Preserving Family Connections For Children in Foster Care

“What I wanted the most was a family, but instead I was shuffled from facility to facility like I was an animal.”

For Elijah Sullivan, this was his reality growing up in foster care. Now a 25-year-old juvenile supervision officer, Elijah recognizes that if he had been given the chance to live with a stable relative, his path to success and self-sufficiency would have been much easier. “I had an uncle that was willing to take me into his home a couple of years after I entered the system, but it ended up never happening.”

Elijah Sullivan says his path in life would have been easier if he had lived with a stable relative. Photo credit: OmarStylez Photography

Elijah Sullivan says his path in life would have been easier if he had lived with a stable relative. Photo credit: OmarStylez Photography

For many like Elijah, foster care can be a whirlwind that keeps them spinning from placement to placement, without any safety nets to help them succeed. After aging out at 18, Elijah struggled to find housing and a sense of stability for almost a year. “I thought things would be easy, but I was severely mistaken,” he told Children’s Rights. “Responsibilities hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to shop for groceries, make appointments, set up my electricity. I was lucky to have a few mentors — without them, I’m sure I would have been lost.”

The importance of family ties is increasingly being recognized, including by the U.S. Congress. The Family First Prevention Services Act, introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, R-UT., and Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-OR., would redirect federal funds to provide services to keep children safely with their families and out of foster care. If foster care were the only viable option, it would allow federal reimbursement solely for family-based settings and select residential treatment programs for children with special needs.

There is good reason for this. The majority of children who come into foster care do so because of their parents’ mental health and substance abuse issues; with the proper supports and services, many of these families can remain intact. But though the Family First Act was passed through the House shortly after its introduction in June, it was not taken up by the Senate before congress recessed for the November elections.

“Foster care should be the final recourse and, when it is necessary, kids need to be with supportive, loving families,” said Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights. “The bill supports critical services to keep families together and provides incentives to help kids in care be placed in families rather than in more expensive and harmful group homes. It’s disappointing that the Senate failed to act on landmark legislation that would improve outcomes for hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable children.”

Children’s Rights has worked with stakeholders in a number of cases to help preserve family connections. After Children’s Rights and co-counsel reached a settlement in Juan F. v. Malloy, a suit brought on behalf of children placed in Connecticut foster care, substantial measures were taken to help kids maintain family connections and avoid foster care when safe to do so. The percentage of siblings placed together, for example, increased from a baseline of 57 percent in 2005 to an astonishing 90.6 percent in 2014. And, furthermore, the placement of children with relatives has increased from 17 percent in 2011 to over 33 percent today. Connecticut has also dramatically reduced the use of group-care settings by 65 percent in the same period.

Lexie Grüber says Congress’ failure to pass the Family First Act is putting more children at risk.

Lexie Grüber says Congress’ failure to pass the Family First Act is putting more children at risk.

Lexie Grüber, who spent time in congregate care, knows the damage it can do. She was removed from her family of origin when she was 14 years old and spent two years shuffling between group homes. In one, she told CR, “Foster children were treated like animals at a zoo. Fridges were padlocked until ‘feeding times’ and we stayed in cockroach-infested spaces with no air-conditioning.”

Now a policy analyst for the American Public Human Services Association, Lexie believes that Congress’ failure to send the Family First Act to the President’s desk is putting more children at risk. In a recent Washington Post op-ed she noted that if the legislation were in place years ago, “my parents could have received the help they needed to keep me safe and at home and prevented me from entering the foster care system in the first place.”

Multiple studies have examined the importance of family preservation. In a series of studies tracking thousands of children, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Joseph Doyle, Jr. found that children placed in foster care experienced drastically higher juvenile delinquency rates, adult arrest rates, teen motherhood rates, and unemployment rates than children who experienced similar abuse or neglect and remained with their families.

The apparent benefits of keeping families together aren’t only developmental, they’re emotional as well. Ask Vannak Kong, a blogger from CR’s 2014 Fostering the Future campaign:

“I just wanted to be close to my family, even if it meant hiding in the attic for just a few days or hours. I was so affected by the trauma I experienced, I wet the bed until I was 13. One time, when I was around that age, I even stole my foster parents’ expensive bicycle, riding 32 miles on a cold December morning in urine-soaked pajamas just so I could get home.”

For some children, foster care is necessary, even life-saving, and Children’s Rights will continue to serve as watchdog to make sure it functions as well as possible. But for many children, state care simply cannot replace family ties.

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: