National Adoption Month

The Foster Care System Is In Trouble, But Experts Say It Can Be Saved

“We’ve done some really amazing things, but there is still so far to go.”

November is National Adoption Month. In honor of the month, we will be bringing attention to the thousands of people in foster care awaiting forever homes, as well as those who provide and advocate for them. These stories emphasize the idea that families are bound together by the love they share, rather than their biological roots.  

The foster care system is in crisis. Talk to any experts on adoption and foster care in the United States, and that's likely to be one of the first things they tell you. The issues aren't simple to resolve: there's more youth in foster care, fewer beds available, fewer parents willing to adopt, less federal money being allocated to help fund foster care and a seemingly unbreakable stigma about the children who are growing up in the system.

The simple fact that around 100,000 kids are available for adoption in foster care right now speaks to how many children are in need but does little to illuminate the tragedies occurring inside the system. One study shows 85 percent of foster care children reporting maltreatment in the system by the time they are out of it. Children aren't just being abused, either, they are dying inside the foster care system, or simply disappearing, at an alarming rate. The Senate recently found that at one for-profit foster care firm, 86 children died over the course of 10 years. And worse, the people who are there to help them — the dedicated social workers — are often over-assigned, stretched thin, burning out and quitting their jobs.

Adoption advocate Schylar Baber as a young boy.
Adoption advocate Schylar Baber as a young boy. Schylar Baber

In most cases, a child in foster care has been removed from their home by the city or state because of abuse and neglect. Very rarely, a child ends up in foster care when their parents die, are incarcerated, or voluntarily place them there. There are more than 400,000 children in foster care right now in the United States, but parental rights for approximately 100,000 of those children have been terminated, making them "free for adoption." Few Americans seem more qualified to speak about being in the foster care system than Schylar Baber, a 34-year-old who aged out of the system after 11 years of being told he was "not adoptable." Baber, who grew up in Montana, went into foster care as a young boy after he was abused by his biological family. Now he's advocating for change in the system as the executive director of Voice for Adoption.

Baber, like most who work close to the foster care system, says the issues — and solutions — are nuanced. But any steps towards overhauling the system will likely require more funding, better allocation of resources and a return to foster care's original goal: short-term services. 

"You're not supposed to grow up in the foster care system," Baber said. "It needs to be a short-term safe haven, nothing more. When a child is placed in care, their outlook in life should not be that they are going to bounce from home to home to home to home."

But, unfortunately, many children do. And once you're in the system, Baber said, you are constantly running up against lack of adequate care, social workers who are unfamiliar with your case because they're new on the job, and poorly vetted or matched foster parents and children.

"We're on the verge of something pretty big that I don't think the normal American resident understands," Baber said. "We have an increase in the number of youth in care, but we're having a decrease in the number of beds. Federally, our government is not investing in child welfare, but we have more children in our country than ever before. Children as a collective are less than eight percent of the entire federal budget."

Baber also insists that, although finding forever families for more children would be preferable, there are plenty of good foster care homes out there, some that he was lucky enough to stay in. 

A number of adoption and foster care agencies have also realized the flaws in the system and are actively trying to address them. April Dinwoodie, chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, told A Plus its work is exclusively research, advocacy and education and it isn't involved in placing children. That's because about 20 years ago, one of the bigger adoption agencies in New York City felt it was re-engineering families but knew little about whether it was doing it a sound way — and it wanted an unbiased organization to dive into adoption. The Donaldson Adoption Institute stepped up to the plate.

Since then, its research has echoed what professionals in the system told me: turnover rates are too high amongst social workers, mental health services are too inconsistent in quality throughout foster care, and the most urgent need in adoption today is finding a home for the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care who are ready to be adopted.

Adoptive mother Theresa Alden with her sons Gavin (L), 6, and Graem, 4, at their residence in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, June 10, 2008. Alden's children, Gavin and Graem, are two of around 140,000 adopted in the United States each year. Of those, around 20,000 are adopted by adults of a different race. But black children in foster care are less likely to be adopted into a family than children from other races and U.S. laws governing adoption are failing, according to a major new report. 
Adoptive mother Theresa Alden with her sons Gavin (L), 6, and Graem, 4, at their residence in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, June 10, 2008. Alden's children, Gavin and Graem, are two of around 140,000 adopted in the United States each year. Of those, around 20,000 are adopted by adults of a different race. But black children in foster care are less likely to be adopted into a family than children from other races and U.S. laws governing adoption are failing, according to a major new report.  REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

But the Donaldson Adoption Institute spotted other issues, too: children of color are over-represented in the system as compared to the general population. As a result, transracial adoption is becoming more and more common — and also a growing concern for adoption experts. Often times, Dinwoodie says, even the most well-intentioned families and social workers are untrained and unprepared in how to best aid multi-racial adoptive families.

Dinwoodie is especially close to the issue, as she is a biracial woman who was adopted by White parents. She spent eight months in the foster care system as an infant while her biological mother pondered whether to relinquish parental rights, and when she did, Dinwoodie found a permanent home. It's a good example of how the system is supposed to work, but an even better example of how even when things go well, there can still be some complications. 

"They were White, I was brown, so I always knew I was adopted but we never really talked about it very much," Dinwoodie said. "My parents, God bless them, love them, but they were clueless about race and the differences of race, class and culture, so I kind of navigated that on my own and came into my racial identity late in life."

Dinwoodie and other adoption thought leaders are trying to ensure that the next generation of foster care children does not have to navigate on their own. Michelle Hughes, an adoption attorney in Illinois and member of the Chicago Bar Association Adoption Committee, frequently gives lectures on the issue. 

Hughes is quick to debunk a common myth about transracial adoption: that it's growing in popularity because Black families aren't adopting. On the contrary, she said, there is a higher percentage of Black families adopting than White families in America — it's just that there are more Black children coming into the system.

"Part of the problem of the kids coming into the system also has to do with systemic institutional racism about why they pull kids from their homes in the first place," Hughes said. "The system is not set up for people of color, and the nuances that come with that and the cultural differences are not being recognized."

April Dinwoodie (bottom left) as a child with her adoptive family.
April Dinwoodie (bottom left) as a child with her adoptive family. April Dinwoodie

She used criminal marijuana convictions — which disproportionately hurt African Americans despite similar usage rates amongst races — as an "obvious" example of the kind of thing that hurts prospective Black adoptive parents or breaks up relatively happy, stable homes. 

Baber, Dinwoodie and Hughes all see pathways to solving these issues — both the big and the small. 

Hughes says that most of the issues come back to money and have to be addressed state-by-state. Adoption — and child care in general — needs to be cheaper to encourage parents to choose it while building a family. In Illinois, where Hughes practices, the state currently offers subsidies for daycare services for foster parents with a child who is not old enough to go to school. However, if the child is going to be adopted, the state only offers daycare from ages one to three. As a result, parents put off permanent adoption knowing that they can't afford to pay for daycare services which can cost as much as $24,000 a year. 

Now, though, the state is considering changing the law to cover daycare costs for children up the age of five even if they are adopted. Hughes is hopeful the law changes to encourage children moving to permanency quicker.

Illinois also implemented a system in July of 2017 that allows children who are adopted over the age of 16 to get state assistance up to the age of 21, opening the door to things like attending college, trade school or working 80 hours a month with continued financial support. In some cases, it can make the difference for whether a teenager can pursue college. Before, assistance from the state cut off at 18 or when a child graduated high school, which a lot of times meant a teenager in foster care would have better resources by staying in the foster care system, instead of becoming adopted.

Hughes has more recommendations too: better matching between foster parents and foster children with similar permanent adoption objectives (often times, parents who want to temporarily house a child are inadvertently matched with children who want permanent homes), yoga and de-stress classes for case workers, and increased disclosure about a foster child's background before he or she goes into a home. Hughes said she has seen many cases where parents bring a child into their home who has issues they are totally unfamiliar with or unprepared for.

Speaking of disclosures, Dinwoodie and research done at the Donaldson Adoption Institute indicate that more openness leads to better adoption outcomes. In most states, adopted children can't even access their birth certificates, a critical part of self-identity and more practical things like understanding your family's medical history. She says there is now an abundance of literature that suggests openness in adoption — telling kids early on that they are adopted, letting them seek out their family history, and discussing the differences between them and their adoptive family — ultimately benefit children during their development.

Baber, too, has been encouraged by a wave of states enacting what's called the Foster Children's Bill of Rights, which has become law in 15 states and Puerto Rico.

"You would think that things like freedom of religion are just innate, that because you're an American you get that, but that's not the case," Baber said. "We overlook the rights of the child."

In fact, Baber experienced this firsthand. When he was a teenager, he had religion forced upon him by one of his foster parents, and the abuse became so bad that he eventually ran away.

Schylar Baber spent 11 years in the foster care system and is now the executive director of Voice for Adoption. 
Schylar Baber spent 11 years in the foster care system and is now the executive director of Voice for Adoption.  Schylar Baber

When he turned himself in, the state gave him two choices, he says: return to his foster parents or go to a psychiatric ward. He chose the latter.

But with the Foster Children's Bill of Rights, Baber could have been more explicitly protected from abusive foster parents. For instance, Arizona's Foster Children Bill of Rights says that a child is granted the right "to live in a safe, healthy and comfortable placement where the child can receive reasonable protection from harm and appropriate privacy for personal needs and where the child is treated with respect."

Last year, the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 almost passed the Senate. The bipartisan bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden that would have increased federal investment in services that — ideally — would prevent the need for foster care. Part of the bill would have stopped federal reimbursement to states when they placed children in non-family settings like group homes and congregate care facilities, which in theory would have ensured more children were placed into permanent family homes.

While the bill didn't pass, it did get enough momentum to make Baber hopeful something similar could come to fruition. 

"I don't care what your budget crisis is. I don't care what your excuses are," Baber said. "You literally took my life into your hands, so now what are you going to do to protect me and nurture me as if I was one of your own children? But we don't look at foster kids that way. We don't look at foster kids as our own children."

Today, he and other adoption advocates are focused on the GOP tax plan, which proposes cutting an adoption tax credit that 64,000 families used in 2015 to help subsidize the cost of adoption. Without the credit, adoption experts fear the new tax plan could mean even fewer children being adopted in the years to come. 

And yet, Baber also acknowledges how much progress has been made. Gone are the days of overcrowded orphanages. Now, in contrast to when Baber was in foster care, adoption agencies are more focused on family reunification and permanent homes instead of simply plucking a child out of an unsafe environment. All of these things encourage him, despite the challenges ahead.

"We've evolved," Baber said. "We've done some really amazing things, but there is still so far to go."

Cover image via Shutterstock / Vitalinka.

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