Millions of American Kids At Risk or Languishing. Is the System Fixable?

It’s one of the most tragic, shocking issues in our country. At any given time, there are about half a million American children in our foster care system after being removed from abusive or neglectful situations.

But national child welfare expert Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute has an even more provocative and disturbing case to make.  She contends not only that there are millions more being left in dangerous situations for far too long, but also that at-risk kids are being used as pawns in a broader social agenda that, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous for the ones who end up in foster care limbo.

On the Great Ideas Podcast with Matt Robison, Ms. Riley described how the system is failing and how better data, more coordination with civic groups, and better priorities could improve the lives of millions of American kids.

Listen to the full conversation here:


This conversation has been condensed and edited.

What are the basics of the foster care system?

There are about 3 million calls made to child abuse hotlines every year.  About 800,000 of them are substantiated, meaning that we can determine that there’s some measure of abuse or neglect going on. During the course of the year, about 600,000 kids are in foster care at one point or another. About a quarter of those are eligible for adoption, meaning that parental rights have been terminated or they’re in the process of being terminated.

What happens when children are removed?

Kids can be placed by a family court with extended family, individual families, group homes of various sizes, and even sometimes psychiatric institutions. But to even get to that point, child protection services has to make an assessment. That is very difficult job. It can be very hard, even dangerous, and we don’t train the people well enough. Some child welfare agencies have a 40% turnover rate, so we have a lot of relative novices doing the work.

This is a difficult topic, but what kinds of situations lead to removal?

Most cases in the child welfare system are actually of neglect, not necessarily physical abuse. And most of our child maltreatment fatalities in this country – and there are about 2000 a year – are actually because of neglect.

The hardest issue is that the underlying causes of neglect are often intractable problems in the family: mental health, drug addiction and extreme poverty.  But as hard as those things are, in the context of child welfare, the question we have to be asking ourselves is how much time and how many chances do you give that parent to rehabilitate before you determine the child needs to be removed for their safety?  Because in this country, there are programs to ensure that no child should be hungry, without heat, without clothes.

The law says that if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months, a state is supposed to move to sever parental rights. Unfortunately that law is flouted all over the country. Family courts and child welfare agencies take the view that the parents are victims too, and that they always need to be given one more, three more, seven more chances. So the average amount of time that a kid spends in foster care now is 20 months. That is a lot in the context of a young child, and devastating to their development.

Is that the basic problem that you’re outlining here in the book?

Yes. The child welfare system has become oriented around the needs and the sensibilities of adults and not around the best interests of children anymore. We should have tremendous amounts of empathy for adults who are struggling and try to offer them as many ways as possible to help them fix their lives. But the question becomes, how do we weigh that against the needs of the child?

You make a specific case about misguided activism around issues of race.

In the early 1970s, the national association of Black social workers said we don’t think that Black children should ever be placed for foster care or adoption with white families. And that kind of thinking is still present throughout the system. But the studies show that Black children who are adopted by Black families and Black children who are adopted by white families have the same outcomes. And what we have learned from a scientific perspective is that as the brain is developing, particularly between the ages of zero and three, the need for a child to form a secure attachment to one adult in particular is critical.  So getting faster placement is urgent.

There is a very difficult history in this country with adoption for racial minorities. Is there something inherently wrong with saying when at all possible, let’s keep children within a cultural and ethnic setting that matches their personal background?

Today, Black children in this country suffer maltreatment at about twice the rate of white children. Black children die from maltreatment at three times the rate of white children. So we have to ask ourselves: are we meeting the needs of Black children in this country? Are we keeping them safe?

People are always asking what is the ideal placement? This is not a luxury that we have. We don’t have enough stable homes to place kids into. The only alternative for these kids is staying in unsafe homes, languishing in the foster care system, or sleeping in offices. There are 400 kids this year in Texas alone who slept in offices. This is unacceptable.  So where can we find a family who will care for and love a child, I think it is crazy to get stuck on trying to find an ideal cultural or ethnic match.

How could we make this situation better?

There’s a chapter in the book called Moneyball for child welfare, which is about the innovative use of predictive analytics to help us on the front end of the child welfare system. I would really love to see every child welfare agency in the country have access to those kinds of resources so that they can understand which child is most urgently in need. And in general, we need to reorient what we do around the best needs of children.

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