Abstract and Keywords
Social work has long been involved in child foster care. Though its initial involvement de-emphasized the importance of infant–caregiver attachment, Bowlby’s theory of attachment is particularly relevant for child-welfare practice. This entry chronicles the history of child foster care and describes the evolution of legislation most pertinent for the provision of foster care. The characteristics of children in foster care since 2000 and the dynamic flow of children entering and exiting care are described. A brief account of foster care services and future trends in the field are highlighted.
Foster care is a publicly funded child welfare system for full-time residential caregiving services for children whose parents’ condition or behavior prevents them from discharging their parental responsibilities (Family Impact Seminar, 1990). Foster care services operate in all states and are typically administered directly through county social services departments, purchased by the state from a voluntary nonprofit-agency foster care program, or both. Children come into foster care for a multitude of reasons and through processes that vary from county to county and state to state (Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, Barth, & Plotnick, 1992). Placement may occur as a result of a parent’s request for temporary help on a voluntary basis, a court order for removal, or legal actions requiring out-of-home care. The primary goals of foster care placement are maximum protection of children, permanency, and the preservation of families. Although there is an inherent tension among these goals, the ultimate aim of foster-family care is the reunification of children with their biological parents, adoption by foster parents or other families, or preparation for independent living. Irrespective of the permanency goal, the children’s attachment to primary caregivers, whether that be the birth parents, foster parents, or others, affects their psychological adjustment in adult life.
Current theory and practice of foster care can be characterized in terms of particular historical milestones. These represent turning points that emerged from: (a) informal placements of children with relatives, (b) the indiscriminate placement of children in almshouses or specialized institutions offering training, (c) foster care as a permanent “rescuing effort,” (d) foster care as a temporary service to families, and (e) the discovery of foster care drift, in which a child remains in foster care for a long time, as the impetus toward permanency, placements in the least-restrictive environments, and the provision of preventive and restorative services. Foster care theory and practice are continuing to unfold.
Evidence of family foster care, practiced on a limited basis, has been traced back to the ancient Jewish laws and customs of placing orphaned children in the households of other relatives and to the institutional forms of care exemplified in church practices of boarding destitute children (Kadushin & Martin, 1988). Although the history of family foster care in America typically has centered on the experiences of American colonists, this country was originally occupied by Native American tribes whose history, culture, and societal and family structures included alternative methods of substitute care (Wiltse, 1985). Native Americans were organized into tribes consisting of confederated extended family units, and children were treated as part of a constellation of people of varying ages and blood relationships. Because the tribe formed a major component of the child-rearing system, a child always had substitute care and was never considered dependent or neglected.
Unlike the response found within Native American traditions, the English Poor-Law tradition influenced the early colonial American response to the needs of destitute, neglected, and orphaned children. Colonists adopted the English practices of indentureship and the binding out of dependent children to a master artisan until the age of 21. These practices served two purposes: to set responsibility for the support and care of the children with a person or family and to offer the rudiments of training for work (Costing & Rapp, 1972). Indenture contracts, used extensively during the colonial period, were accepted as a “business deal from which the person accepting a poor child on indenture was expected to receive from the child a full equivalent in work for the expenses of his support, care and teaching” (Thurstone, 1930, cited in Costing & Rapp, 1972, p. 331). Children were abused and exploited, but vestiges of indenture continued into the 20th century. Although by today’s standards these practices seem harsh, indentureship was considered an efficient and expedient method of care at the time, with the added benefit of providing needy children with some semblance of a family-like environment.
A few private institutions were established for orphans during the colonial period (McGowan & Meezan, 1983). In towns with relatively large populations, however, children were also placed in almshouses along with other members of the dependent population. These practices were soon subjected to sharp attack in several investigative reports conducted before the Civil War. Considerable criticism was raised about “catch-all almshouses” (Axinn & Levin, 1992), in which there was little or no attempt to provide humane treatment based on a differentiation among the needs of the pauper population. In almshouses—which housed mentally deficient people, families, able-bodied paupers, alcoholics, and others—the education and moral development of children were, according to these reports, wholly neglected.
One response to these reports was the establishment by public and private agencies of “orphan asylums” and other institutions for special classes of children, including blind, delinquent, homeless, “colored” (as they were then called), and deaf children. Motivated by the deplorable conditions of children who lived in nonsegregated almshouses and the developing practice of providing state subsidies to voluntary agencies, many of these institutions were founded under the auspices of various religious denominations in an effort to provide for the children of these denominations. Although institutional care was a viable form of care before 1850, acceptance of institutional care for dependent children waned as the demand increased. Therefore, a new form of child care was required.
Charles Loring Brace, secretary of the New York Children’s Aid Society, is credited as being the originator of the formal family-foster-care movement in 1853. Family foster care, as Brace practiced it, began as an effort to “rescue” children whose parents were inadequate, or on charity, or had abandoned their dependent offspring from the unwholesome influences found in cities (Pecora et al., 1992). Brace began the practice of transporting needy and homeless children by train from large cities to rural areas in the South and West, where they were placed in the homes of farmers or tradespeople to be cared for and were expected to work in exchange for this care. The New York Children’s Aid Society retained custody of the children and could remove them at any time, but it provided limited follow-up after placement. Although estimates of the number of children placed in free foster care vary, numerous historians (for example, Kadushin, 1974; McGowan & Meezan, 1983) have reported that for about 75 years, roughly 100,000 children were transported for placement using these procedures.
Charity workers, the Catholic Church and other religious groups, poor families, and the western states opposed Brace’s system. Charity workers attacked the methods of selecting free foster homes for children and the lack of supervision following placement (Kadushin, 1974). The Catholic Church charged Protestant organizations with attempting to wean children from their Catholic heritage by placing them in non-Catholic homes. Poor families objected to the practice of taking their children away, and the western states objected to the “dumping of dependent children in their area” (Kadushin, 1974, p. 397) out of a concern about regulating interstate placements of children. Although Brace’s placement practices suggest that he envisioned placement as long-term substitute care, as early as 1860 the two principles governing the placement of dependent children, namely, free foster care and a preference for care within a family setting, were firmly established.
Charles Birtwell, director of the Boston Children’s Aid Society (1886–1911), is credited with carrying these principles one step further by refocusing the questions that are addressed whenever placement of a child is considered. In his view, placement decisions should be guided by a consideration of the child's needs, including the need to focus on reunifying the child with his or her own family, rather than on where the child should be placed. The Boston Children's Aid Society, under Birtwell's leadership, developed systematic procedures for: (a) studying the individualized needs of children, (b) studying the prospective foster family, and (c) providing supervision of the home once the child was placed (Kadushin, 1974). On the basis of Birtwell's work, family-foster-care practice changed from a long-term substitute-care service to a temporary and treatment-oriented service (Wiltse, 1985).
Birtwell's vision of family foster care as a temporary service was reaffirmed during the first White House Conference on Children, in 1909, when the conference participants declared that every child is entitled to a “secure and loving home.” Conferees expressed a clear preference for foster family care for normal children in need of placement with these words: “The carefully selected foster home is, for the normal child, the best substitute for the natural home” (U.S. White House, 1909, as cited in Kadushin, 1974, p. 401). Foster care programs, established in each state by Children's Aid Societies as well as the public sector, subsequently offered a range of foster care options, including receiving homes for emergency placement, boarding homes, and group homes (Pecora et al., 1992).
The incongruencies between statements of foster care policy and the actual practice of foster care placement began to unfold in the latter part of the 1950s, with the publication of Children in Need of Parents by Maas and Engler (1959). This publication revealed that many children were destined to grow up in foster care and that only a few would return home or be adopted. Moreover, more than half the parents of children in foster care who participated in the study indicated that they had no relationships or negative ones with the agencies responsible for the children (Maas & Engler, 1959). Foster care, according to this study, had become a “holding tank” for a large number of children (Wiltse, 1985).
Subsequent activity in the 1960s and 1970s came in different forms. In the 1960s, researchers conducted a flurry of descriptive studies of children in care that substantiated the image of foster care as a holding tank and proposed tentative alternatives for practice (Jenkins, 1967; Jenkins & Sauber, 1966; Lawder, 1966; Madison & Shapiro, 1970). In the 1970s, research and demonstration projects identified some of the deficiencies in the ways children were being served, and they developed and tested specific intervention methods for addressing these flaws (Pecora et al., 1992; Wiltse, 1985). For example, federal law required the development of case plans for children in foster care. Later studies, however (for instance, Shyne & Schroeder, 1978), indicated that case planning was an exception. The percentages of children with no case plans ranged from a low of 13% to a high of 77%. Moreover, parents' visits to their children in foster care were not encouraged.
The most widely disseminated results of these demonstration projects, in 1973–1974, came from the Oregon Project in Permanency Planning and the Alameda County, California, Project, where such interventions as intensive agency services, goal-oriented casework, deliberate case planning, focused decision-making, and outreach efforts were successfully tested. These and other demonstration projects sought to reorient child-welfare practice toward ensuring permanency for children in care. By identifying and removing barriers to adoption, offering intensive services to prevent placement, and developing case plans that included the involvement of biological parents, these projects were instrumental in proving that continuity and permanency could be achieved for children in foster care through careful, goal-directed case planning (Wiltse, 1985). In subsequent years, family-foster-care issues were addressed within the context of permanency planning. Permanence for children in substitute care emphasizes the need for placement in a stable, permanent family setting (Family Impact Seminar, 1990). Consequently, in theory and in practice, foster care is a temporary service to be discontinued once the parents' condition or behavior has improved or an alternative plan for permanence, including adoption, long-term foster care, independent living, and guardianship, can be implemented.
The policy framework for foster care is a patchwork of federal and state initiatives that are intended to support and promote the principle of permanence. Child-welfare services for children and their families are administered by individual states, but they are regulated and partially funded through a complex array of federal programs authorized under the Social Security Act 011935 (1935; Takas, 1993). Specifically, the primary sources for federal support of foster care are contained within Title IV-E (1990, P.L. 96–272), Title IV-B (1990, P.L. 97–270), and Title XX (1975, P.L. 97–35) of the Social Security Act of 1935, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (1980, P.L. 96–272), the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (P.L. 105–89), the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments of 2001 (P.L. 107–133) and the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (P.L. 106–169). An historical overview of the major provisions of each of these statutes reveals a tendency to support out-of-home placement rather than programs for reuniting or stabilizing families and their children.
Title IV-A (AFDC Foster Care Program)
The federal government's involvement in foster care began in 1961, when Louisiana denied aid to 22,000 poor African American children who were otherwise eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) because their homes were considered unsuitable and their mothers were ineligible for welfare (Bell, 1965). Congress enacted Title IV-A (AFDC-Foster Care Program) of the Social Security Act of 1935 to ensure that these children would receive adequate care outside their homes (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991). Access to these federal funds was limited to children who were removed from their homes as a result of judicial determination and whose parents had previously received or would have become eligible for AFDC payments. The link between eligibility for federal foster care reimbursement and eligibility for AFDC was established in this legislation. Even then, federal funds were available only for the cost of room and board. Because AFDC is an open-ended entitlement program, the federal government was required to pay for as many children as met the eligibility guidelines. The availability of federal funds for foster care under Title IV-A reduced the states' financial responsibilities for providing substitute care. The absence of federal funds for reunification and preventive services, however, left states heavily dependent on these funds, with no real incentives to move children out of foster care. The states incurred a loss in federal funding for each child discharged from foster care. The 1996 welfare-reform legislation known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act replaced Title IV-A as a block grant for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program.
Title IV-B (Child Welfare Services Program)
Before 1961, only limited federal funds through Title V of the original Social Security Act of 1935 (the Child Welfare Services Program) had been used for foster care (Cox & Cox, 1985). Originally, the intent of the program was to provide aid to homeless, dependent, and neglected children who were living in rural areas. By 1962, with authorization for additional funds, its scope was broadened to include any social services required to promote the well-being of children (Stein, 1987). States were then asked to match federal funding in an effort to provide evidence that child-welfare services were being coordinated with other welfare and social services programs. The shift in federal policy at this time was prompted by the increased value and funding of training for social workers who were to provide social services as a means of curbing poverty and the prevalence of foster care drift. In 1967, authorization of this title was changed to Title IV-B.
During the 1970s, the federal government assumed a more active role in shaping the nature and quality of child-welfare services. Congress authorized an increase in funding for child-welfare services under Title IV-B in 1972, 1973, 1976, and thereafter to encourage states to expand and develop supportive, protective, and preventive services. Although Title IV-B makes no direct reference to reunification, the language of the provision encourages states to “establish, extend, and strengthen public social services which supplement parental care and keep families intact” (cited in Burt & Pittman, 1985, p. 29). Two factors tend to account for the limited impact of Title IV-B. Appropriations for the title have always been far below the authorized levels. The federal government did not provide states with the monetary incentives to promote the development of preventive and restorative programs at levels sufficient to meet clients' needs. Even though the appropriations were low, the lack of enforceable restrictions on the use of Title IV-B funds also contributed to the legislation's ineffectiveness in reducing inappropriate out-of-home placements. In fiscal year 2003, appropriations for this program were $405 million.
Title XX, enacted in 1974, provides funds to states for an array of social services, including child welfare. Originally, a federal statute mandated that funds were to be allocated to provide social services to people who were receiving AFDC or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and to specifically defined low-income families (Pecora et al., 1992). This legislation, an amendment to the Social Security Act of 1935, created a new section that allowed states to have more power and discretion in setting priorities for services and funding levels of local programs that were aimed at meeting one of five federally mandated service goals: (a) self-support, (b) self-sufficiency, (c) prevention of abuse and neglect, (d) prevention of inappropriate institutional care, and (e) obtaining appropriate institutional care and services.
Title XX was transformed into a block grant, The Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (1981, P.L. 97–35). This shift brought several important changes, including the elimination of required state matching funds, the merger of separate federal appropriations for social services, and the removal of mandates for the expenditure of funds on welfare recipients and formerly mandated service goals (Kimmich, 1985). States have broad discretion to determine eligibility criteria as well as the types of services provided under SSBG. On average, states spend about half their funds from social services block grants on child-welfare services, including day care, information and referral, protective services, foster care, homemaker assistance, and counseling. About one-third of Title XX recipients are children. Unlike the previously described statutes, Title XX is a capped entitlement program, with no state matching requirement. In fiscal year 2003, $1.7 billion was appropriated for SSBG.
Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act
The advocacy momentum in the 1970s ended with the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96–272), the primary legislative vehicle establishing the current goals and administrative framework for child-welfare services and family-foster-care services (Family Impact Seminar, 1990). In passing the legislation, Congress sought to raise public concern about the rates of admission and discharge of children from foster care. Members of Congress debated the unnecessary removal of children from their homes and their subsequent placement in inappropriate settings, the large number of children who languished in foster care and moved from home to home, ineffective efforts to reunify families, and the absence of provisions for preventive services to avoid or delay placement.
The legislation created a two-tiered funding framework, one for foster care maintenance costs for AFDC- and non-AFDC-eligible children and the other for preventive and restorative services (Pecora et al., 1992). Specifically, the law replaced Title IV-A (AFDC-Foster Care Program) of the Social Security Act with a new subtitle, Title IV-E, and amended Title IV-B, the Child Welfare Services provisions. These provisions in effect changed the federal reimbursement for foster care provided to AFDC-eligible children and increased funding for preventive and reunification services.
Title IV-A was transferred to a newly created Title IV-E, a permanently authorized, open-ended entitlement program (Family Impact Seminar, 1990). Under this new Title IV-E program, states are partially reimbursed: (a) for monthly payments to foster parents who care for AFDC-eligible children in state custody, (b) for adoption subsidies to parents who adopt children with special needs, who are eligible for AFDC and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and (c) for certain administrative costs of the program. Although states establish their own foster care payment rates and licensing standards, the federal matching rate for foster care maintenance payments is the same as the rate used in AFDC and Medicaid. Federal matching rates vary by states' per capita incomes and range from 50% to 83%, with the nationwide average being about 57% (Spar, 1993).
Additional fiscal incentives are included in the program to encourage states to provide child-welfare services. These incentives include the imposition of certain ceilings on the use of funds for foster care and encouragements to transfer unused maintenance funds to the states' Title IV-B Child Welfare Services Program. AFDC- and SSI-eligible children who are placed in care are automatically eligible for Medicaid benefits, and their eligibility continues following their adoption until they are 18.
Under the Title IV-E foster care program, states are required in each case to make reasonable efforts either to prevent or to eliminate the need to remove a child from his or her home or to make it possible for a child to return home after placement. When children enter placement as the result of a court proceeding, “the court must determine whether reasonable efforts to prevent placement have been made” (Stein, 1987, p. 644).
Amended Title IV-B
Title IV-B permanently authorizes federal matching grants to states for three types of child-welfare services: direct services, training, and research and demonstration programs (Family Impact Seminar, 1990). When the title was enacted, the federal matching rate for IV-B funds was increased, for the first time, to a flat 75%. The rate had previously varied from 33% to 66%. The amended Title IV-B provisions of P.L. 96–272 limited the funds that could be used for foster care maintenance and stipulated that funds above this amount must be used for preventive and reunification services. The law established a cap on federal funds for AFDC foster care when appropriations for Title IV-B reached a specified amount.
The legislation established a set of fiscal procedures that encourage states to transfer a certain amount of unused Title IV-E foster care funds to the Title IV-B child-welfare-services program, creating a link between Title IV-E and Title IV-B funding, contingent on two stipulations. The first was that states would be allowed to transfer funds if they capped their federal foster care program and if they implemented the protections required by law under the Title IV-B provisions. The second was that if appropriations reached a certain level for two consecutive years, states would have to place a cap on their foster care programs and implement preventive pre-placement service programs to avoid the need for foster care (Spar, 1990). The fiscal year 2003 appropriation for Title IV-E foster care expenditures was $4.6 billion.
States are allowed wide discretion in the use of Title IV-B funds, but they must also provide certain protections for all children if they are to receive Title lV-B funds (Spar, 1993). These protections and procedures include a required detailed written case plan that describes the appropriateness of the placement, the services provided to the child, and the plan for achieving permanence for each child. Additionally, a periodic case review is required every six months under judicial auspices or through an administrative review procedure. Dispositional hearings by a court or a court-appointed administrative body are required within 18 months of the child's placement and periodically thereafter. Procedural safeguards regarding removal and placement agreements must be in place, including the participation of parents and children in the development and approval of case plans. Reunification or permanent-planning services that include day care, homemaker services, family and individual counseling for parents and children, respite care, parent education, adoptive services, and adoption follow-up are required. Voluntary placements are eligible for federal reimbursement for the first 180 days if the state meets the foregoing requirements.
As part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (1993, P.L. 103–66), Title IV-B was amended to provide entitlement matching funds to the states for family preservation and family support services, beginning in fiscal year 1994. States are authorized to use these funds for community services, such as programs to improve parenting skills, intensive family-preservation services for families who are at risk of losing their children to foster care, temporary assistance to parents and other child guardians, and community-based prevention of occurrence of family crises (Spar, 1993). In 1997, Congress reauthorized the Family Preservation and Family Support Program under the name Promoting Safe and Stable Families and increased the funding levels to be used for four broad types of services: prevention, family preservation, time-limited family reunification, and adoption promotion and support.
In spite of the philosophical significance of this legislation to the field, data show that the foster care population continued to grow. Median lengths of stay in care had increased to nearly two years by 1990 (Lowry, 2004). By the late 1990s, a bipartisan consensus within the Congress emerged that “embodied a philosophical and politic shift away from a statutory scheme that prioritized reunifying families in virtually all circumstances to one that explicitly puts the health and safety of children first and aggressively seeks to move children through foster care to permanency in an expedited manner” (Lowry, 2004, p. 1021). The result was the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 (P.L. 105–89). This legislation addressed the key concerns of Congress, which included shortening the length of time children remain in foster care and reducing the number of children waiting to be adopted (Allen & Bissell, 2004, p. 52).
Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997
ASFA, passed as an amendment to the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, explicitly emphasizes the health and safety of children and reiterates that the intent of foster care is to provide a safe and temporary service while children prepare for permanent homes (Allen & Bissell, 2004). ASFA clarified “that nothing in federal law requires a child to remain in or be returned to an unsafe home” (Allen & Bissell, 2004, p. 53). Though states are still required to make “reasonable efforts” to preserve and reunify families, ASFA provisions indicate they are exempt from this requirement in certain situations, including cases in which a court finds: (a) a parent has subjected a child to aggravated circumstances (defined in state law as including abandonment, torture, and extreme forms of physical or sexual abuse); (b) a parent has committed, attempted to commit, solicited, aided, or abetted murder or voluntary manslaughter of another of the parent's children; (c) a parent has committed a felony assault that results in serious bodily injury to the child or another of the parent's children; or (d) if a parent's rights concerning a sibling have been involuntarily terminated (Lowry, 2004, p. 1025). When such cases are encountered, states are required to hold a permanency hearing within 30 days and make “reasonable efforts” to place the child for adoption, with a legal guardian, or in another acceptable permanent placement. ASFA also requires states to develop and implement standards to protect the health and safety of children in foster care placements in public or private agencies, although no clear definition or guidance in law or regulation has been provided (Allen & Bissell, 2004; Lowry, 2004). Furthermore, the law requires states to conduct criminal records checks of all prospective foster and adoptive parents.
To expedite the movement of children from foster care into permanent homes, ASFA changed the timelines for making decisions about permanent placement (Samantrai, 2004, p. 20). The Act requires states to hold the child's first permanency hearing within 12 months rather than 18 months, as specified under the previous legislation. More important, ASFA dictates new timelines and conditions for the filing of proceedings to terminate parental rights. Referred to as the “15/22” provision, states are required, when a child has been in care for 15 of the previous 22 months, to initiate proceedings to terminate the parental rights of the child's biological parents and concurrently to identify and recruit an appropriate adoptive family (Allen & Bissell, 2004; Lowry, 2004). The law specifies three exceptions to the expedited timeline, on a case-by-case basis, which include: (a) when the child is in the care of a relative, (b) when the state documents a compelling reason why filing a petition is not in the best interests of the child, and (c) when the state agency has not provided the child's family with services the state deemed necessary to safely return the child home. To reduce the length of time children remain in foster care, ASFA places a heavy emphasis on adoption (Stein, 2003). The law establishes financial incentives in the form of bonus payments to states to increase the number of adoptions of children in foster care. “States that increase their adoptions over an established baseline are eligible for $4,000 for each child who is adopted from foster care and $6,000 for each child with special needs who is adopted from foster care, but only for adoptions above the baseline” (Allen & Bissell, 2004, p. 54).
Besides the timeline provisions, ASFA reauthorized funding for and expanded the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program (PSSFP) (renamed from Family Preservation and Support Services Program). The PSSFP program, a Title IV-B block grant program, requires that funds be used for family reunification, adoption promotion, family support, and family-preservation activities. The four program activity functions overlap, however, making it difficult to know how these program funds are being used. Other noteworthy provisions of ASFA include the elimination of an earlier statutory reference to long-term foster care as an appropriate permanency option for children, the expansion of health coverage for adopted children with special needs, an explicit recognition of the placement of children with “fit and willing relatives” or guardians as acceptable permanency options, and establishment of the right of foster parents and other caregivers to be heard at any court hearings involving children in their care. The latter provision was specified to allow caregivers the opportunity to challenge the quality of services agencies provide to children in their care (Allen & Bissell, 2004; Lowry, 2004).
The most striking requirement of ASFA is its increased emphasis on the accountability of the states (Samantrai, 2004). Section 203 of ASFA directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop and implement a set of performance standards (that is, outcome measures) to enable close monitoring of state performance and to issue an annual report to Congress about their performance, and to develop a performance-based incentive system for providing federal child welfare, foster care, and adoption-assistance payments.
Chafee Foster Care Independence Program
Concerns about adolescents who age out of the foster care system and are ill-equipped to live their own lives led Congress to authorize, in 1986, the Independent Living Program. Under this program, passed under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (P.L. 99–272) funds were provided to the states to assist older foster youths to make the transition from foster care to independence. These state-run programs generally provide instruction in the basics of daily living, including housekeeping, nutrition, money management, career exploration, job training or job placement as a form of employment preparation, and individual and group counseling. In addition, most programs also provide education designed to enhance social skills, sexual decision-making, building supportive relationships, substance-abuse prevention, and the promotion of preventive health activities (that is, smoking avoidance and pregnancy prevention). The program was replaced, in 1999, under the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (P.L. 106–169), with the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP). Funding levels were increased so that adolescents making the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency and former foster youths up to age 21 could be served. Services were expanded to include financial and housing assistance, and counseling and other support services. In 2001, under the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments (P.L. 107–133), Congress authorized new educational and vocational training programs for older youths leaving foster care under CFCIP. CFCIP is a capped state entitlement program, with an appropriation in FY 2003 of $182 million ($42 million of which is for education and training vouchers).
Size of the Foster Care Population
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 provided federal funding for states to implement a system that would report consistent data about the number of children in foster care. Called the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting Systems (AFCARS), it estimated that approximately 513,000 children were in foster care in 2005. As of 2013, the number of children in care decreased steadily each year, compared to an estimated 408,425 in fiscal year 2010 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2010). This represented a dramatic decrease from the 572,000 children in care in 1999, the highest-ever recorded level (Stoltzfus, 2003). “The size of the foster care population rises or falls depending upon the number of entries to foster care—children who are removed from their homes in a given year—and the number of exits in that same year—children reunited with their families, adopted, emancipated, or placed in another permanent setting” (Stoltzfus, 2003). The number of entries into care has remained relatively stable, at approximately 290,000, except for fiscal years 2002 and 2005, when the number of children entering care rose above 300,000 (In 2002, 303,000 children entered care, compared to 311,000 children in 2005). In 2010, the number of children entering care was reportedly 254,375 the lowest level in years (U.S. DHHS, 2010). Increasing numbers of children exited care since 1998 when 257,000 children left foster care, compared to 272,000 in FY 2000. These figures declined in 2001 to 269,000, rose again to more than 280,000 between 2002 and 2005, and declined again in 2010 to 254,114 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). The most common explanation for the increase in the substitute-care population is the increased number of births, a growing number of incarcerated women, and an increased exposure of children to substance abuse (Chipungu & Bent-Goodley, 2004).
Barbell and Freundlich (2001) note that high re-entry rates also contribute to the growing numbers of children in foster care. These authors report that nationwide, 17% of children entering foster care in 1998 had previously been in care. In other studies, based on various samples and timeframes, the estimated reentry rate ranges from 3% to 27% between 1991 and 2005 (Kimberlin, Anthony, & Austin, 2009). Barth, Weigensberg, Fisher, Fetrow, and Green (2007) note that given the available evidence, re-entry to foster care following reunification is not a rare event. The Child Welfare Outcomes Report to Congress in 2003 noted that the relationship between reunification and re-entry may be particularly relevant for children who enter foster care as older adolescents. These children may enter foster care through the juvenile-justice system or through the courts as “children in need of supervision” (CHINS). Besides those entering and exiting care, a sizable number of children are waiting to be adopted. These are generally children with a permanency goal of adoption or children of parents whose parental rights have been terminated. Data show that the number of children waiting to be adopted has declined steadily since 2000, when an estimated 131,000 children were waiting, compared to an estimated 107,011 waiting in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). AFCARS estimates indicate that the parents of 64,084 children in foster care had their parental rights terminated by the last day of the year in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010).
Types of Substitute Care
As Table 1 indicates, family foster care with nonrelatives is the predominant type of foster care placement. An increasing number of children have been placed with relatives since 2000. Relative placements appear to be more common in states with highly urbanized areas. Table 2 however, suggests a slight increase in the percentage of children placed in relative foster care. The table also shows a slight decline in pre-adoptive home placements in 2010 and in group-home placements. Placement of children in institutions remained constant between 2000 and 2005, at 10%, but in 2010, 9% of children were placed in institutions (U.S. DHHS, 2010).
Table 1 Selected Characteristics of the Foster Care Population in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2010 (percentage)
Foster family (relative)
Foster family (nonrelative)
Supervised independent living
Trial home visit
Under 1 year
19 years and over
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. AFCARS, Report #12.
Table 2 Selected Characteristics of Dynamic Flow of Children in Substitute Care, 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2010 (percentage)
Length of stay
Less than 1 month
5 years or more
Comparable data regarding the reason for entry was not available for 2000 and 2002.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. AFCARS, Report #12.
Characteristics of Foster Care Children
In 2003, the median age of children in foster care had increased to 10.9 years, and by 2010, it had decreased to 9.2 years. The number of infants in care between 1998 and 2005 had also increased from 28,195 (5%) in 1998 to 29,034 (6%) in 2005. By 2010 the number of infants in care had declined to 24,634 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). AFCARS data indicate that fewer than half (48%) of all children in foster care are over the age of 10. Two-thirds of the children in foster care were between the ages of 6 and 18 years from 1998 through 2005 (that is, 68% in 1998, 70% in 2000, 69% in 2002, and 66% in 2005). The percentage remained consistent in 2010 (64% of all children in foster care were between the ages of 6 and 18) (U.S. DHHS, 2010).
Some evidence of the disproportionality (that is, the situation in which particular racial and ethnic groups of children are represented in foster care at a higher or lower percentage than their representation in the general population) of foster care placement is evident from data regarding the racial composition of the substitute-care population. A little more than one-third of the children in care between 1998 and 2002 were white, although the percentage increased slightly from 39% in 2002 to 41% in 2005 and 41% in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). Approximately 217,615 African American children were in care in 2000. Their numbers declined after that. In 2005, approximately 166,482 African American children were in foster care compared to 117,610 in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). Among Latino children, the increase was more significant—from 47,900 in 1990, to 93,996 in 2005. The numbers of Latino children in care declined in 2010 to 84,727 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). AFCARS data show that if the number of Hispanic and African American children in care were combined, more than half of all children in foster care from 1998 through 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010) were minority children. The quality of care these children receive has been shown through research to be different. Finally, AFCARS data are consistent in documenting the gender of the children in care. Since 1998, 52% of all children in care through 2010 are male, 48% female.
The risk for emotional, behavioral, developmental, and physical health problems is higher among children in foster care. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2000) estimated that 30% of children in foster care had severe emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems. Recently, a report released by United Cerebral Palsy and Children's Rights (2006) organizations estimated that a third of the children in the foster care system may have disabilities ranging from minor developmental delays to significant mental and physical disabilities. There are few national statistics to document the extent and nature of childhood disabilities among the foster care population. Nevertheless, an increasing number of children and youths in foster care have physical, mental health, or developmental problems that result from prenatal exposure to substances or HIV, premature birth, chronic medical conditions, developmental delays, and physical handicaps (Simms, Dubowitz, & Szilagyi, 2000). Being in foster care may sometimes exacerbate these problems for children (Barbell & Freundlich, 2001).
Length of Time in Care
Overall, the length of stay for children in care has slowly decreased since 1998. The median length of stay, which was 20.5 months in 1998, decreased to 19.8 in 2000, 18.1 in 2002, 15.5 in 2005, and 14.0 months in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). In 1998, 2000, and 2002, a little over a third of foster care children were placed in care for less than one year. That increased to 42% in 2005, and by 2010, the children in care for less than one year had risen to 45% (U.S. DHHS, 2010). Slightly less than another third remained in care for 12 to 35 months between 2000 and 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). Interestingly, the percentage of children who remained in care for three to five years decreased, from 32% in 1998 and 2000 to 29% in 2002, 25% in 2005, and 22% in 2010 (U.S. DHHS, 2010). The longer children remain in care, the more likely they are to experience multiple placements, greater challenges in achieving permanency, and greater risks to their overall health and well-being.
Number of Placements
One report to Congress, in 2000, indicated that, on average, 85% of children who are in foster care for less than one year experience two or fewer placements (Bass, Shields, & Behrman, 2003; U.S. DHHS, 2003). James, Landsverk, and Slymen (2004) indicate that short stays in shelters or receiving homes may not be documented and therefore not counted in data analyses. Placement instability increases with each year a child is in care. For example, in 2002, the percentage of children in foster care for less than 12 months, experiencing no more than two placement settings, ranged from 55.3% to 99.8%, with a median of 84.1% (U.S. DHHS, 2002). States reported the following barriers to achieving placement stability: (a) lack of sufficient services to foster parents to prevent placement disruptions, (b) making decisions about placement based on what is available rather than what is appropriate for a child, (c) placing children in emergency shelters as initial placements and as temporary placement after disruptions occur, and (d) the scarcity of appropriate placement options for children with developmental disabilities or behavioral problems. Subsequent research shows that a shorter duration in foster care—three months or less (McDonald, Bryson, & Poertner, 2006)—and the number of prior placements are correlated with the likelihood of a child’s re-entry into foster care.
Characteristics of Foster Parents
Statistical data about foster parents—the caregivers of service—became available only in the last decades of the 20th century (Kaye & Cook, 1993). Although these data must be reviewed with caution because of methodological and sampling limitations, they provide estimates of the demographic trends in the population of foster parents. Kaye and Cook's National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents estimated that there were 131,100 licensed family foster homes, including homes licensed for emergency care, family group care, and specialized foster family care, in 1990. (Homes that are licensed for care by relatives only were excluded from this estimate.) On the basis of the average licensing capacity of the surveyed homes, which was 3.1 children, an estimated 406,400 family-foster-care beds were officially available. Barbell and Freundlich (2001) indicate that an estimated 142,000 licensed foster families cared for fewer than half (48%) of children in care by 1999.
While the number of children in foster care increased since 1998, the supply of foster family homes has not kept pace with this growth in the foster care population. This is particularly true in large cities. Several factors are associated with the growing shortage of foster homes, including the increased employment of women who might previously have provided full-time foster care; an increase in single-parent families; the low reimbursement rates; inadequate support services, such as respite care; and insufficient pre-service and in-service training opportunities for foster parents.
Kaye and Cook's (1993) survey of foster parents showed that the percentage of foster mothers with less than a high school education had declined among those licensed after 1980. Among foster mothers licensed after 1985, an increasing percentage were employed (42% full time, 18% part time), and only one-third were homemakers. Although there was a slight increase in the percentage of licensed Hispanic foster parents after 1985, the percentage of African American foster parents declined from 1980 to 1985. Shortages in minority foster parents were most notable in central-city neighborhoods in urban areas. Moreover, African American and Hispanic foster parents “were more likely to be caring for children at or above their licensing capacity” (Kaye & Cook, 1993, p. 102). More recent data from AFCARS (2003) indicate that half of the foster parents are married couples, 3% are unmarried couples, 42% are single females, and 5% are single males. Almost 57% of all foster parents are 45 years of age or older. In a more recently published study, family foster parents who quit, consider quitting, and plan to continue fostering were compared. Rhodes, Orme, and Buehler (2001) indicate that a common factor affecting foster-parent retention was interactions with the child welfare agency, difficult behaviors among foster children was frequently cited as a challenge, and personal crises or changes in foster-parent health or age, or marital crises, were factors that precipitate an exit from foster parenting.
Future Issues for Social Workers
The future of social workers in foster care practice is linked to the conditions under which families function and to the societal supports that are available to assist families in their childrearing functions. The situation is further complicated by the emerging recognition of the importance of racial and cultural diversity in childrearing practices. The development of ethnic-sensitive clinical services is a challenge for the social work profession as it seeks to protect and provide for the welfare of children and to create a balance between the rights and interests of all the parties involved.
Disproportionality in Child Welfare
The overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system has long been a concern—one that has gained more attention since the turn of the 20th century—among researchers, child welfare administrators, activists, and educators. Disproportionality, as Hill (2006) indicates, “refers to the extent to which children are over or underrepresented in the child welfare system relative to their proportions in the census population” (p. 8). It should be distinguished from the concept of disparity, which refers to differences in the way minority children and their families are treated, compared to white children and families, in the child welfare system. Research data show that minorities are more likely to be reported for maltreatment, to have these reports substantiated, to be removed from their families, to receive fewer services and lower financial support, to remain in care longer, and to be less likely to be reunified with their families. Theories about what causes disproportionality can be classified into three types of factors: parent and family risk factors, community risk factors, and organizational and systemic factors. Parent- and family-risk theories postulate that the overrepresentation of minorities in the child welfare system is due to the prevalence of higher risk factors such as unemployment, poverty, teen parenthood, incarceration, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness among these families—factors that result in high levels of child maltreatment (Hill, 2006). The community-risk-factor theory argues that the overrepresentation of minorities in the child welfare system has less to do with race or class and more to do with the communities and neighborhoods in which minority families live. These communities and neighborhoods have many high risk factors—such as high levels of poverty, homelessness, single-parent families, unemployment, crime, and street violence—that make residents more visible to public authorities and more susceptible to surveillance by public authorities. Theories about organizational and systemic factors, however, contend that minority overrepresentation is the result of the decision-making processes of child-protective-service agencies, the cultural insensitivity and biases of workers, governmental policies, and institutional or structural racism (Hill, 2006, p. 8).
Hill's (2006) synthesis of research on disproportionality in child welfare shows that in most research studies, race has been identified as one of the determinants of decision-making at the stages of reporting, investigating, substantiating, placing children, and exiting care. The only stage he reports at which no racial differences were identified concerned the rates of re-entry into the child welfare system. Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence about the existence of racial disparities. According to research, children of color more often have negative experiences in the child welfare system than do white children. Yet, these results do not identify the causes of minority proportionality. More rigorous research and improvements in the identification of the mechanisms that lead to disproportionality in practice are needed.
Placement with Relatives
Since the 1980s, an increasing percentage of children have been placed with their own relatives. Within the field, some have the perception that the familiarity and continuity offered through kinship placements help to lessen the trauma experienced by children separated from their parents (Ehrle & Geen, 2002). It is also widely believed that kinship placements provide a sense of family support to foster children. Placements with relatives are more likely to occur in large urban areas among economically disadvantaged children of color and their families. Research shows that children placed with relatives have more frequent contact with both their parents and their siblings than children placed with nonkin (Barth, Courtney, Berrick, & Albert, 1994). Moreover, some research indicates that these placements are more stable and experience fewer re-placements (LeProhn & Pecora, 1994).
The dramatic increases in these placements raise concern about the boundaries between informal mutual-aid systems and the expanding role and responsibility of government for ensuring the protection of children who are living with relatives. When compared with nonkin foster parents, “kinship caregivers are referred for, offered, and actually receive fewer services for themselves as well as the children in their care” (Ehrle & Geen, 2002, p. 16). Other concerns emerge about the equitable distribution of financial support to relatives who care for other children and about regulatory standards for ensuring the children's protection. Equally important are questions about the role of relative caregivers in the placement process and their impact on permanency-planning decision-making, the goals for placing children with relatives, and the provision of adequate services to strengthen both the kinship network and the families of children in care.
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