The “No Duh” Report, Volume 1: The Foster Care System


I am launching a new segment that I call “The No Duh Report!”

So much of our politics are divisive and ideologically closed. This isn’t new, of course; it’s been a part of human politics for as long as there have been politics. I bet Paleolithic tribes debated about policy and had factions and yelling between factions. Social media has made it so that we can sometimes be exposed to differing viewpoints, but from what I see on conservative and liberal bloggers’ comments sections, we’re still polarized.

There are real conflicts over values and policy that do need to be addressed. But there are also some systems in American life that are just broken. They serve no interests.

In the interest of full disclosure: I am an anarchist and I come at everything from a left perspective. This means that, when I look at a system that seems to be failing (such as US “democracy promotion”), I always look to see if there may be corporate or state elites who benefit from it. I also, as a policy analyst, look to see if there may be certain entrenched lobbying groups who support a policy even when it’s dysfunctional to the majority.

But there are some systems that are just dysfunctional for everyone. No one benefits from them. We fund them and they either are a waste of funding at that level or are actively making problems worse. Business doesn’t benefit, government doesn’t benefit, society doesn’t benefit, the poor don’t benefit, the rich don’t benefit.

Today’s subject in that vein is… the American foster care system!

It’s not a surprise to say that the American foster care system is broken.

Here’s an exercise.

What’s your reaction if I inform you that I have three foster care horror stories involving abuse or neglect to tell you?

Is it surprise? Revulsion?

I bet for many of you it’s at best frustrated silence. None of us are surprised.

It’s not just that the American foster care system is broken, it’s that it’s a cliché that it’s broken. If you watch American television, and a character was in foster care, it’s not very likely that you’ll hear that they had no problems and came out okay.

The statistics, of course, are horrifying. To quote three statistics from Children’s Rights:

“Nearly half of all children in foster care have chronic medical problems.

About half of children under five years old in foster care have developmental delays.

Up to 80 percent of all children in foster care have serious emotional problems.”

Many foster parents will find that they only receive a visit from social workers less than twice a year, which makes it incredibly easy to hide abuse. Malnutrition is at embarrassing levels. Children today are spending longer than they did before in foster care and are finding it harder and harder to get adopted or emancipated.

There are some exaggerated perceptions as always, of course; why would we be surprised with soundbite-oriented sensationalist media that we aren’t getting accurate policy information? For example: Bill Grimm and Julian Darwall at the National Center for Youth Law find that the percent of foster parents who are abusive is, according to government data, less than the population: Health and Human Services found that foster parents are less likely to be abusive than the general population. Official statistics indicate that the worst states see about 1.6% of children in foster care report some kind of mistreatment from either foster parents or facility staff, which is not much higher than the national average for parental abuse.

But research that speaks to fosters after they’re out of the system finds some different conclusions. For example: Some studies have found that as many as one-quarter of fosters say that they endured abuse at the home that they stayed at the longest. That’s not counting other cases of abuse that they may have endured. Some fosters have been victimized at multiple homes.

Anecdotal evidence is always difficult to rely on, but Grimm and Darwall argue the following: “A review of cases in state and federal appellate courts reveals a disturbing list of abuses to which foster children have been subjected in foster care. For example, K.H was in foster care and changed homes nine times between the ages of 2 and 6, except for a three-month trial visit back to her natural parents. She was beaten in at least two of those homes and sexually abused in another”.

How do we reconcile these varying statistics? How do we reconcile the fact that governmental data seems to suggest that foster care is safer than the general population with this apparent epidemic of abuse? Well, we need to bear a few things in mind.

First: Abuse is always going to be hard to research and uncover because of fear and silence. It’s likely that there’s a lot more child abuse than we might expect by offiical statistics outside of the foster care system as well. It can take children some time to have the courage to admit that they were abused, or even to think of their treatment as abuse. As I discuss in my chapter of my upcoming book on helping others, The Imaginable Horizon, when people are hurt their whole sense of reality is distorted. It can take time for their recognition of what is possible to change, and for them to have the perspective to realize how bad their treatment was.

Let me let that sink in. I have met dozens of people who have had their lives so badly screwed up (not just by foster care) that they honestly view things like rape or physical abuse as just what life is. And how can we say that they’re wrong when we’re not fixing it? How can we say that the world isn’t like that when for so many it just emphatically is? In my experience, such horrors have been distant. I have been very blessed in that regard.

Second: Fosters often move from home to home. They encounter good homes and bad. Foster care as a system has to be held to a very high standard statistically, for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s our collective responsibility when a child is abused in foster care. It’s not a bad parent who we can’t control somewhere else, even though we would still have an obligation to act and protect children from the perspective of a society based on solidarity and empathy. When there’s abuse in foster care, it’s our government and our representatives failing children. It’s our tax dollars that are going to give money to bad parents. It’s unacceptable.

More importantly, when a foster child may find themselves moving a few times, the likelihood that each new parent has to be a good one must be very, very high.

Let’s do some math. Let’s say that a foster child might move their home five times. (I am not sure if this is an average, but I have heard of cases where a foster child moved far more times than that, so let’s say that it’s a fairly likely scenario. One case, for example, listed here at this ABC News article mentions one case where a child moved thirty-two times in five years).

If there’s a 99% likelihood that each of these parents is a good and supportive parent (which would certainly not be the present reality), that becomes about a 95% chance that the child will not have a single bad parent.

If there’s a 98% likelihood, on the other hand, suddenly that chance becomes about 90%.

The foster care system has to be thought of like the safety systems on a car or a plane. Each part of those systems have to have a tiny chance of failure, because the cumulative chance is so massive.

Third: Television exaggerates the degree of abuse in foster care because if someone in a story is in foster care there’s a very good chance that that person is intended by the narrative to have some emotional problems. It’s easy to say this, but we have to realize how much of our reality is influenced by media and how much that media has to tell a coherent narrative or story. I love sociology and political science, but let me tell ya, that shit can be boring. There’s no clear winners or good guys, no satisfying narratives. Things don’t get wrapped up in a pretty bow or given to us in a cleanly trimmed sandwich with the toothpicks and olives. We as human beings have to get better at being able to live without that satisfaction of a neatly resolved narrative.

So far, we haven’t even talked about the problems that fosters have when they’re put into homes with other fosters. Even if a child enters the foster care system fairly well-adjusted, they may find themselves in the same household as children who aren’t. They may find themselves having to defend themselves from physical or sexual assault, or just not getting along very well. They may find their few valued possessions stolen or damaged, and they may be picked on, put down or treated as an outsider. That can be a massive additional stressor in the life of a child who is already vulnerable.

But it’s important to emphasize the good too. As Robin Clark, Judith Clark and Christine Adamec argue in their Encyclopedia of Child Abuse under the “foster care” entry, “Despite its problems, foster care is an important resource for abused children. The majority of foster families offer competent, warm and loving care”. These foster parents need to be saluted as heroes. We can’t let them go unsung any longer. We need to be having them speak for the system, and build the institutional knowledge of what makes a good foster parent.

All too often when we discuss politics, we discuss statistics and the extreme outlying horror stories. We focus on the numbers and the worst-case scenarios. But just think about a foster child who may not be an out-and-out horror story. They escape from abuse, parents who are addicted to drugs or have mental illness or are just bad people, and manage to find their way to a foster family that doesn’t burn them with cigarettes. But this foster family doesn’t teach them anything, doesn’t treat them like their children, doesn’t care for them.

Can’t we see how this child is going to struggle to form healthy relationships and attachments? To be happy? This hypothetical child will never have learned what a good relationship is like. Their imaginable horizon is going to be so shrunken. That’s in the case where they find parents who, had they been the child’s birth parents, wouldn’t have been separated from them!

In my personal experience, most people end up having some troubles with their parents or family or siblings of some non-trivial degree of magnitude. They have serious conflicts, or don’t feel loved, or didn’t get sufficient attention. If we’re failing this badly at raising our own children to grow up happy and confident, how badly must the foster care system be failing?

Fixing foster care that can have broad (indeed, near-total) ideological consensus. The only people who should be opposed to foster care are radical market libertarians (not anarchists) who don’t want government interfering in private life, and even they should propose reform that involves private systems instead. Hell, I bet many libertarians can admit that before a child is of the age of majority it is society’s job to take care of them. And as long as we are doing that, we might as well do it right.

Most conservatives should be concerned because of Christian ethics about the pervasive problem of foster care. They should want to implement reform and emphasize community-based solutions, sure, but they definitely should be on board with making sure that government isn’t screwing up kids.

Business leaders should be concerned about the damage to their human resource base. All those children going into foster care and coming out with developmental disabilities could be their next managers. Hell, they could be flipping burgers for them. We may not have a full employment policy in this country, but I still hear business owners complaining about how few good applicants they can find for their positions. An upcoming “No Duh Report” is going to be about the failure of our primary and collegiate school systems to produce adults who are confident, prepared to participate in society, motivated, possessed of the adequate research and self-learning skills to get by in today’s social and electronic media-oriented institutions, and so forth, in the same vein.

Snarky anarchists like myself may argue that a dysfunctional foster care system puts out people who can work at McDonald’s or a grocery store, but somehow I doubt even that is the case. I bet a dysfunctional foster care system puts out quite a lot of people that even Jack in the Box cannot employ. People with serious anger management issues or developmental delays are just not going to as good of workers, for anyone.

Liberals should of course want government to be effective and skillful at being compassionate.

I can’t think of any group that actually benefits from a broken foster care system. As a result of it, we are seeing less productivity, more people who become either wards of the state or criminals (basically people society has to take care of or deal with one way or the other), more people who become homeless. We see failings in our educational successes. How many bright children find themselves damaged to whatever extent by the foster care system?

“Okay, okay, so the problem’s bad. I knew that already”, you may be saying. Now it’s time for me to shine.

What are some things that we could do, right now, to fix it?

At the local, state and federal level, we could increase the salaries and number of positions for social workers. We could prompt schools to prepare students to consider careers in social work. Right now, it is another cliché that social workers are overworked and underpaid. Most of the social workers I know have to have additional jobs. Some are foster parents themselves. Increasing pay, professional opportunities, etc. might reduce the turnover rate which gets as high as 70% in some areas.

As of 2002, the national median for foster care payment by age was about $400, for both age 2 and age 9 fosters. Today, research done by the University of Maryland School of Social Work, National Foster Parent Association and Children’s Rights have found that the vast majority of states pay simply far too little for the true costs of fosters. In Missouri, for example, the payment for a 2 year old foster child is $271, as compared to the recommended $627! That’s less than half.

Think about that for a second. Think how hard it would be to raise a 2 year old child off of $270 a month. Think how hard it would be to raise a 16 year old off of $358. That’s food, clothes, school supplies, maybe helping that child save up for a car… When I plug those numbers into my calculator, I get a frowny face.

We could raise those payment by 50% and we would close that gap massively. You get what you pay for, and unfortunately, when you give people very little money to raise children, many of the people who want to do it are going to have very bad motives.

If we lost just $100 million less on military waste (which will be the subject of another No Duh Report), we could massively improve the social work system in general and foster care in specific. That $100 million would likely repay itself many times over in increased productivity, decreased crime, decreased mental and physical health expenditures, reduced homelessness, and a host of other social costs that someone wouldn’t be paying.

Many parents find themselves seeing their children be put into foster care because of mental illness or drug abuse which is resolved. Even worse, many parents after the 2008 recession found their family torn apart just by virtue of homelessness. Housing assistance, drug rehabilitation, child welfare, and numerous other systems could be improved to make sure that fewer parents have their children taken from them.

Of course, that’s big national level stuff. What’s something you could do right now?

If you go to church, you could talk to your pastor or church leaders about encouraging foster parenting.

Churches and community centers could encourage young parents thinking about having children to try fostering first. They would have the opportunity to learn how to be good parents, and they may even find out that they just don’t have the skills.

Community leaders can also create institutions that provide additional financial and psychological support for fosters. People could volunteer to go over to foster parents’ houses and do everything from tutor children to clean the house. Anything that would take pressure off would help.

The above is just a fraction of what we could do. There are undoubtedly advocates with really great ideas that I haven’t even considered.

Conservatives like to preach that we don’t need government to fix our problems. Great. I agree. Then let’s put our money where our mouth is and get this system under control!

Yay! It’s the Reference Section!

If you want to know where I got this data… Google. Yeah. Google. Use it.

Bill Grimm and Julian Darwall. National Center for Youth Law. http://www.youthlaw.org/publications/yln/2005/july_september_2005/foster_parents_who_are_they_and_what_are_their_motivations/

Children’s Rights. http://www.childrensrights.org/issues-resources/foster-care/facts-about-foster-care/

Clark, Clark and Adamec, 2007. The Encyclopedia of Child Abuse. http://books.google.com/books?id=Dl4Qm54Km7YC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Cynthia McFadden reporting for ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=130266

Wendy Kock reporting for USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-10-02-foster-care-report_N.htm

And me, in “The Imaginable Horizon”: https://skillfulmeansbookblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/the-imaginable-horizon/

For additional reading, check out Janet Solander’s Foster Care: How to Fix This Corrupted System. http://books.google.com/books?id=XTmGAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Comments

  1. Fred Bourgault-Christie July 5, 2014 10:59 pm 

    I think it’s a little simplistic to just point to greed or mammon or what not as the problem. Yes, of course greed and apathy and so forth are always present when we’re talking about social problems, but we need to get more specific. Human psychology is more complex than that.

    Obviously foster care has implications for Native peoples are that are important, just as it has implications for people of color in general that are different, and I thank you for pointing it out. But what I’m dealing with is the psychological harm of foster care. I end up having to repair that damage interpersonally.

    There are broader aspects that I don’t touch on because there’s less “no duh”. There are very good suggestions to deemphasize foster care and try to emphasize family therapy and so forth. This issue becomes more complicated because there’s some portion of parents who are not only bad and abusive parents now but will also always likely be bad and abusive parents, there’s some portion of parents who are just going through a rough time and are not actually abusive or truly unfit, and there’s a large middle ground, and no one has clear answers as to what the proportions are.

    What’s utterly clear and inarguable is that the foster care system, for those children it needs to work for, HAS to work. It’s a duty of a good society, even a parecon or a parpolity.

    I do think you need to notice what you just did, though. You connected foster care to climate change to native genocide. Okay, yes, there’s commonalities, but not only are there different institutional antecedents, but you just disarmed people of any hope of trying to combat those problems. My work is overwhelmingly about lowering the barriers to heroic action, and I can tell you, the fact that everything is intertwined is not as radical an insight as it seems. Yes, many people are not aware of the specific nature of oppression or might disagree with the left, but there’s virtually no one who doesn’t see that our problems are not only serious but multi-faceted and interconnected.

    I liken our problems collectively to a tangled bunch of computer wires. You’re right to say, “It’s all tangled together”. But most people will just give up on getting their mouse out of there. What’s important is to conceptually and practically disentangle the issues, pulling them out one step at a time. The very first few efforts will as a result be very difficult, but then each new wire pulled out decreases the net complexity markedly.

    Also, while big institutions are in large part responsible for problems, the fact is that abusive and crappy parents are just a part of life. That’s just human nature. As activists, we have to distinguish between what amount of signal is common to all societies and what is unique. Even in a parecon or parpolity, some parents will likely not have the mental or physical capabilities to be good parents. Foster care is likely to be a part of societies for a long time. In fact, it has been, if we’re being honest: It just used to be handle informally by family networks instead of formally.

    For us to have the benefits of big institutions, we need to maintain big institutions. If you prefer a smaller and less complex parecon/parpolity/lib municipalism/neo-tribalism approach, fantastic. But many will disagree.

    Thank you for your honesty and perspective, and I am of course sorry to hear about your own struggles with callous institutions!

  2. avatar
    Francis Yellow June 25, 2014 4:47 pm 

    Hau mitakuyepi, Greetings my Relatives! Speaking from the non-western perspective of my People, Lakota Oyate kin, the Friendly People, concerning foster care. I have, as well personal/anecdotal experience from my childhood in that societal institution.

    In my People’s language we call dominant society, Wasicu kin, the Fat Takers; the modern translation would be the Greedy. The Greedy societies of western civilization have necessarily created institutions that sustain said Greed. Therein is the failure of the foster care system; the myriad issues generated are commodified and governmental industrial complexes abound as a result. Everybody’s happy, at least those who make a living addressing the pathologies of family destruction going on today.

    My experience by the way, was part of a larger societal (civilizational?) mandate, the Genocide of Original Peoples of Turtle Island (a.k.a. American Indians and North America respectively) by way of the Forced Civilization and Assimilation of the Original Peoples. In a word I now know that my stays in foster care was just another “historical trauma” another layer of complex ptsd. As a matter of course, my parents were blamed for the failure of our family.

    I see that happening in this discussion of foster care. Can large scale societies and their institutions be trusted to fix the problems the are solely responsible for?

    Genocide or rather man’s inhumanity to man is age old we are told. Human nature is the culprit and nobody can do anything about it. “Get Over It, We Conquered You, Deal With It!” is the mantra of western civilization; that may be so in your experience But It’s a new experience here in Turtle Island, my ancestors actually learned how to balance human nature (as a matter of kinship with Life) so it wasn’t just a scapegoat for someone’s criminal irresponsibility.

    The underlying, invisibile, source of western institutions’ (foster care/social services/justice/church) failure is the unacknowledged infantile Greed of Western Civilization! And I’m not even going to go into who’s responsible for Anthropogenic Climate Change/Omnicide, except to say that foster care as a failure of western society won’t matter to anyone, once Greed has devoured itself.

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