victims have histories in foster care. So, what can we do to create an environment where our most vulnerable children are treated with empathy and respect and can go on to become well-balanced adults? BCT Partners, a company dedicated to accelerating equity, examines steps the foster care system can take to protect young people.
1. Invest in technology While many people argue that the foster care system can't afford to invest in technology, they can't afford not to. Yet, the United States already spends $30 billion on foster care annually without the positive results you would expect from that budget. The one thing that agency employees do not have is more time. Instead of tedious processes done by hand, they can automate them and use that information to improve systems and protocols further. Automation can also free up caseworkers' time so they can spend it in the field, ensuring that foster kids are receiving the best care possible. An example of technology already showing positive results is work being done at the Office of Child Care.
2. Use Data to Provide Individualized Support
While many foster care organizations have administrative processes to collect data, it needs to translate into actionable information. Precision analytics can make that data available to front-line workers to connect individuals and their families with support services most likely to lead to successful outcomes. One of the primary reasons that children end up in foster care is neglect, often related to poverty. If children are reunited with their families and the parents are given the proper resources, it is less likely that children will end up in the system again. Services such as job training, healthcare, affordable housing, childcare assistance, and access to substance abuse programs can help families move out of poverty and into a more stable long-term situation.
3. Share Information Among Agencies
Once you have actionable information, those insights should be shared more broadly. Organizational leaders can use existing evidence and case studies to identify and implement approaches that will work best within their jurisdiction. Technology offers a solution via automated data linkage with secure, accessible information sharing between community partners. Examples of success stories include e-health records (EHR) and child welfare information databases. Historically, electronic records systems have been siloed; however, linking and sharing data across systems has been demonstrated successfully by programs such as health information exchanges.
4. Group Homes Should Be the Last Resort
Group homes make little sense financially as they are about seven to ten times more expensive per child than placement with a family. But more importantly, children succeed more often when placed in family settings from the start, particularly if they can live with relatives. In all too many cases, extended family members would be willing and able to offer that support. Still, they are not given the opportunity, especially when they live out of state. Again, relatives could be located before children are placed in group homes or other non-familial foster family homes with better access to information across jurisdictions. Only some children will have relatives willing to get involved; in those cases, a foster family is still highly preferable to a group home. "We believe all kids who have to be removed from their families should be placed with other families," says Tracey Feild, director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "That's the most important criterion for placement -- or it should be." Unfortunately, more than 56,000 children are currently living in group settings.
5. Provide Support Beyond Age 18
When teens age out of the foster system at 18, they are too often left to fend for themselves. And let's be honest, even children that have grown up in stable families and have gone to college are not usually ready to live completely independently at that age. So, how do we expect foster youth who have often had traumatic childhoods to be equipped for that scenario? As we highlighted in earlier statistics, one in five young people who age out of the system will become homeless. One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care. And it's estimated that more than 40% of youth who age out won't complete high school. Fortunately, many jurisdictions realize that young adults need additional support and are extending foster care from age 18 to 21.
Perhaps the most essential thing foster care agencies can do is listen to their constituents. The child is often the last person consulted about decisions made on their behalf. As a society, we often fail to protect our most vulnerable youth. With more than 400,000 children living in foster care in the United States, we can’t afford to continue failing them. The consequences include Increased incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, and a continuation of the cycle of poverty. We can do better, and we must do better.
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