Tragically, the number of children in America who lack a safe, permanent, and loving home has been increasing. Evidence increasingly shows that child welfare agencies and family courts are much more concerned with adults’ needs and sensibilities than children’s safety. 

Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you identify which of the three following statements about our child welfare system is a lie?

A. Almost every state reports a shortage of licensed foster homes.
B. Child welfare agencies are overprotective of children and remove them too quickly from their families.
C. States are trying to reduce the number of children in foster care.

Let’s take these statements one at a time: 

A. TRUTH. Almost every state reports a shortage of licensed foster homes. In Texas and Washington, hundreds of kids have been sleeping in offices. Illinois’s head of child welfare has been held in contempt of court for keeping foster kids in utility closets. 

It’s hardly a surprise that we don’t have enough homes for children who need foster care. Prospective foster parents who volunteer often never hear back from their state agencies. Training is held at inconvenient times and locations. And foster parents are not told about important problems—such as a child’s history of sexual abuse—when kids are dropped off. No wonder half of foster parents quit within the first year. 

Faith-based foster agencies do much of the heavy lifting in this space. Congress should protect their work from activists who are trying to shut them down. For instance, since Catholic Social Services does not work with same-sex couples, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ended its foster care contract with the organization. But in June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that Philadelphia’s decision was unconstitutional. Apparently, this message was not clear to some. At least 10 cases regarding faith-based foster and adoption agencies’ ability to operate are now pending in lower courts, some filed since the Supreme Court decision came down. Recently, Alaska reported such a severe shortage of foster homes that children are sleeping in state offices. Three thousand children are in the system, but only 650 homes are licensed to take a child. Under such circumstances, shouldn’t the foster care system take an all-hands-on-deck approach?

B. LIE. It’s actually the opposite: In many child welfare agencies, including at the highest levels, workers presume that kids who are removed from their families weren’t really in danger and that most of the families involved with child welfare are simply suffering from poverty. Yet the statistics belie these assumptions. At least 40% of kids in foster care are removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse, and most experts say the number is closer to 80%. Drug use, alcohol use, and co-occurring mental illnesses prevent many parents from properly caring for young children, no matter how robust the safety-net supports available to them.

C. TRUTH. One reason for our situation is that states are desperately trying to reduce the number of children in foster care. While this seems like a great idea, simply looking at foster care placement is an insufficient measure of children’s safety. The real test of whether the child welfare system is working is the numbers on child maltreatment, repeat maltreatment, and child fatalities. These statistics should worry us. In Maine, for instance, the number of children experiencing maltreatment jumped 30% from 2015 to 2019, while the number of children in foster care grew by only 12%. This suggests pressure was placed on child welfare workers to leave kids in their homes. Unfortunately, the percentage of children in Maine with a recurrence of maltreatment within six months of exiting foster care has almost doubled between 2015 and 2019.

Bottom Line: 

A crucial piece of the U.S. safety net is the child welfare system and its ability to care for the country’s most vulnerable children. From the earliest reports of child abuse and neglect to the decisions about where to place foster children who need safe, loving, and permanent homes, the child welfare system in the U.S. is failing. 

The federal government should incentivize states to improve family court systems and stick to the timelines for children in foster care that federal law has already laid out. Through HHS, it should reward states for partnering with nonprofit groups—particularly faith-based organizations, which are on the cutting edge of efforts to recruit, train, and support quality foster parents. And the federal government should require states to provide better data on child maltreatment and foster care.

Although prevention strategies are an important part of child welfare, foster homes will always be needed. Policymakers should reward states for ensuring that each child who enters the system has multiple options for placement. America’s most vulnerable kids deserve nothing less.

Read this month’s policy focus to learn more HERE.