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Overview of the U.S. Foster Care System, Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1405

Research Paper

As of September 2010, nearly 500,000 children were in foster care in the United States. As defined by the U.S. government, “out-of-home care encompasses the placements and services provided to children and families when children must be removed from their homes because of child safety concerns, as a result of serious parent-child conflict, or to treat serious physical or behavioral health conditions which cannot be addressed within the family” (childwelfare.gov).  The U.S. foster care system is a complex one; most aspects of the system fall under the purview of the individual states, with the federal government offering support in the form of funding, legislative support, and other programs and services. Because the states oversee their own foster care systems, the way that foster care programs operate varies from state to state. The following overview offers a general look at how these systems operate, as well as examining some of the alternatives to out-of-home care available in some states.

The decision to place a child in foster care is a serious one, and is usually only made after a comprehensive investigation of the circumstances involving the child and his or her family has been made. Such investigations typically begin with a report of suspected abuse or neglect. While anyone can make such a report, the majority of these reports are made by so-called “mandatory reporters,” i.e.- those who are required by law to make such reports when they suspect abuse or neglect (ccainstitute.org). School officials, teachers, health care providers, and law enforcement officers are all examples of mandatory reporters. As of 2010, 18 states, as well as Puerto Rico, mandate that anyone who suspects abuse or neglect of a child is legally required to report it (ccainstitute.org). These reports are typically made to the local Child Protective Services department or its equivalent, at which point the case is “screened” to determine whether an investigation is warranted (ccainstitute.org).

If the screening process indicates that sufficient evidence of neglect or abuse exists, a CPS investigator will respond. The time frame for such responses varies depending on the severity of the situation and the dictates of any applicable state and local laws. Depending on the nature of the allegation, the subsequent investigation can be wide-ranging; investigators may wish to speak with teachers, health care providers, child care providers, and any other people with whom the child has had contact. If the child is believed to be in immediate danger, he or she may be moved to an emergency shelter or temporary foster care immediately. Because allegation of abuse or neglect typically invoke some manner of court proceedings, the child may remain in this temporary placement while those proceedings take place, or may be moved to a different placement until the resolution of the proceedings. If the decision is made to continue keeping the child in the foster care system, a more long-term placement is then made.

The foster care system in the U.S. faces a great many challenges; funding, staff levels, and the availability of suitable foster homes are all stretched thin . The children entering the foster care system often come with a range of problems, from developmental disabilities to illness to behavioral disorders. State budget cuts often mean that the number of trained agents capable of handling foster care cases is too low to meet the increasing demand, as economic pressures and social changes leave more and more children in need of help. State agents who work to place children in foster care often attempt to find suitable family members to take them in; when this is impossible, unrelated foster families are sought. The number of available unrelated foster families has been on the decline in recent years, prompting officials to seek new means of recruiting and maintain these families (Chipungu, Bent-Goodley). At the same time as the number of potential foster families is declining, foster care caseloads have increased exponentially, further burdening an already over-taxed system (Chipungu, Bent-Goodley).

African-American children represent the largest segment of the foster care population at 38%, despite representing a much smaller number of the total population of children in the U.S.  White children represent the next-largest group, at 37%; the remainder of the foster care population is comprised of Latino/Hispanic children at 175; Native American at 2%; Pacific Islander at 1%; and unknown/unidentified at 5% (Chipungu, Bent-Goodley). The disproportional representation of African-American children in foster care is not a result of a higher level of abuse or neglect among African-American families; studies indicate that the incidence of abuse or neglect is no higher among any particular racial or ethnic group. The disparity is, instead, driven by the fact that African-American families are “more likely under similar circumstances to be reported for child abuse and neglect and to have children removed from the home” (Chipungu, Bent-Goodley).

Poverty is a significant factor in terms of children being placed in foster care, for a number of reasons. African-Americans are more likely to fall under the poverty line than are Whites; as such, children in African-American families are more likely to have contact with the range of state agencies that oversee child care and welfare systems (Chipungu, Bent-Goodley). In this context, mandatory reporting is more likely to trigger an investigation in an instance of suspected abuse. Once in foster care, African-American children are likely to endure more difficult circumstances than their white counterparts; they have fewer visits from relatives, fewer home visits, less contact with caseworkers, and typically remain in foster care longer.

In most cases, the goal of foster care is the eventual reunification of children with their parents or families. Caseworkers are charged with developing short- and long-term plans for the children they oversee; these plans include monitoring their foster care environments, ensuring that children are attending school, arranging for family visits, and coordinating with the programs and services that are intended to deal with the issues within the families that prompted the need for foster care. While these functions are all intended to move individual children towards the goal of being reunited with their families, such reunification is not always possible. In these instances it may be necessary to make alternative arrangements, such as adoption to a non-relative or the transfer of custody to a different family member. For children that remain in long-term foster care, agencies typically attempt to facilitate ongoing contact with family members, and develop plans to assist older foster children with the transition out of foster care as they reach adulthood.

Because child advocacy agencies and the foster care system are so overburdened, alternative approaches to dealing with reports of abuse and neglect have become not just attractive, but sometimes necessary. This “alternative” way of dealing with abuse and neglect reports takes a “forensic” approach to each case (ccainstitute.org). By taking a broad look at the entirety of the family situation, and attempting to assess the factors that have led to or contributes to the abuse or neglect, it may in some cases be possible to direct families to needed services or programs that can help defuse problematic situations (Shusterman et al). Poverty is one of the greatest signifiers of potentially abusive or neglectful family situations; by relieving the strains and pressures of poverty –where possible- it may be possible to ameliorate the situations that may lead to abuse or neglect. Taking such an approach may also allow agents to connect families to resources outside the direct purview of CPS, thereby taking the pressure off of an already-overburdened system (Shusterman et al).

It is clear that the foster care system in the U.S. faces enormous challenges. It is faced with an ever-growing number of children in need of intervention, while also facing a dwindling amount of resources, a shrinking pool of available foster homes, and fewer trained agents capable of handling the burgeoning caseloads. As economic pressures continue to strain the system, there is little hope that these challenges are going to diminish in the near future. The best hope for the foster care system lies with an increased focus on educating the public about the challenges the system faces, and on developing and cultivating new foster care opportunities and alternatives to foster care placement.

References

“How the Child Welfare System Works.” Child Welfare Information Gateway. http://www.ccainstitute.org/images/stories/pdf/us_foster_care/How%20the%20Child%20Welfare%20System%20Works.pdf

Shusterman, Gila et al. “Alternative Responses to Child Maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS.” http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/05/child-maltreat-resp/

Chipungu, Sandra Stukes; Bent-Goodley, Tricia B. Meeting the Challenges of Contemporary Foster Care. http://www.ccainstitute.org/images/stories/pdf/us_foster_care/Meeting%20the%20Challenges%20of%20Contemporary%20Foster%20Care.pdf

“Foster Care Overview.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. http://www.childwelfare.gov/outofhome/overview.cfm

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