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Is Child Welfare an Accurate Name for a System That Hurts Kids?

MYTH: The child welfare system takes good care of kids.

FACT: Every day, children in government custody face mistreatment and neglect, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse inflicted by those responsible for their well-being and safety. There is a prevailing belief that placing children in child welfare systems is the right thing to do. But the facts are very different.

It is well-documented that even being investigated by child welfare  – let alone removing a child from their parents, homes, and communities – causes long-term trauma. Removal itself is profoundly harmful and may be more damaging to a child than doing nothing at all.

Once in the system, children are often subjected to abuse and neglect and struggle with chronic mental or physical health issues that are left untreated.  This regulation and destruction of families, disproportionately families of color, continues takes place under the guise of the nation’s child “welfare” systems. But a better name would be family “policing” systems.

This isn’t about whether or not children who are abused by their parents should be protected—that is without question. This is about a system that perpetuates cycles of racism, poverty, generational trauma, and incarceration by removing children from their homes instead of asking families what they need and providing resources that will keep families together.

The System Denies Children the Right to Their Own Families

Dismantling families has enormous consequences. When children are taken from their homes and placed in the foster system, the government tell us they’re doing it for the safety and well-being of children – that they can parent better than their parents can. From its evolution creators of this system convinced themselves and others that it is a benevolent one that “saves abused and neglected” children and places them with safe and caring foster families.

Unfortunately, the conditions that the vast majority of children experience in the foster system are often far from the idyllic representation we often see in pop culture. Instead, children grow up deprived of high-quality or consistent education, access to developmentally appropriate healthcare services, and are disconnected from their families, their traditions, and culture. They are placed in the homes of people they don’t know, frequently moved from one place to the next, or warehoused in jail-like facilities.

In a TEDxBaltimore talk, Molly McGrath Tierney, who was the director for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services at the time, said,

When we also take [children] away from their families, we’re digging a wound so deep I don’t believe we have a way of measuring it. …And that frankly does more than the abuse and neglect that brought the kid to my attention in the first place.

Molly McGrath Tierney, former director for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services

The System Creates Unstable Childhoods

Every 2.5 minutes, a child in the US is separated from their family and placed in the foster system. Often, agencies place them with strangers rather than relatives or people they know and love. When home settings aren’t immediately available, many children spend nights in motels or agency offices. Recent stories report children forced to spend nights in casinos and hospitals.

Even when children live in a family setting, over 1/3 of kids change placements at least three times a year. In our case in Kansas, we saw kids relocated more than 100 times. One young boy endured over 130 moves between 6 and 13. Studies show that the trauma of unstable placements can lead to depression and other mental health conditions, academic troubles, and difficulty in developing meaningful attachments. 

Roughly 80% of children in the foster system live with a mental illness, often related to the trauma associated with being separated from their families. Once in custody, the trauma children suffer can lead to poor mental and physical health, with the ongoing issues of separation and loss, placement insecurity, systemic complexities, and discrimination exacerbating these problems. Yet these children are often denied access to the mental health care services they need, have a legal right to, and deserve. The services they do receive are sporadic, crisis-oriented, and not individualized.

Roughly 80% of children in the foster system live with a mental illness, often related to the trauma associated with being separated from their families.

Instead of therapy or counseling to treat diagnosed mental health conditions, kids are frequently given psychotropic medications as a form of “chemical restraint” to control their behavior. Kids are frequently prescribed psychotropics without adequate medical or mental health records, without the child’s health and behavior being sufficiently monitored by a medical professional, and without the child’s knowledge or consent. The federal government even coined the phrase “too much, too many, too young” to acknowledge the various ways the lack of oversight over kids on psychotropics harms them. In our Maryland case filed earlier this year, children were on psychotropics without a psychiatric diagnosis.

The System Locks Kids Up in Jail-Like Facilities Instead of Homes

Nearly 38,700 children are living in non-family foster placements today. These placements, known as congregate settings, are punitive, hazardous, isolating, and dehumanizing.

Former residents have reported a standard of care that is extremely concerning: children being given clothing that was inadequate for the weather, not receiving prompt medical care, falling behind in their schooling, and feeling unsafe. In Children’s Rights’ 2023 report, Are You Listening? Youth Accounts of Congregate Placements in New York State, one young person reported,

We had one classroom for the whole facility. And everybody got fourth-grade work no matter what grade you were in, they didn’t give a f*ck who was actually in fourth grade or 11th grade, you were getting fourth grade work.

Many youth reported feeling unsafe in their campus schools, woefully inadequate educational experiences, and exiting congregate placements only to find that the classes they took did not count towards graduation. As a result, youth who spend time in congregate settings are less likely to graduate from high school or obtain a GED than children placed in a family setting.

Housing children in facilities is harmful and it’s also expensive, costing 7 to 10 times more each year than family placements —amounting to as much as $95 million a year for a single state. If a child must be removed from their own home, placement in a home setting must be prioritized. Despite extensive research pointing to the physical, mental, and emotional harm children endure in group settings, the significant unnecessary taxpayer costs, and violations of children’s civil and human rights, far too many children are still placed in congregate settings.

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The System Perpetuates Racism

The harms that children experience in the foster system cannot be overstated, and that burden falls most heavily on Black, Native, and other children and families of color, who are overrepresented in the foster system, are less likely to be reunified with their families, remain in the system longer, and experience more frequent placement moves.

Nationally, Black chil­dren rep­re­sent­ 14% of the total child pop­u­la­tion, 22% of children in the foster system, and 25% of children in institutions and other group facilities, while Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native kids made up 2% of those enter­ing the system and 1% of the child pop­u­la­tion. 

The unequal treatment of Black, Native, and other children of color is not coincidental. It is a result of federal and state laws, regulations, and policies that have exacerbated racial inequality within so-called child-serving systems, built on hundreds of years of precedent.

Nationally, Black chil­dren rep­re­sent­ 14% of the total child pop­u­la­tion, 22% of children in the foster system, and 25% of children in institutions and other group facilities, while Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native kids made up 2% of those enter­ing the system and 1% of the child pop­u­la­tion. 

The System Pushes Emerging Adults Out Without Support

Nearly 20,000 children age out of the foster system every year. Unlike the thousands of young people who moved back in with their parents during the pandemic to save money, young people who age out of the system often transition into adulthood without any support. Without family connections, many are unemployed or underemployed, wind up homeless or incarcerated. 

Youth aging out are three times less likely to graduate high school or receive a GED than their peers and six times less likely to receive a postsecondary degree. Almost 1 in 5 individuals incarcerated in state prisons were formerly in the foster system. More than 1 out of every 3 youth aging out of the foster system experience homelessness before they turn 26.

The Solution? Keep Kids Connected to Their Families, Communities, and Cultures

The Supreme Court recently upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a law designed to keep Native children connected with their families and tribes. Considered the gold standard of child welfare laws, ICWA safeguards the constitutional rights at stake in child welfare proceedings for Native American and Alaska Native children, including protecting families from unwarranted state intervention and preserving the right to family integrity.

Every child has a right to family, and not just any family – their own family. The Fourteenth Amendment protects this right with protections against undue, forcible government separation of families. Unfortunately, the right to family integrity is frequently disregarded under the pretext of child protection, especially for Black families struggling with poverty.

Every child has a right to family, and not just any family – their own family.

Children’s Rights has been pushing for solutions that support families before a crisis point that may end in an investigation or separation. Growing evidence points to commonsense measures that place money directly in the hands of families who need it. This can be the difference between a family staying together or being unnecessarily separated.

A 2022 survey found that nearly 1 in 4 Americans lack the funds to cover a $400 unexpected expense. With rising rent and cost of living, Universal Basic Income pilots and state expanded Child Tax Credit programs are giving direct unconditional cash to families for basic needs like rent, food, and clothes. But the benefits of these programs don’t end there. From children’s health to their schooling, they have a direct impact on children’s well-being, lowers stress for parents and caregivers, and lead to a better quality of life for families. Today, over 100 Universal Basic Income programs exist in all 50 states, and at least 12 states have expanded the Child Tax Credit following the success of the federal 2021 expanded Child Tax Credit, which when in effect lifted 3 million children out of poverty.

Other pro-family efforts center around eliminating laws such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which speeds up the termination of parental rights. 1 in every 100 American children experience having their parents’ rights terminated. Despite proof that children fare better when they can maintain familial bonds, after 15 months of family visits, children in the foster system can suddenly lose the right to contact, speak to, and see their parents due to the involuntary termination of their parental rights. A bill just passed by the New York State legislature and awaiting the Governor’s signature, the Preserving Family Bonds Act would give children the opportunity to see their parents even after their parental rights have been terminated as long as it is in the child’s best interest.

We need solutions that prioritize keeping kids out of government custody. With a much smaller population to care for, foster systems would be better able to provide children with individualized, differentiated care and protection. With reduced demand, we would need a far smaller pool of qualified foster parents – the shortage of available foster parents being a chronic problem today.

The child welfare system is a misnomer. It isn’t protecting children, it is destroying them – and their families, and communities. Daunting and complex government systems perpetuate cycles of poverty, racism, abuse, and discrimination. Children’s Rights remains committed to holding them accountable.

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