By age 17, more than half of youth who are removed from their homes will have an encounter with the legal system through arrest, conviction or detention. Critics describe this process as the foster-care-to-prison-pipeline.
But for many foster children, the pipeline is activated the moment they enter care. This is because child welfare authorities in several states are placing kids in juvenile detention facilities — as well as in hotels, casinos and offices — due to a shortage of foster homes. They literally have not found other places to send them.
According to National Public Radio, more than half of U.S. states have seen a decline in the number of licensed foster homes since 2021. Child welfare advocates blame several factors for the decline: people’s reluctance to take strangers into their homes due to COVID, and the 2019 passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, a bill that was meant to boost the number of kinship placements with relatives and family friends and phase out congregate care settings, including group homes, that warehouse youth and have been rife with reported abuse.
Instead, the federal bill shuttered a significant number of group homes and other congregate care facilities throughout the country, leaving more kids unhoused than matched with suitable families. In fact, since the start of COVID, an unknown number of removed kids have languished in prisons, hotels and government offices as they await placement.
All told there are currently about 391,000 kids in U.S. foster care who are unable to stay with their families. There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s because caretaking adults have been deemed abusive or neglectful (though research has found a majority of allegations to be unsubstantiated); sometimes it’s because the adults feel ill-equipped to handle a particular child or children and have asked for the child to be removed; sometimes it’s because the child has been kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Lisa Dickson, the communications chair of Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio, or ACTION Ohio, told Truthout that even before COVID, there was a foster home shortage. “There’s long been an insufficient supply of safe foster homes for children who need them,” she said. “Of course, kids would rather be in a loving family than a group home, but the ideal can be the enemy of the good. Putting kids in juvenile detention facilities or county offices is an extreme response. There was a lot that could have been done to improve group homes, but legislators rarely listen to kids, and foster care has never been youth-centric.”
What’s more, Dickson reports that kids who ask to be placed in care are often turned away. “It’s a huge problem for Black males over the age of 12,” she said. “We’ve advocated for Black male teens who are literally on the streets because the child abuse hotline would not take their complaints and told them they were too old for foster care.”
Not having enough licensed foster homes has pushed states to the brink and they are scrambling to find safe places to place kids who have been removed from their homes. That California and Illinois have resorted to utilizing prison beds has elicited broad condemnation by affected communities, political leaders and child welfare advocates.
But still states scramble.
In Nevada, for example, social workers have relied on empty casino hotel rooms, with oversight by child welfare workers, while they search for a place for the child to stay. Other states including Kansas, Ohio and North and South Carolina, have turned child welfare offices into de facto shelters, moving desks and chairs aside to make way for cots.
North Carolina is a case in point. “The Department of Social Services (DSS) in North Carolina does not have enough foster homes,” Jeremy Wagoner, director of family engagement at the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, told Truthout. “Each year, the number of kids in care fluctuates between 11,000 and 12,000, and right now we have just 5,000 licensed homes. This is down 23 percent since 2021. Every county has serious shortages.”
In response, Wagoner said, DSS is turning offices into bedrooms. In some cases, kids who’ve faced medical or psychiatric emergencies have had to remain in the hospital despite being ready for discharge. “We’ve heard reports of kids being confined for as long as 15 days until child welfare can locate a residential placement,” he said.
That placement, he adds, can sometimes be far from their home community. “By the time DSS acts to remove a child, that child has already experienced trauma. If you put a child in a place far from home, trauma and loss are exacerbated. They lose relationships. They lose connections to people and programs they know.”
Moreover, while Wagoner acknowledged that kinship placements are the gold standard for kids who have family or friends who are willing to take them in, he stresses that the licensing process can take months and requires the prospective caretaker to go through a lengthy vetting process that includes fingerprinting, background checks, home visits, and training in child development and trauma-informed care to try to protect kids from further abuse.
During the waiting period, stability is key.
Building Trust and Continuity
Rosemary Frances entered foster care in the mid-1970s, when she was 3. “I don’t know the exact number of homes I was in, but it was at least 30,” she told Truthout. “This was before I aged out in 1989 when I turned 18. I was constantly moved from family to family. During this period, the state of Missouri, where I lived, did not want foster kids and foster parents to become attached because the expectation was that we would eventually return to our birth families. It was cruel.”
Looking back, she says that the placements were a mix: some good, others not. “The parents in one home were evangelical Christians,” she recalled. “They would not let me wear pants, beat me with a rod, and made me read the Book of Proverbs as punishment. I felt like an alien.”
Despite her experience, Frances has done well for herself, something she credits to several adults who took her under their wings. She completed a Master’s degree and is active in her community. At the same time, she knows that she’s an exception.
The statistics tell the grim story:
One in nine Black and one in seven Native children currently spend part of their childhood in foster care. Seventy percent will run head-on into the criminal legal system. Half will not graduate high school on time, and just 3 to 4 percent will attain a four-year college degree. Many will become homeless at some point.
Jennifer Pinder, who was adopted at birth, now heads You Gotta Believe, a New York City-based national group that specializes in finding permanent families for teenagers and young adults in care. “Our focus is on arranging adoptions for kids who are older, usually at least 12, because it’s a fallacy to think that teens and young adults don’t need family support. We include those who are aging out at 18 since they are typically left on their own, with no support from people who care about them,” Pinder said. “Everyone needs support throughout their lives. Sometimes this means family reunification and sometimes this means an adoptive family.”
Aging out, Dickson agrees, poses another barrier, and while the state of Ohio now runs a program that offers guidance and material help to people as they transition out of care, it ends when the person turns 21. In addition, she says that although the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires every public school district to have a foster care liaison, implementation is at best spotty.
“Youth know what they need,” she adds. “They want life skills training for themselves and want to be involved in the training of foster parents. They know about power struggles within the family. They know how to help, how to build coping skills, how to mitigate anxiety without drugs, how to be an emotional container for grief and loss. They can help foster parents do better.”
Lastly, Dickson said, older foster kids can be mentors to younger kids and can help care agencies better understand the diversity of today’s foster care population, some of whom want to reunify with their birth families and some of whom don’t. “Most foster kids want contact with siblings,” she said. “Federal law says that the state is supposed to make a ‘reasonable effort’ to keep siblings together, but this is vague; what is a ‘reasonable effort?’ No one knows.”
Maintaining a Family Connection
Angela Hedrick, vice president KVC Kansas, a branch of an agency that runs foster care programs in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and West Virginia, told Truthout that Kansas lost approximately 500 foster homes between July 2019 and July 2022. Although finding shelter space has been challenging, she reports that in fiscal year 2022, a large percentage of the state’s 6,141 foster kids were placed with a relative or someone else the child knew, and 52.3 percent were reintegrated with their birth families. Nearly a third were adopted or placed in permanent custodianship, a status that does not require a parent to relinquish their parental rights.
Like other foster care providers, KVC tries to maintain a connection between fostering and birth families. “We’ve found that when children — especially those who are very young — have been removed, it’s helpful for the child and the birth parent(s) to meet regularly. Visitation maintains a strong connection, even if it’s supervised,” Hedrick said.
But, she adds, a great deal more support is needed.
“We need additional investment in community-based services, as well as mental health and financial supports for birth families,” she concludes, noting that for many parents, housing and financial insecurity pose enormous barriers to reunification.
Research bears this out.
“The vast majority of children in foster care are not there because of the physical or sexual abuse situations that make headlines, but because they experienced neglect,” Foster America, an advocacy group that’s been around for six years, reports. “Too often neglect is a proxy for poverty and current child welfare policies make family separation an easier option than providing supportive services to children and families with complex needs.”
The government knows this.
In a report on preventing child abuse and neglect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a range of economic supports to help struggling families, from creating publicly funded preschools, to funding parenting education programs. “Policies that strengthen household financial security can reduce child abuse and neglect by improving parents’ ability to satisfy basic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care,” the report notes.
But these policies have never passed muster with enough federal lawmakers to get them enacted. Instead, the U.S. continues to criminalize drug use and remove children from parents who use them.
Travis Lupick, author of Light Up the Night: America’s Overdose Crisis and the Drug Users Fighting for Survival, sees child removal as an outgrowth of the war on drugs. “It is common for people who use drugs to lose their kids,” he told Truthout. “This is as damaging as mass incarceration.”
Lupick says his views on addiction have been shaped by Johann Hari’s work on childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences. “So much adult drug use is a response to untreated childhood trauma and removing a child from their parents — most of the time, their mother — is one of the most traumatic things a child can face. We allegedly do this to protect the child, but it inflicts trauma. It’s a terrible irony.”
Pregnancy Justice US, a human rights group that promotes reproductive justice, agrees. “There is no reason to believe that a parent who uses drugs is more likely to abuse or neglect their child than one who does not,” the group’s website states. These assumptions, the group notes, have a disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities even though white people have similar rates of drug use. But white kids are not removed anywhere near as often as their cousins of color.
And, needless to say, removal is damaging to both parents and children.
“When a kid is removed, they tend to view the removal in concrete terms: Mommy or daddy did something wrong and I got taken away,” family therapist Carol L. Hornbeck told Truthout. “Counselors need to be skillful in explaining why this happened because even if there was physical abuse, there were times without abuse. It’s complex and the child needs supportive, trauma-informed counseling.”
In addition, Hornbeck says that restoring order — with regular bed and meal times and predictable schedules — calms the nervous system. “Every kid who is removed by authorities is traumatized,” she said. “No matter when the trauma occurred, it interrupts the developmental process and there can be deficits that continue into adulthood. People need stability to address these deficits.”
Housing children in detention facilities, offices or hotel rooms is the antithesis of what Hornbeck recommends. She is not alone. In fact, when news broke that California was housing foster children in a former Sacramento juvenile detention facility, protest was immediate. As Assemblymember Corey A. Jackson said in a press release: Putting children in a “jail-like environment has the potential to retraumatize or trigger them.” He called placement in the facility “inappropriate because it shortens the pipeline from foster care to juvenile justice.”
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