Foster care system needs fresh ideas, not more money

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed major flaws in our nation’s child welfare system. Across the country, in-person visits between parents and children were cancelled, reunifications of families were postponed, and children entered care with nowhere to go as foster families had second thoughts about taking in a child who may have been exposed to the virus. As a result, the child welfare community is reevaluating the system’s role, its view of families, and which services are essential.

This forced introspection has the potential of being one of the best things to come out of the pandemic for the future of child welfare. Unfortunately, the hope for fundamental reform is already being threatened by the allure of that most powerful of motivators — cold hard cash.

A group of foster care organizations and advocates recently sent a letter to Congress asking for a bailout of more than $3 billion for the child welfare industry in a possible future stimulus package. While the letter says many good things about the need to strengthen families and prevent children from entering foster care, its solution is to double down on the status quo and dramatically expand the system that has repeatedly failed to achieve those goals.

There are more than 437,000 children currently living in foster care, nationwide according to the most recent federal data. The foster care population has steadily increased for the better part of the last decade, along with the number of children whose parents have had their rights terminated and those who are waiting to be adopted.

Rather than leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to pump more taxpayer dollars into a system that already spends roughly $30 billion each year to generate these abysmal outcomes, we should be seizing this opportunity to identify what’s wrong with the current system and fundamentally restructure it in a way that puts the needs of children and their families first.

The good news is that there is a growing movement that recognizes the importance of the parent-child relationship for healthy development and that the disruption of this relationship, even when necessary to protect the safety of children, is a traumatic event that can have lifelong consequences. This movement also acknowledges the link between poverty and involvement with the child welfare system and prioritizes the leadership of local communities in caring for their neighbors in need.

An example of this shift is currently underway in Texas. Since 2017, Texas has been working to make its child welfare system more responsive to the needs of children by increasing the role of local private and non-profit charities in caring for children in foster care. The model, known as Community-Based Care, is being rolled out across the state in stages. Those regions that are operating under the new model are already showing improvement in key metrics related to child well-being, including keeping children closer to home so they can safely maintain meaningful contact with family and reducing reliance on institutional settings.

Another major catalyst for change is the upcoming implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). Signed into law by President Trump in February 2018, FFPSA made revolutionary changes to how states can use federal funds allocated for child welfare services. Previously, federal dollars were limited to costs associated with maintaining children in foster care. Under FFPSA those dollars can now be used for programs designed to prevent removal and allow children to remain with their families. If implemented properly, FFPSA could be a powerful tool for advancing a child welfare system that is restorative, rather than punitive.

It’s strange to speak of good coming out of the devastation wrought by a once-in-a-generation global pandemic. But the combination of adjustments forced by COVID-19 alongside emerging innovations in child welfare practice and the upcoming implementation of FFPSA presents the nation with an unprecedented opportunity to bring about transformational change.

What children and families need most right now is fresh ideas and innovative approaches, not more money for more of the same.

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