My 2017 article on The 95% Failure Rate of Foster Care in America began: “The broken-hearted stood up to give witness in Clinton, Iowa on October 8, 2016.” This is where and when my education in family law began. At a Family Reunification Town Hall Meeting, parents and grandparents described the abuses and trauma inflicted by state agencies and courts that take children from loving families and make obscenely wrong-headed decisions about child custody.
How could this be? Follow the money!
Start with federal laws that pump $50 billion per year into for-profit foster care -- federal money that is only paid when the state takes children and places them in a stranger’s house. No profit to the states for family support services or placements with grandparents or other family members. With billions of dollars driving local agency decisions, children are taken by state governments often for lifestyle choices:
About 95% of the time when state agencies take children away from families, the accusations turn out to be false or unsubstantiated. Often social workers remove children for reasons confusing “neglect” and poverty, a combination brutally impacting families of color. And state rules generally prevent grandparents trying to help in a family crisis gain custody of their own grandchildren.
One study concluded that of every 100 children investigated as possible victims of abuse, three are ‘substantiated’ victims of physical abuse from the most minor to the most severe, and about two more are specifically victims of sexual abuse. Most of the rest are false allegations or cases in which poverty is confused with neglect. Children in families earning less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be removed than children in families making over $30,000.
Family advocate Jennifer Winn and prior spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Families and Children, Theresa Freed, agree: “Only 4% of the children they [Kansas state agencies] remove from homes are removed on grounds that are substantiated.”
This is not about great foster parents truly caring for abused children or the crying need to take children out of abusive homes, especially with an opioid and addiction crisis in America that puts children at true risk of harm. This is about an abusive, multi-billion dollar, for-profit foster care system that takes about 670,000 children each year from biological families and places them in a stranger’s house. The federal government pays states about $6,000 per child per month in foster care; thousands of dollars more per month for (needed or not) family assessments, home studies, parenting classes, anger management, drug and alcohol treatment; and thousands of dollars more per month per child for “special needs” such as foster children on medication (most are and many are given psychotropic medication). Dollars flow when parental rights are terminated – illegally and unconstitutionally – and thousands of dollar more when children in foster care are adopted out – often while parents or grandparents are still fighting to bring their children home. States demand parents of taken children pay child support to the state. And far too often states take children – even newborns – without paperwork, without court orders, without warrants for removal and without due process.
Child and family advocate Steven R. Isham listed sixteen different income sources related to foster care and child services in his home state of Arizona. Isham estimated federal financial incentives to states for taking and keeping children in foster care start at a $72,000 baseline per child per year then adds bonuses for Termination of Parental Rights and special adoptions that could reach $10,000 per child. He estimated income to Arizona for nearly 18,000 children in foster care to be about $1.2 billion.
Meanwhile, outcomes for children in foster care are consistently terrible:
- A Casey Family study showed adults who had been in foster care were twice as likely to be depressed, 22 times more likely to experience homelessness, three times more likely to live at or under the poverty level than the general population, and had Post Traumatic Stress twice the rate of Iraqi war veterans. One out of three reported maltreatment in the foster home. By age 25, 81% of male foster care alumni had been arrested at least once and 35% incarcerated.
- Children in foster care and those who age out are four times more likely to attempt suicide (even as young as 7 years old) and 12 times more likely to receive psychotropic medication.
- A Colorado study found the resting heart rate is higher for children in foster care: they are always alert for danger and in “flight or fight” mode.
- Most children used for sexual trafficking are foster children. In a 2013 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) nationwide raid to rescue child sex trafficking victims in 70 cities, 60% were children in foster care or group homes. The year before in Connecticut, 86 of 88 victims were from child welfare agencies. One in three foster care children later report sexual abuse in the foster home.
Mounting evidence says child services budgets should be spent keeping families together. The largest studies from 2006, 2007 and 2008 found that except for the most severe cases of abuse, which often relates to our opioid crisis, even maltreated children who remained at home did better than maltreated children placed in foster care.
For families fighting to get their children back, family attorney and previous county prosecutor Connie Reguli shows criminals have more rights in court then families:
Criminals have more rights: They have the right to a fair hearing, the right to hear and present all evidence that is in their favor, the right to face their accuser, the right to an evidentiary [with evidence] hearing, the heightened burden of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the right to attend and participate in drug court and most of all the right to a jury trial.
Family court law allows: Hearsay in removal hearings, removal without a hearing, secret records, refusal to disclose the reporter, no internal accountability, no review of placement once the state has custody and no requirement to place a child with another family member.
The systemic failures of foster care literally meet up at the courthouse with the fathers movements and other reform efforts taking aim at custody decisions. Seeking solutions, I started with foster care abuses and ended up with an urgent cry for culture change throughout our family court systems.
The Million Parent March in Washington, D.C. on September 18, 2017 aimed to raise awareness about the abuses and failures of foster care and family courts. The event brought together parents and grandparents of taken children, father’s rights groups battling bias in divorce court, parents “erased” and alienated from their children’s lives by non-custodial parents, activists seeking shared custody after divorces, mothers and fathers of children kidnapped by custodial or non-custodial parents, children who have aged out of foster care, children of divorce, and advocates pushing for America to dramatically and deeply re-think foster care and family court.
For me, this event brought into view the limitations and destructiveness of family law. Conflicts of interest, outdated legalities and lack of accountability in family court greatly damage millions of our children.
As a psychologist, I fully understand the anger and betrayal behind broken marriages and failed relationships including those where domestic violence brings added pain. I support counseling and mediation in every disputed custody case – not to repair the relationships of the parents, to focus on the needs of children to have a relationship with non-abusive mothers and fathers.
As I meet advocates and activists fighting for change – and many fighting while struggling with the pain of lost children – I remain in awe of the courage and grace of so many parents and grandparents. Still, I believe a coalition for change is building and true justice for children and families is ahead.
The 95% Failure Rate of Foster Care in America
Solutions: Foster Care and Family Court