Long Way Home: Inside foster care

Join Crosscut as we set out on a six-month journey into the world of Washington's sprawling foster care system.
The universe of at-risk kids is vast and varied.

The universe of at-risk kids is vast and varied. Credit: Vermario/Flickr

Kathryn Hunt is a Port Townsend-based writer and documentary filmmaker, whose 1998 movie "Take This Heart” told the story of three Seattle foster boys. Hunt and her crew more or less moved into the state-funded home of foster mother Tess Thomas for nine months of filming.

What most struck Hunt about Robert, 10, Jamil, 14, and Joaquin, 17, the subject of her film, was how, despite the abuse and neglect each boy had experienced at the hands of his biological parents, and the fact that they had all, after many different placements, landed, luckily, with a terrific foster mom, the boys “just wanted to go back home.”

To simulate home, or something close to it – that is, to protect and care for children like Robert, Jamil and Joaquin – we have, over the centuries, institutionalized the kind of foster care that used to happen organically within communities at a time when parents could die suddenly of plague or influenza, or in a coal mine or a wheat field.

Since those ad hoc days, foster care has grown into a rather sprawling industry. Washington’s Children’s Administration, the state’s lead child agency, operates with a $530 million budget and some 2,500 employees, most of them social workers who investigate charges of abuse and neglect, then monitor the kids who wind up in one of the more than 5,100 foster homes the state currently operates. Direct payments to foster parents in those homes totaled more than $160 million in the most recent (2013) fiscal year. Foster kids come in contact with other state agencies too, including healthcare, public education and, in some cases, criminal justice. 

That’s the state piece. There’s also a vast private ecosystem of nonprofit groups and organizations devoted to various aspects of foster care, from the massive Casey Family Program, which funds research and programs that support disadvantaged youngsters, to Cakes for Kids, which sends free baked goods to foster children on birthdays and other special occasions.

Despite this public-private symphony of support, daily life can be daunting for the hundreds of children who are placed in Washington’s foster care system each year, many for their own protection. “They are cast adrift at an early age,” writes Kathryn Hunt, “dispossessed of everyone they have known or loved … left to grow up in a world that has proven profoundly unreliable, with strangers who may or may not offer comfort and protection.”

The Washington State foster care system has improved noticeably since Hunt made Take This Heart. The Braam Panel, convened in 2004 to oversee the settlement agreement in a case against the state foster care system, left a roadmap for reform. Some of its recommendations are already in place, and making a difference: Multiple home placements are down and more siblings are staying together. A public database, spawned by a demand for more fact-based decision-making, now tracks trends in foster care. Thanks to the efforts of State Representative Ruth Kagi, a longtime children’s advocate, and U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, Washington just received a federal waiver which allows the state to spend federal foster care dollars, up-front, on supporting biological families, rather than on back-end foster care. Washington is one of nine states granted such a waiver.

“No doubt in my mind that the system is better than it was 10 years ago,” says Seattle attorney Casey Trupin, head of the Children and Youth Project at Seattle’s Columbia Legal Services. “There’s pretty good agreement now that kids thrive with their parents, and we do a lot to support families so they can keep their kids. But of all state systems, child welfare is one of the most complicated. The tensions are so polarizing. The difficulty is figuring out the threshold at which a kid’s going to do better outside the home.”

Writer Judy Lightfoot has been covering “at-risk” youth for Crosscut for some time now. But over the next six months, she’ll be joined by writers Zachariah Bryan, John Stang and contributor Claudia Rowe. Together, they'll look at the people, the programs, the policies and philosophies and, most importantly, the kids and families that the system was invented to help: What’s working? What’s not working? How does the system help families stay together? How does it create healthy homes away from home for those kids whose families fall apart? “Normalize” a foster kid’s life? (It shouldn’t take 48 hours and a judge’s order to go on a sleepover.) What puts kids “at risk?” And what is “at-risk” anyway?  


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 23, 6:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Superb example of data-driven journalism on such an important topic. I very much look forward to this Crosscut series.

I hope to see some information on the importance of increasing "resiliency and protective" factors for at-risk youth in foster care. How do we do that? Where are we failing?

Also, what does early exposure to abuse and neglect to do brain development?

gaia

Posted Tue, Jul 23, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

As a long time foster parent and social worker I have seen how the system has impacted children and their families. There are so many issues since it is such a large complicated system. One issue I hope is addressed is Kinship Care. It most definitely is a good option for children to be with family, however the is little support for families. Historically the children received TANF (small monthly stipend and medical care) however there is now a five year limit on that resource. In a few years that 5 year mark is going to be met by many and families struggling to care for relative children will be without any support. I worry about these children and how this issue will play out.

Maddy

Posted Wed, Jul 24, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Very nice look at the foster care system. There are so many issues for children, parents and people working in foster care. KidsPeace can help answer some of the most common questions: http://www.kidspeace.org/services.aspx?id=4282

elyseted

Posted Sat, Jul 27, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece. Also the most depressing article I have read in recent memory.

kieth

Posted Thu, Aug 1, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Mary, your well-written analysis of the current foster care system was great but you neglected to ask an important follow up question.

You quote Lisa Mennet, a psychotherapist as saying "two conditions that put kids most at risk are "poverty and poor relationships.", however you never ask the follow up question "What are the conditions that contribute to poverty and poor relationships?

I predict that if you were to ask that question to a group of experienced line social workers, they would tell you that the primary reason children end up in state care is because of alcohol and/or drug abuse by the parents of these children.

This substance abuse results in parents not being able to hold down a job or even obtain employment in the first place because of possible criminal history. Also there is a marked tendency by these affected parents is to mingle with like minded people resulting in "poor relationships".

Obviously, not every poor person has alcohol or substance abuse problems, but social workers see so many cases of substance effected bio parents abusing and/or neglecting their children that it probably come up in 80% of cases they deal with.

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