The Foster Care System and Its Victims: Part 4
It would only be fair to mention that in my work with the foster care system, I met many wonderful foster agencies and foster families who sometimes went on to permanently adopt their foster children. Yet overall, it seems obvious that the foster care system does not work well, and the statistics of abusive foster families are too high.
One of the reasons that foster homes are not always healthy environments for their wards might be that foster parents have a financial as well as an altruistic motivation. Foster parents are paid by the state to take in children, and former foster children I've counseled have told me horror-filled stories about greedy foster parents who pressured them into stealing and lying to bring in even more income for the family. It's a sad truth that some foster parents consider their wards a paycheck, without regard to the welfare and schooling of the children under their care. (Although again, I must stress that there certainly are plenty of foster parents who take in children for more noble reasons.)
Even foster parents who make the choice to foster children sometimes find, in the end, that they simply can't handle the long-term stress of caring for emotionally troubled children. Even without citations of foster home abuse, foster children are subjected to constant stressors, including being forced to move from home to home and constantly re-acclimate to a new environment and a new family dynamic, while lacking the stability of having their own family around consistently.
In some cases, loving foster parents feel they have to give up on their wards and send the foster child back. The child may then be given a new placement in another foster home or a group home, perpetuating the cycle of a child who is not offered the chance to form long-lasting relationships so important to proper emotional development.
The Real Costs of Abuse
Besides the horrendous impact of abuse on a child's and later adult's psyche and life, our society pays a financial price of mistreatment of children as well. The cost of keeping the foster care system running is staggering... and yet is not nearly enough. We all put into the pot to pay for the maintenance of a child welfare system that encompasses domestic, judicial, legal, mental health and medical needs. A 2001 report by Prevent Child Abuse America cites the cost of all this as $24 billion a year in the U.S.1
And the indirect costs of child abuse are even higher. As abused children move into adulthood, they often flourish in the arenas of criminal activity, substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. The costs of associated treatment - not to mention underemployment as a result of these factors - may cost as much as $69 billion a year, again according to a Prevent Child Abuse America report.2
The Florida Department of Children and Families cites a 2006 study that determined the actual monetary return on Child Protective Services funding: Professor Ted Melhuish in his research of December 7, 2006 presents the case for additional government intervention in terms of "Rates of Return to Human Capital investment." Citing a 1993 study of 123 young African-American children he finds early intervention ultimately contributes to greater tax revenue and also identifies possible cost savings in the areas justice, mental health and welfare. The study concludes that every dollar invested in Child Protective Services produces a return of $7.16.3
Given these figures, we can't afford not to amp up funding for child welfare. It seems like an obvious mandate that our society get a better handle on the welfare of our children. The cost of a world with more than its fair share of members recovering from abuse is staggering compared to the relatively meager cost of better foster care.
Navigating Through a Compromised System
I'd love to see the system change, and I believe that there is room for improvement in the foster care system. Fortunately, there are currently several organizations fighting to make this happen. One of these is California Youth Connection (CYC). CYC is guided, focused and driven by current and former foster youth with the assistance of other committed community members. CYC promotes the participation of foster youth in policy development and legislative change to improve the foster care system, and strives to improve social work practice and child welfare policy. This is a great start, but we need even more involvement and quicker changes to protect our children and help them thrive - as some of them manage to do no matter what!
I'll leave you with an optimistic example of what foster children can achieve in spite of their horrific childhood and obstacles. The following successful and well-known people are all products of the foster care system: Allison Anders (writer and director), Alonzo Mourning (NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 & 2000 and seven-time NBA All-Star), Anthony DiCosmo (football player), Eriq La Salle (actor), Esai Morales (actor), and Wayne Dyer (author, motivational speaker, and spiritual leader).4
In the case of Wayne Dyer, a biographical article about him on waxphilosophical.com says: "He's repeatedly cited these difficult years as being hugely formative in terms of his spirit and resilience, and that it helped him become a better teacher of how to overcome adversity."5
I believe that there is great room for improvement in the foster care system, but it's clear that there are many devoted to making these changes a reality. By raising awareness of the flaws in the system and keeping in mind that the welfare of our children is the humane and responsible thing to do, we can begin to effect real, positive change in the lives of foster children.
First published on Psychology Today.