*An Opinion Piece*
If you are involved in the foster care system, you have probably heard and seen that the system is “flawed” or “broken.”
What are some things we could do to improve the foster care system?
One of the biggest flaws, in my personal opinion, within the foster care system is that family members can take placement of children after they have already been in foster care for a long time. For instance, if a child has been in the same foster family for 7 months, and then a grandparent decides they are ready and able to care for the child, the child is then moved to live with them. I have had a case where a family tried to take placement of a child after they had been in foster care for 3 years. The child was in a preadoptive home, and the biological family did not want the child to be adopted. However, he had been in the foster home for over 3 years, and this was now his home. He was part of this family. Yet, after caring for him for 3 years, the family had to worry they were going to lose him because family members that didn’t even know him had decided to step up and declare an interest in him.
Thankfully, in this situation, the GAL (guardian ad litem) and judge agreed that they had waited too long to show interest. However, that is not always what happens. Sometimes, no matter the time that has transpired, if a relative is willing and able to care for a child, they are moved to the relative home. This is detrimental when kids have been in the same foster home for a long period of time and are adjusted to that home and bonded to that family.
This kind of disruption could be avoided if there were time limits placed on how long the family is able to take placement. I think the children who are in foster care would be better served if they did not have to move from home to home. I think that there should be a limit placed on how long family members have to show they are willing and able to provide for a child and take placement.
When a child is put into foster care, the parents are asked for a list of resources and family members who may be able to care for the children while they work on their case plan. Social workers must contact all family members to see if they are willing and able to care for the child. I believe that there should be a time limit for contacting and changing the placement of children in foster care. In my opinion, I think that once a child has been in a foster home for 6 months, they should not be moved unless it is to return home. Children need stability. By the time they have been with a family for 6 months, they are set into a routine, and the bonding has begun. They likely feel at home by this time, and everyone has adjusted to each other.
I don’t think it is healthy for children to be moved to a family home after the 6-month time frame, to then be moved back to their parents at a later date. This is a lot of moving for a child to deal with and adjusting to different homes, rules, and families.
While I understand that a family placement is often considered ideal, sometimes kids are moved from a long-term foster placement to a family member who they do not even know or have a relationship with. There are times when children are even moved to a different state in order to reside with a family member rather than a foster care placement. However, to the children, these family members are sometimes strangers they haven’t met, and it is just as frightening for them as moving into a foster home. So, if a child has adjusted to a foster home, moving again is another trauma for them.
By placing a time limit on how long family members and social workers have to move children into a family home, it would prevent a child from bonding to a foster family and then experiencing more trauma with the move. If a family member is genuinely interested, I would think they could state their interest in a timely manner and would want to do so. It seems that the longer the wait, often the less the child knows the relative they are being placed with. If they have already been placed into a family for more than 6 months, they should stay with that family until they can be reunified with their parents. And while reunification is not a guarantee, it is always the first goal. And, while I understand that a relative home would be preferred should the case turn to adoption, if that child was not able to be placed with the relative within 6 months of coming, it is likely that the relationship between them isn’t very strong. Is it worth moving a child who is comfortable to another home they may not know well simply because there is a blood relationship?
I think we all hear the phrase, “Family doesn’t mean DNA” often enough, yet foster care law still pushes the opposite message that a DNA relationship is more important than any other relationship. This is something that I believe needs to be addressed and changed within the system.
I also believe that foster parents should be part of the team and work with social workers on case plans. In some areas, this is happening. But it does not happen all the time.
Foster parents are the people who are with these kids daily. So they will likely have the best insight to the child, her behavior, her needs, and things that the case plan may need to include. While a social worker is mandated to do a home visit once monthly, that does not give them the same insight into the situation that the foster parents have. I believe foster parents ought to be able to be a part of team meetings regarding the cases of children placed in their care.
I would also love to see visitation schedules that take into consideration the schedule of the foster family. When a child is placed, it would be great if any standing appointments or commitments (for example, sports practices, music lessons, or other extracurriculars that have a regular schedule) could be considered when making the visitation schedule. While acknowledging that it can be difficult to accommodate the schedules of everyone involved, the foster family is already taking on a big change by adding the kids into the household. It would be nice to not have to rearrange schedules completely or miss activities of their other children for the visitation schedule to work.
Visitations with parents that are incarcerated should have more restrictions, in my opinion. Children who have been parented by the incarcerated parent may benefit from visiting their parents, even if in jail or prison. However, if a biological parent has been incarcerated for years without having had a relationship with the child, I don’t think it is healthy for them to begin the relationship with a parent while they are incarcerated and unable to provide care for them. In some cases, a child is introduced to the biological parent they didn’t know, only to have the relationship end once visits are no longer mandatory, and they are either returned home or adopted. Where there is not a previous relationship and no way for the parent to take placement, I do not think it is appropriate to bring children into a prison environment.
When a foster family is planning a vacation, it can be difficult to get permission to include foster children in their plans. In some cases, it requires a court hearing to get permission. It would be beneficial to make this a faster process for spontaneous trips and allow caseworkers to make the decision if it is appropriate and in the child’s best interest to go on the vacation. In cases where the child is not allowed on a family vacation, assisting the foster family in finding proper respite care would be helpful. Some counties help with this, while others do not.
I also think that it would be nice to give a foster family that is planning a vacation a bit of flexibility when it comes to the weeks prior to their trip. If a family is planning a big trip, sometimes having a visitation beforehand can disrupt the entire vacation. Some children have big reactions to visitations with their parents. If a family is planning an expensive trip, and these big reactions to a visit cause difficulty in behavior and make plans difficult, it can be a strain on the family. Many families save for years to take big family vacations, and so it can feel very unfair to have to work through the big emotions of a visit that is too close to their planned trip. I think it would be nice if placements that have a documented history of negative reactions after visits to be able to give the family some flexibility in changing the visit schedule in order to encourage a better vacation for the family. For instance, maybe no visits the week before the vacation could be agreed upon, with an extra visit added to when the vacation is over. Compromises like this would be a tremendous benefit for foster families that are willing to disrupt so much of their lives already. Family vacations can be stressful and expensive. Making compromises to help them go smoothly would be helpful.
I think services provided after a foster care adoption takes place ought to be broader and more available. When a family adopts a foster child, most services end, and the family is on their own. In particular, it would be nice to see services available for treatment programs that may be required during adolescence for children who have developmental trauma disorders and attachment disorders. These treatment centers can be extremely expensive and impossible for families to afford. After adoption, the state ought to help with any services required until the child reaches adulthood. The state ought to be supportive of the parents who adopt from the foster care system and offer more support and assistance if needed.
We all know that social workers have an incredibly difficult job, and often, a heavy workload. It is a lot of responsibility to make decisions that change lives of children and families. I think that social workers should be able to have partners on cases that are long-term or more difficult in nature, to be able to share ideas and opinions, and not have the weight of those cases fall on just one social worker.
I believe social workers should have more training in recognizing attachment disorders. I also think foster parents need more training in recognizing and dealing with attachment disorders, and trauma.
I think anyone involved in foster care (families, social workers, GAL’s, etc) should have access to free counseling services to help deal with the big emotions and secondary trauma that they may experience. Currently, these services are usually limited to the foster child only, when everyone involved could benefit from therapy and counseling. While not everyone would take advantage of this option, I think it should be offered.
There are many ways the foster care system could be improved. These are just a few things that I as a former foster parent and foster adoptive parent would like to see change.
While the system is “broken” and difficult to navigate at times, it is necessary, and we need to work together to make it better.
Remembering that everyone is trying to do their best and work within their limits can be hard.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.