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Foster Care System

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    The foster care system is a unique institution and fulfils a vital social need. Over the last twenty years the number of children coming into foster care is increasing and there is very little likelihood of the numbers going down in the near future. The foster care system faces severe challenges and public criticism on the manner of its functioning is increasing. The many deficiencies in the system that result in inadequate care and proper servicing of the children who perforce have to come into the system, are disturbing concerned citizens.

    This assignment analyses the state of the foster care system in the United States with the specific purpose of locating the basic challenges that confront government departments, care workers and foster parents in providing adequate care and support to the unfortunate children who need its protection. It is hoped that the findings and conclusions of this assignment will be able to throw some light on this issue and provide useful and practical suggestions to improve the situation.




    Research Question

    Purpose of Study

    Limitations of Study
    Literature Review

    Reasons for Foster Care

    The Foster Care System

    Problems, Deficiencies and Challenges
    Analysis and Conclusions


    1. Introduction


    The Foster Care System in the United States aims to protect and take care of children who, for different reasons, can not live with their natural families. The tragedy of homelessness is possibly one of the most traumatic experiences that a child can face, comparable only to that of being orphaned. Children are put into foster care only under exceptional circumstances and only when it is assessed that a foster home will be able to provide more care than their natural dwelling. The number of reasons for children coming into foster care are numerous, but can possibly be grouped into four distinct sections. These are poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence and parental incarceration. In most cases the factors are inextricably linked and families facing poverty may be subjected to both substance abuse and domestic violence. In fact domestic violence arises out of both poverty and substance abuse and builds up an atmosphere of trauma and tension that can be very harmful for impressionable children. Environments like these result in physical and emotional child neglect. In cases of parental incarceration, neglect occurs because of forced parental absence from home. A number of children are also put into foster care because of HIV/ AIDS, arising out of parental death or risk of infection from the disease.

    The foster care system faces enormous challenges because of the increasing rates of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, unequal education, and family and community violence.

    Within foster care populations, there is a higher prevalence of disabilities and developmental difficulties (Coyne and Brown 1986; Hochstadt et al. 1987; Reed 1997); poorer educational outcomes (Blome 1997; Dubowitz et al. 1994; Heath, Colton and Aldgate 1994), conduct disorder and offending (Reid, Kagan and Schlosberg 1988); psychological problems such as hyperactivity, depression and anxiety, and difficulties in socialization (Klee and Halfon 1987). A substantial percentage of foster children are victims of abuse (Benedict et al. 1989; Courtney 1994; Hochstadt et al. 1987), and many come from family backgrounds with histories of intergenerational abuse, where parents have limited resources, parenting skills and social networks (Leifer, Shapiro and Kassem 1993). Given their background problems, it is not surprising that foster children are at significant disadvantage compared with other children, (Barber, and Delfabbro 91)
    Research Question

    It is the objective of this study to analyse the information and material available on the issue of foster care and determine the major challenges facing the foster care system in the Unites States. The research question is defined as follows.

    ·         What are the major challenges facing the Foster Care System in the USA today?

    Purpose of Study

    Foster care is an area of great concern to society because of the deleterious effect the current living conditions in many American homes have on the mental and physical health of children. The high incidence of joblessness, poverty, substance abuse, AIDS/HIV and domestic violence results in many children being put under foster care. Foster care initiatives, though ostensibly taken to protect and provide better environments to the children often results in increased trauma and emotional disturbance. The purpose of this study is to research and localize the particular challenges faced by the foster care system, and by so doing arrive at suggestions for immediate attention and improvement.

    Limitations of Study

    The research assignment may suffer because of the vastness of the canvas and the limited time available with the researcher. The assignment depends upon published sources, primary and secondary, for information and analysis. An assignment like this should, incorporate if possible, a direct survey, involving children as well as citizens working in foster care. While the assignment suffers from the absence of a primary survey, the literature review is exhaustive and sincere efforts have been made to obtain and analyse the data available from primary and secondary sources.

    2. Literature Review

    This research assignment makes substantial use of primary and secondary material in the form of texts, journals and magazine articles as well as websites and internet sources for purposes of data availability, analysis and investigation. Online libraries like Questia have also been liberally used. The researcher prefers to take up topics for discussion sequentially and use inputs from a number of sources, rather than deal with the sources and their authors separately, for the sake of logical progression of ideas and cohesion of thought.

    Reasons for Foster Care

    It is estimated that approximately 300,000 children are placed in foster care every year. The main reasons for children to come into foster care are Parent Drug Abuse, Parent Alcohol Abuse, Physical Abuse, Child’s Behaviour, Neglect Abuse, Inability to Cope, Inadequate Housing, Child’s Disability, Incarceration of Parent, Child Drug Abuse, Child Alcohol Abuse and Death of Parent. A Department of Health Services (DHS) report for Oregon states that the children who need foster care may be infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, grade-schoolers or teenagers. More than 55 % of the children removed from their homes had at least four of the above reasons occurring together and the trauma levels of their experiences must have been horrifying. Most reasons for removal were due to the actions of the parents and very few happened because of actions of children. (Foster Care, 2005) A report, by Sandra Stukes Chipungu and Tricia B. Bent-Goodley (2000), states that child neglect is the main cause for children to be taken into foster homes. However, child neglect is as an omnibus phrase and contains a number of other reasons in the category.

    The most common reason for entering foster care is neglect. Maltreatment deaths were associated with neglect (35%) more than any other type of abuse. Almost two-thirds of child victims suffered from neglect, thus a child is more likely to enter care due to neglect than due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse combined. However, neglect is often used as a catchall category, and the underlying reasons that may lead to parental neglect are often not accurately recorded. Children who come into state care often live in fragile family systems experiencing multiple stressors such as poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness, and domestic violence. Societal and familial problems such as parental incarceration and HIV/AIDS can also lead to involvement with the foster care system, yet our understanding of these connections is limited. Moreover, these family challenges tend to coexist and interact, presenting a complex family dynamic and a complicated set of service needs. Strengthening fragile families is a major challenge. Any efforts to stem the flow of children coming into foster care must provide comprehensive and coordinated support to these families. (Chipunga, Bent Goodley)

    Poverty is the major reason for entry into the foster care system. Poor children are twice as likely as others are to have developmental retardation and cognitive inadequacies. They are much more likely to need medical treatment and are more likely to die from illness. Most poor children suffer from lack of physical amenities like housing and food and are likely to be reported for abuse and child neglect. Children from poorer families also face higher chances of physical and sexual abuse. Providing sufficient care and direction for children, while living within constraints arising out of sharp poverty, is tremendously difficult. Even though the majority of low-income parents do not neglect their children, children from poor families are more likely to enter the child benefit system.

    Evidence of substance abuse on the part of parents results in children coming into foster care at early ages. A good percentage of children enter at an early age because of parental drug or alcohol abuse. Domestic violence takes place in a large proportion of such homes and breeds enormous insecurity in children. However, domestic violence generally takes place in families where there is poverty as well as substance abuse and most children who come into foster care from such families suffer from severe trauma and depression. The two other major reasons are parental incarceration and HIV/AIDS. The percentage of prisoners who are also parents is rising steadily. Placement of children in foster care however depends more on the number of female inmates than on males; children with mothers in prison are obviously more likely to come into care than those with incarcerated fathers.  The presence of AIDS/HIV in the household is another primary reason for children to come into the foster care system In addition, abandoned babies who find their way into the foster care system are also very likely to have infected parents.

    Race is another factor associated with children who come into foster homes. The major inmates of the foster care system are children with black and Hispanic parents, the phenomenon being due to their great levels of poverty and comparatively lower income levels in the two communities.

    High poverty rates among children of color exacerbate this trend. As a result, children of color, who comprise 33% of the child population in the United States, constitute more than 55% of children in foster care placement. African American children are most seriously affected by disproportionality, composing only 15% of the child population yet 38% of children in care. American Indian children compose 2% of the foster care population, nearly double their rate in the general population. According to official data, Latino children are slightly overrepresented in child welfare, with Latino children composing 12.5% of the child population and 17% of children in care. However, there are indications that Latino children are coming into care at faster rates than other children are. (Chipunga, Bent Goodley)

    Barber and Delfabbro also appear to echo the above statements.

    .A number of issues and problems pertaining to the children and the circumstances of their placement were identified by social workers at the time of intake. The first of these factors related to whether children had been the victims of any form of abuse. In addition, child incapacity was used to describe cases in which children had significant physical or mental health problems; child mental health referred to cases in which children were experiencing severe depression, suicidal ideation or self-destructive behaviours; parental incapacity was recorded when parents were in prison, had substance abuse problems or mental or physical illness; family breakdown referred to cases involving severe child-parent conflict; child behaviour identified children with problematic behaviours; and homelessness was recorded whenever children had nowhere to live. The most commonly reported factor at intake was some form of abuse, followed closely by parental incapacity brought on by substance abuse, mental ill-health or incarceration. Approximately one-third of the children had been subjected to at least one form of abuse, although less than a quarter of them had been subjected to serious physical or sexual abuse. Neglect was identified in almost a quarter of the cases, sometimes in conjunction with parental incapacity and homelessness. By contrast, relatively few children were referred because of a carer’s inability to cope with the child’s disability or developmental delay (Barber and Delfabbro, 95)

    African Americans comprise the largest proportion of children placed in foster care. While the average age of children coming into care is around ten, infants and children under five are increasingly entering the system Children who come into foster care because of family circumstances need to make smooth exits from the situation. Most children who exit are reunited with their parents after family problems have either lessened or been solved. These children account for nearly 57 % of the exiting population. The balance exit avenues include adoption, placement with relatives, and emancipation.

    The Foster Care System

    Foster Care in America is an area controlled mostly by individual states and while different states handle their responsibilities in the area independently, most foster care systems are quite similar. Foster care systems generally include state controlled as well as external or outsourced components.

    The state-run foster care systems consists of foster families and group homes that are certified and maintained through contracts with the state authorities. Employees of the department recruit and train families in taking care of foster children. The outsourced portion generally comprises of emergency shelters, therapeutic camps and private child placement agencies that place foster children in family homes and foster group homes. The child placement agencies also train the foster families with whom they work. Placement policies generally tend to place children in settings that are not restrictive and are nearest to actual home environments and, as a rule, private homes with foster parents’ suit this requirement the most. Children are removed from their homes under the supervision of courts after cases of neglect and abuse are recorded and confirmed. Periodic reports are thereafter provided to the responsible courts as long as the children remain in foster care.

     Foster care is intended to be a transitory situation, lasting until the children can return home in security and safety. The placement can however become permanent, if the natural family cannot solve its problems sufficiently to allow its children to return and live in the family home without danger. In such cases, the state authorities can recommend to the court that the parent-child relationship be terminated and the child be placed with a permanent foster family, adoptive family or other caregiver. Some children enter the foster care system because their parents cannot meet their medical or behavioral needs. In many such cases, the parents voluntarily conclude their parental privileges to place the children permanently in foster care. As many children coming into the foster care system have significant physical and emotional problems, they are initially placed in emergency homes or shelters for examination and assessment. Even otherwise, children entering care are subjected to physical, dental and psychological checkups to assess their condition and determine the need for further treatment.

    Agencies also generally try to place children entering the system within their own communities and as close as possible to their natural homes so that family ties can be maintained. However placement agencies also use their discretion and judgment in this matter and sometimes place the children in distant places.  Care providers are paid by the state for their services depending upon the level and nature of services provided. Service levels can vary from basic to moderate to intense depending upon the needs of the child. Children with basic requirements are generally placed with foster care families. Rates paid for care vary from 30 dollars a day for basic requirements to more than 200 dollars a day for specific needs. Children with higher level needs are mostly placed with specialised care centers run or contracted by placement agencies. State monitoring is generally done through specially trained state employed workers who periodically visit the children, foster families, placement agencies and specialised care centres to assess the condition of the children. These workers are generally known as case workers and perform one of the most critical functions of the foster care system. The responsible state agency assigns a case worker to each child entering foster care. Case workers have the responsibility of ensuring that children are placed and kept in safe and appropriate settings and receive the care they need. The criticality and importance of their role is paramount and responsible case workers have an obligation to see that children’s needs are met. It is also their responsibility to find them appropriate homes. In some cases, children go to foster homes. In others, the state agency contracts with private child placing agencies to find appropriate placements, including medical and counselling treatment options for the child. The case workers also need to prepare a case plan for each child, describing the child’s needs, history and other known facts.

    The case plan also should specify the type of environment in which the child can be placed; a treatment regimen developed from physical and psychological assessments performed immediately after removal from the home; a parent-child visitation schedule, as determined by the court; and a “legal permanency goal,” or the desired permanent disposition of the case. (Strathorn, 2006)

    Children in the foster care system rarely live with the same family for extended lengths of time. Children who have been in foster care for ten or more years are known to have changed homes as many as twenty times.

    DPRS policy requires caseworkers to try to limit the movement of children from one placement to another. Even so, children may be moved due to changes in their service levels, behavioral or medical concerns, lack of permanent placement commitment from foster parents, violations of licensing standards by providers or specific court rulings. At the end of fiscal 2003, Texas children in foster care had experienced an average of four different placements each. Those remaining in foster care for a decade or more could expect to be moved about once a year. In fiscal 2002, 12 children had 40 or more total placements. Texas children in short-term foster care (temporary onservatorship), lasting up to 18 months, experience an average of 2.5 placements. Children in long-term foster care (permanent conservatorship), which can stretch from one to ten years or more, experience an average of 8.8 placements. The longer children are in foster care, the more placements they are likely to have. (Strathorn, 2006)

    Problems, Deficiencies and Challenges

    The foster care system depends on a complex interaction between state departments, child placement agencies, state employed workers, specialized childcare centres and foster parents for its success. While the funding for the system comes from the state the traumatized condition of the children, their specialized needs, the involvement of workers, agencies, care centers and foster parents introduce a number of variables in the system that make the issue complex and challenging.

    Foster care faces the daunting task of caring for ever-increasing numbers of children who need separation from their natural families. The number of children needing foster care increased significantly in the 80s and the 90s and while the numbers coming into the system now are not increasing on a yearly basis, the numbers remain still very significant. The families and children who are coming to the attention of welfare agencies also appear to have needs that are becoming more complex and require multiple servicing. However, as child welfare agencies do not have control over all the services needed, they need to develop interorganizational relations with private for-profit agencies, private nonprofit agencies, and other service systems to ensure access for their clients. This often proves to be very difficult.

    The foster care system depends upon availability of caseworkers and foster families for its direct implementation at the working level. There is an increasing demand for caseworkers that is proving difficult to fill. The problem is compounded by the difficulty in recruiting and training competent staff. High workloads and unsatisfactory working conditions for workers lead to high turnover and result in children in foster care having to go through a succession of workers; the lack of continuity results in improper monitoring and lack of timely corrective action. The foster care system needs highly committed, specially trained staff with innovative and compassionate approaches. Only 25 % of the workers are trained social workers, the majority of positions being filled by persons who look upon the job as temporary assignments, with obvious deleterious effects on long-term commitment and dedication. Public dissatisfaction with the functioning of the foster care system ironically appears to have aggravated the system by increasing the number of reports and amount of paperwork that need completion by the caseworkers.

    Increasingly, the public is demanding better results from beleaguered child welfare agencies, and these demands are reflected in policy changes that emphasize measuring outcomes and documenting processes leading to reunification or adoption. As a result, workers are spending an increasing amount of time meeting paperwork requirements rather than providing counseling, support, and encouragement to clients. Recruiting the most skilled social workers to work with the most vulnerable children and families is difficult under these circumstances. (Chipunga, Bent Goodley)

    Foster parenting is one of the most demanding and onerous responsibilities a person can think of taking up. These parents are required to provide for the everyday wants of children; react to their emotional and behavioral requirements suitably; organize and take them for medical appointments, and counseling sessions. They must visit the schools of the children and arrange visits with their natural parents and with the caseworkers. While the necessary requirements for being a foster parent are not very stringent, the demanding nature of the task makes it difficult to locate and convince caring citizens to take up the responsibility.

    Foster parents do not have to be married, and prior child-rearing experience is not a necessity. However, in most states, they do have to meet the following criteria

    ·         They must be 21 years or older. Additionally, some states do not accept foster parents who are older than 65.

    ·         They must have room for a child in their home. Some programs require every foster child have his or her own room, while some only require that they have their own bed and personal storage space.

    ·         They must already have the financial resources to provide for their own family.

    ·         They must provide a home that meets certain safety standards

    ·         They must be in good physical and mental health

                                                                                                  (Becoming a Foster Parent)

    Foster parents face additional challenges if they wish to take in children with complex needs. A decline in the number of non-related foster families has motivated agencies to carefully consider the reasons influencing decisions to take up parenting and to tailor their methods of convincing and retaining suitable families. Individuals take up parenting for a range of reasons, most of which are based on philanthropy, a sense of charity and social responsibility. Many become parents out of a sense of social responsibility and a wish to improve the opportunities of a child. Others do so because of desires to fulfill community needs or religious compulsions, the need for additional income, and, in some cases, to substitute a lost child.

    However, despite the pressing and urgent need for foster parents and significant efforts to recruit them their numbers continues to dwindle. The adverse public representation of the foster care system also makes it difficult to recruit and retain foster parents. Other factors that aggravate the problem are inadequate housing space, and the increase in numbers of working women.

    The specific needs of children who come into foster care also poses severe challenges for workers and foster parents, and many of them prove inadequate to the task because of lack of specific training and attitude. Children removed from their homes suffer from experiences that result in harmful short and long-term effects. Many children suffer from emotional and behavioral problems,. Children entering foster care obviously suffer from grief arising from separation or loss of relationship with their natural parents. In addition, they are confronted with emotional and psychological adjustment problems and display depression, aggression, or withdrawal. This results in symptoms like sleep disturbance, hoarding food or excessive eating. Feelings of dissatisfaction with their treatment at foster homes are also very high.

    3. Analysis and Conclusions

    The foster care system is a unique institution that takes care of children who are unable to live with their natural families. A huge network that includes governmental agencies, child placement agencies, social workers, childcare centers and fosters parents runs the system. While the system fulfils a huge and pressing need, it also faces a number of challenges and problems that hamper its working and gives rise to inadequacies that result in inadequate and improper care of deprived children. The major challenges that currently face the foster care system are bulleted below.

    ·         The number of children in foster care is very large and continuously increasing. While the number of children who are coming into foster care is not increasing on an annual basis, their numbers remain large and are increasing regularly. There are millions of children in foster care who need to be cared for and looked after until they are reunited with their families, adopted, or grow up and are able to look after themselves.

    ·         These children often come from disturbed and impoverished families with histories of substance abuse and domestic violence. They suffer from trauma and need specific medical and emotional care that is mostly unavailable from their foster families.

    ·         The majority of children coming into care are from African American families. As the number of African American families who come forward to become foster parents is very low these children have to stay with white families making adjustment more difficult

    ·         The foster care system suffers from a severe shortage of workers. This lack of caseworkers undermines the effectiveness and efficiency of the system and results in inadequate care of the children who come to live with foster parents.

    ·         The biggest challenge faced by the system arises from the decline in the numbers of families and single persons who wish to take up foster parenting. The extremely onerous responsibilities of parenting disturbed children makes the task of parenting extremely difficult and reduces the options of caseworkers to put the children into appropriate and healthy surroundings.

    It is necessary to work on two fronts in earnest. The first challenge that needs overcoming is the shortage of workers who take up the primary responsibilities of looking after the children. The state departments need to pay much greater attention to this issue and bring the issue before the public. The status and remuneration of these workers need enhancement and their work shown to be extremely worthy and noble. Universities and colleges need to be convinced to introduce more courses in this area and the career option built up as socially invaluable and personally enriching. The existing workers need to be trained and retrained to enhance their skills and increase their self-esteem. A significant increase in the number of committed and trained caseworkers will go a long way in meeting the existing challenges.

    The decline in the number of foster parents is the other matter of serious concern. Serious thought needs to be given to this issue, possibly by social scientists, psychologists and HR experts on ways and means of motivating thousands of people to come up and take up the responsibility of parenting. This task needs to be removed from the hands of government bureaucrats and given to experts in human behavior and relations, in order to generate effective solutions.


    Barber, James G., and Paul H. Delfabbro. Children in Foster Care. New York: Routledge, 2003. Questia. 3 Dec. 2006 <>.

    Becoming a Foster Parent, How foster care works, 2006, 1 December, 2006, <>

    Blatt, Susan Mcnair. A Guidebook for Raising Foster Children. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2000. Questia. 3 Dec. 2006 <>.

    Chipunga, S and Bent Goodley, T,  Meeting the challenges of temporary foster care, Children, families and foster care, 2000, 1 December, 2006 <>

    Foster Care, Department of Health Services, 2005, 1 December, 2006, <>

    Jonson-Reid, Melissa, and Richard P. Barth. “Probation Foster Care as an Outcome for Children Exiting Child Welfare Foster Care.” Social Work 48.3 (2003): 348+. Questia. 3 Dec. 2006 <>.


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