To fix foster care: reform courts, funding

Listening to the stories of foster care changes you forever. A foster parent speaks fiercely of her love for the children she adopted from foster care. A mother cries, recounting how she overcame addiction to be reunited with her child. A college student who spent six years in foster care speaks of its legacy of insecurity: "To this day, we struggle with security - it is like the bottom can drop out from underneath us, and it seems that disaster is just around the corner."

A report released Tuesday by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care is the first in-depth analysis of the dual effects of federal financing and court oversight on foster care - and it found both in need of serious reform.

Foster care is a vital, life-saving refuge for children who have been abused and neglected. Unfortunately, too many children languish in foster care, moving from temporary home to temporary home. Almost half of children placed in foster care spend at least two years there - and, on average, can expect to live in at least three different foster homes. By focusing on federal financing and court oversight of child welfare, the commission takes direct aim at two of the root causes of this foster care "drift."

Foster care is administered at the state and local levels, but the federal government provides substantial funding - in a way that drives state decisions in directions that don't always reflect a child's best interests. Federal funds are restricted largely to paying for foster care, limiting the extent to which states can pay for other options that might move children more quickly out of foster care to safe, permanent families - or keep them safely out of foster care in the first place.

Courts share responsibility with state agencies for protecting abused and neglected children and overseeing their timely movement out of care and into a permanent home. Despite this critical role, courts often lack the management tools and information that would enable judges to respond most effectively to the cases before them. The resulting delays in court proceedings keep many children in foster care longer than necessary.

Children and parents told us stories of loss and limbo, struggle and survival.

Jelani, a graduate student who spent nine years in foster care, recalled: "Every day I would come home from school, I would just see if my stuff was packed." Alice, a foster and adoptive parent, spoke of the foster children who never got a permanent family. "My heart breaks for them, because no one is going to walk them down the aisle, and no one is going to be there for their graduation."

You cannot hear these stories and not be moved by the desire to change the system. The half-million children currently in foster care deserve more than uncertainty and inaction. The commission recommends redirecting federal funding so that states have freedom to decide for each child whether foster care or some other option would work best. It suggested funding rules that would provide strong incentives for states to focus on getting children into safe, permanent families as quickly as possible. And it calls for greater accountability in how public money is used to protect and support children who have suffered abuse and neglect.

The commission recommends that every court be urged to track and analyze its caseloads so that judges can identify and reduce the delays in court proceedings that cause children to stay in foster care longer than necessary. The commission also calls for courts and child welfare agencies to share information and work in closer partnership on behalf of the children in their mutual care. It appeals in particular to chief justices and other state court leaders to take the lead in making children in foster care a top priority within their court system.

Children deserve more from our child welfare system than they are getting now. For this to happen, however, those on the front lines of foster care - caseworkers, judges, foster parents, and others - need the support, tools, and training necessary to do their jobs more effectively. The public must know that, with this support, every part of the chain of care - from the federal government, to the states, to the courts - can be held to high standards of accountability for the well-being of the children in their care.

America's 500,000 children in foster care deserve nothing less.

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, is chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. Bill Gray, former Pennsylvania congressman and House Democratic majority whip, is vice chairman of the commission.

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