Foster Care is a temporary living situation for children whose parents are unable, unwilling, or unfit to care for them and whose need for care has come to the attention of child welfare agency staff. It is meant to be a temporary out-of-home care, though the length of time children spend in care can vary drastically and children can suffer serious harm as a result. Some will be separated from their siblings. Others will be bounced from one foster care placement to another, never knowing when their lives will be uprooted next. Too many will be further abused in systems that are supposed to protect them. And instead of being safely reunified with their families — or moved quickly into adoptive homes — many will languish for years in foster homes or institutions.
Adoption is not the plan for every child in foster care. A network of professionals—which includes social workers, therapists, judges, guardians ad litem, and more—will work together with a child and his or her family to determine an appropriate case plan goal. For 58% of the children in care, that case plan goal is to reunify them with their biological parents or place them in the care of a relative. But for 26% of cases, parental rights have been terminated for one reason or another and the end goal is for the child to be adopted by a new family.
Florida welfare officials and child advocates expect a surge of children to flood the already strained state system. Neglect and child drug abuse cases have both grown by 3% in the past year. Many state officials say the surge of children entering foster care is a direct result of the ever-increasing drug epidemic.
Children being removed for parental drug use were more likely to be 5 years old or younger than children removed for other reasons. And the proportion of drug-directed cases involving white, Midwestern and non-urban children increased.
While the surge of drug-related foster care entries has coincided with the rise of the opioid epidemic, increased opioid use is only one possible explanation for the trend. Other potential explanations include changes in policies that increase child removal. Following more than a decade of mostly decline, U.S. foster care cases started increasing again in 2012. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of children entering foster care increased by 8% overall.
April Dirks, an associate professor of social work at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says she has seen the recent increase firsthand. Opioid and methamphetamine use have damaged communities. A former child welfare worker herself, she now instructs her students on how to manage and help families with parents suffering from drug addiction.
Dirks believes the best way to address the potential increase of parents who use drugs is to combine foster care with family drug courts, specialized programs that provide supervised treatment instead of incarceration for people with substance use or mental health issues. These courts can provide parents with the support they need to recover from their addiction and regain custody of their children. "If they're going to remove the children, the best thing [to do] would be immediately treating the parent," she says.
There are approximately 443,000 foster youths nationwide. With more children entering the welfare system, more foster parents are needed to love these children as their own, then let them go. The Florida Department of Children and Families has shied away from removing children from their homes, acting under the philosophy of family preservation. Protecting families has led to the death of 477 children in six years, investigations show. Those deaths have provoked change — recent legislation directs DCF to shift its priority to acting in the best interest of the child.
As fearful as child protective investigators were to remove children from their homes, now they’re scared to let them stay. Child welfare workers sense a surge of children coming, but the increase of children that will enter the system remains unknown.
But there is good news, too. Despite several discouraging trends, there is hope. 3,652 more children were adopted out of foster care than the previous year. Adoptions have grown by 13% in just two years. For the many children whose parental rights have been terminated and are waiting for a family, that is great news! Most of that increase is attributed to the 52% of adoptions that were by foster parents.
FOSTER CARE FACTS
• On any given day, there are nearly 443,000 children in foster care in the United States.
• More than 690,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. Nearly 110,000 are waiting to be adopted, waiting year after year for their forever home.
• On average, children remain in state care for nearly two years and six percent of children in foster care have languished there for five or more years.
• Despite the common perception that the majority of children in foster care are very young, the average age of kids entering care is 8.
• While most children in foster care live in family settings, a substantial minority — 11 percent — live in institutions or group homes.
• The government invests less than 50% of what it actually costs to raise a child. Close to 30,000 will age out of foster care every year and have to be self-sufficient at age 18, 19, 20 or 21.
• It is not surprising then that within four years of aging out 70% will be on government assistance; 50% will be unemployed; 50% will experience homelessness; 25% will not have completed high school; Less than 12% will earn their college degree. Resulting in $1 Million economic burden to society for each young person we fail.