Foster Care and Its Relationship to Mass Incarceration
The goal of this article is to demonstrate the benefits of utilizing preventative programs to help maintain the family structure whenever possible.
Tiffany’s StorySix years ago, Tiffany was addicted to methamphetamine and incarcerated for drug possession. Her second baby was born in a prison hospital. Today, Tiffany is a 26-year-old mom of 2, a student at California State University San Bernardino and works full time as a dental receptionist in Palm Desert California.
Tiffany’s mom abandoned her when she was a baby. From there Tiffany bounced from foster home to foster home until she was 14 years old and ran away to find her mom. She was quickly reunited with her mom and within 3 weeks her mom introduced her to methamphetamine. She lived on the streets with her mom for a few years before meeting a boy who promised to take care of her. Within 6 months Tiffany found herself pregnant with her first child and in jail. After she was released from jail she soon gave birth to her baby and did her best to find stable employment and housing. Within a year she was once again homeless, this time with a baby to care for. In her despair, she returned to drugs and was soon arrested for possession. While in jail she gave birth to her son and during labor heard the Lord tell her “I have a plan for you.” She was soon released from jail and was now struggling with caring for 2 small children, finding a job and safe housing. She knew the Lord had given her a promise and she leaned on that promise as she searched for a solution.
Tiffany’s life and the lives of her children were changed with the help of a non-profit organization focused on restoring families. This organization found a safe home for Tiffany’s two children where they would be well cared for while Tiffany attended an in-patient drug treatment program. After 6 weeks, she was reunited with her children and received continued support from the family that cared for her children. This short, but meaningful, intervention gave Tiffany hope and introduced her to a life very different than the one she had always known. (Banta, 2018)
Because Tiffany received help she was able to keep her family together in a safe, loving, and stable home. Her children aren’t growing up with the instability and uncertainties that most foster children live with. These two factors can contribute greatly to the decision-making process of children as they grow up and rely on those experiences to help determine who they will spend time with, if they will stay in school or whether they will begin using drugs.
In 2016, the most recently reported year, there were 437,465 children in the U.S. foster care system… of this number approximately 27% or 118,116 will become part of the prison system.
The foster care system in the United States has a long history, with both success and failures. In 2016, the most recently reported year, there were 437,465 children in the U.S. foster care system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, 2017), of this number approximately 27% or 118,116 will become part of the prison system (California Department of Social Services, 2014). While removing a child to foster care can save them from immediate danger, the long-term effects of the trauma of being removed from their home can be devastating. Many studies are suggesting that in some cases, with proper intervention, the family can remain together. There are several programs at work accomplishing this goal, utilizing both public and private funding.
The goal of this article is to demonstrate the benefits of utilizing preventative programs to help maintain the family structure whenever possible. The history of the foster care system and its impact on the children it works to protect will be examined along with programs that are already in place and their effect on the solution. Specific examples of preventative programs and their effect on the later success of children and the decreased potential for future incarceration will also be discussed.
The History of Foster Care in the United States
The first foster child in the United States was a seven-year-old boy named Benjamin Eaton in 1636. This came about by the English Poor Law which was established in 1562 in England and was brought over with the first settlers in the United States. This law allowed poor or orphaned children to be placed in indentured service until they came of age. In 1853 a minister and director of the New York Children’s Aid Society named Charles Loring Brace began the free foster home movement. Through his efforts, homeless immigrant children were placed in homes primarily in the Southern and Western parts of the country. Many times, these children would also become indentured servants. In the early 1900’s the federal government began inspecting foster homes and providing professional services to the biological family in hopes of reuniting the family (National Foster Parent Association, 2018).
In the early 1970’s then-President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, since then the federal prison population has grown nearly 600 percent (Carroll, 2016). According to a study released on March 14, 2018 “1 in 5 incarcerated people is locked up for a drug offense.” (Wagner & Sawyer, 2018) This is an alarming statistic as it’s reflected in that 34% of children removed from the home in 2016 were a result of drug abuse issues (Crary, 2017). Other studies show that approximately 49% of older foster youth have tried drugs and 35% met the criteria for a future substance abuse disorder (Vaughn, Ph.D., Ollie M.S.W., McMillen, Ph.D., Scott, Jr., Ph.D., & Munson, Ph.D., 2007). Not only does the increase in incarceration rates contribute to the placement of children in the foster care system due to one or both parents being incarcerated but it also indicates the need for preventative programs to help children bypass this addiction and not experience the repercussions of future incarceration.
In 1974 Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). This was the first major federal legislation addressing child abuse and neglect. It required states to establish child abuse reporting procedures and investigation systems. As a result of CAPTA, there was a substantial increase in the number of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care (O’Neill Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). While many of these children were saved from immediate danger, many were removed from homes due to crises that could have been resolved with outside help.
Because of the sharp increase in the number of children entering the foster care system during the 1970’s, there was concern that children were entering the system unnecessarily and that once in the system, little effort was being made to either re-unify them with their biological family or unite them with an adoptive family. As a result, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was passed. This act marked the first time an effort was made to keep families together by providing preventative and family reunification services (O’Neill Murray & Gesiriech, 2004).
In 1986, as the increased number of children in foster care began to “age out” of the system, Congress authorized the Independent Living Program. This program provided funding to “help older foster youth make the transition from foster care to independence” (O’Neill Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). This marked the first time that consideration had been given to children who were going to be released from government assistance and expected to obtain jobs, continue their education and function self-sufficiently with no support.
During the period from the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s the number of children in the foster care system increased 76%.
During the period from the mid-1980’s to mid-1990’s the number of children in the foster care system increased 76%. Much of this increase was due to new reporting laws coming into full effect along with a more public focus on the issue. This increase brought attention to the need for preventative services. The Family Preservation and Support Services Program Act of 1993 was implemented to provide families with services focused on assisting families in crisis when the child is at risk of maltreatment, but removal can be avoided with intervention from community-based organizations (Children’s Bureau, 2015).
In 1999 and 2001 two amendments to current laws were made in an effort to increase assistance to children outside of the foster care system. The first was the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 which expanded the 1986 Independent Living Program to included former foster youth up to age 21. This expansion provided counseling, financial and housing assistance to help transition to independence and self-sufficiency. In 2001, the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendment was authorized. This amendment increased funding and “emphasized the importance of providing post-adoption services and substance abuse treatment” (O’Neill Murray & Gesiriech, 2004). Both of these amendments focus not on the current crisis the child is in, but the future outcome of their life outside of the foster care system.
While the immediate need to help children in the midst of maltreatment is urgent and must be addressed, a focus on prevention of future crises needs to also be addressed. As discussed earlier, the United States has confronted the issue of children currently in harm’s way and has implemented several strategies to combat the problem. However, many of the solutions don’t help the children when they age out of the foster system and begin to make decisions that affect their future. Over the past 35 years, several legislative efforts have passed to help prevent this statistic from increasing and hopefully will decrease it. With increased funding to back up the legislation, the number of foster children becoming incarcerated will decrease significantly.
Solutions with Promise
There are several organizations that implement programs aimed at not only rescuing the child from the immediate crisis but focusing on the future of the child. One local organization utilizes two programs to keep families united while still maintaining the safety of the children involved. The first program, Safe Families for Children, works with local churches to find volunteers who are trained and certified then provide temporary, 30 to 60-day, care for children of parents in crises. These children aren’t in immediate danger but the potential for future maltreatment is present if the crisis isn’t dealt with. Most often this service is utilized by parents who are facing such issues as homelessness, inpatient drug abuse treatment, or short-term incarceration. The parent maintains custody of the child while working through the problem then is reunited with the child as soon as possible. Follow up care is offered and often accepted which keeps the family in contact with both the organization and the Safe Family, both providing council and additional resources to help further the safety and stability of the family. Safe Families for Children is paid for exclusively by private donations.
The second program offered, Wraparound, offers a team of 4 trained professionals consisting of a therapist, parent partner, child advocate, and case supervisor. These teams work with families that have experienced a Child Protection Services incident and have been recommended to the program. Sometimes the situation involves drugs, gangs, and incarceration. Again, the child isn’t in immediate danger, but the potential is there if intervention isn’t provided. The team will work with the family for 2 to 3 years offering parenting instruction, mental health therapy, and coping skills along with other resources such as access to affordable housing and transportation. Once the family “graduates” from the program the team stays in contact and follow up care is provided to ensure the family’s success in the future (Olive Crest, 2018).
Both of these programs focus on maintaining the family structure, providing safety and stability while educating and counseling the entire family on how to overcome issues both now and in the future.
A third program focuses on the young adults who “age out” of the foster care system when they turn 18 years old. This program provides housing, individual and group therapy, independent living skills workshops, weekly visits from a case manager and the support of a community of people who will coach and provide council (Olive Crest, 2018). Participants in this program stay until age 21 and are then encouraged to participate in an alumni group that meets regularly provide a community that can offer support.
More than one in five will become homeless, only 58% will graduate high school by age 19, and fewer than 3% will earn a college degree by age 25.
Most children who “age out” of the foster care system will be faced with obstacles that other children don’t face. More than one in five will become homeless, (Casey Family Programs, 2005) only 58% will graduate high school by age 19, (Courtney, et al., 2011) and fewer than 3% will earn a college degree by age 25 (Casey Family Programs, 2005). All of these obstacles contribute to the possibility of future incarceration as decisions are made to combat the crisis at hand with little thought for future consequences.
The policy utilized now, and in the past, of removing the child from the family to ensure their immediate safety is still viable in many cases. Unfortunately, in the United States, 1,750 children lost their lives due to child abuse in 2016 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, 2018). While some of these could have been helped through the preventative programs mentioned above, all could have been saved through removal and placement with a qualified, caring foster family. Both procedures have a place, and both should be utilized.
The current rate of success at a local non-profit organization is 70% (Olive Crest, 2018). 70% of the families that work with a Wraparound team remain intact, and the children thrive. Without this intervention, most of these children would end up in the foster care system and 27% would ultimately be incarcerated at some point in their life. The United States spends $7.6 billion per year in maintenance payments and administrative costs for foster care (Zill, Ph.D., 2011). If some of those funds could be utilized to pay for programs aimed at enriching the lives of children that aren’t in immediate danger and in teaching young adults how to navigate adulthood, the current cost of mass incarceration could drop significantly from the current amount of $182 billion per year (Wagner & Rabuy, Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, 2017). While there needs to be an efficient way to protect children in immediate danger, there also needs to be more resources used to protect families and keep them whole.
Exodus 22:22-23 says “Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry.”
Since the Old Testament we’ve been commanded to care for the widow and orphans, Exodus 22:22-23 says “Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry.” As our society has grown, laws have been implemented and consequences have been realized for not caring as we should. Unfortunately, many of those consequences are carried heavily by our children, often in the form of criminal behavior and incarceration later in life. Our legislative system has evolved it’s thinking over the many years since 1636 when Benjamin Eaton became the first foster child in the United States. At first, the emphasis was on the general health and welfare of the child. Are they receiving the food, clothing, housing, and education they need to survive? As we’ve progressed, a more holistic understanding of what a child needs to not only survive but thrive as an adult has emerged. We are beginning to look at the child’s future as a consideration in providing their current care and our legislation is mirroring that consideration. Hopefully, as we continue to progress, the current rate of foster children being incarcerated later in life will decrease dramatically as we continue to implement programs that provide safety, stability, and the community needed to encourage wise decision-making processes that will impact their futures.
Sharing our love and empathy with everyone, not just the easy to love, is mandated by God. How much more so for children who have experienced traumas that we can’t fathom such as being removed from their family, then “emancipated” at 18 years old and expected to thrive. Empathy and compassion are two of the most powerful forces we have the can help instill hope in the lives of these children.
How You Can Help
There are several ways people can help. Volunteering and financially supporting local non-profit organizations is one way, being attentive and vocal about ongoing legislation is another. There have been many changes to the child welfare system in the last couple of years. New regulation requirements make it difficult for organizations to comply without considerable financial backing and the ability to innovate, both are resources that can be difficult to obtain. With the help of the community, a significant difference can be made in the lives of children throughout our country.
Banta, T. (2017, September 6). Life Story. (R. Feller, Interviewer)
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Vaughn, Ph.D., M. G., Ollie M.S.W., M. T., McMillen, Ph.D., J. C., Scott, Jr., Ph.D., L. S., & Munson, Ph.D., M. (2007). Substance Use and Abuse amont Older Youth in Foster Care. Bethesda: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
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Zill, Ph.D., N. (2011, May). Better Prospects, Lower Cost: The Case for Increasing Foster Care Adoption. Adoption Advocate, p. 3.