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Three things we learned about foster care

The big takeaways from Crosscut's six-month-long series on Washington's 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

Crosscut officially launched its Kids@Risk series on June 28, 2013 with writer Judy Lightfoot’s story about the dissolution — after nine years — of the Braam Panel, the team of child welfare experts which was convened to oversee reforms to the state’s foster care system. Well, here we are five months and some 25 stories later. What have we learned about foster care?

Lesson #1: Family matters

We can complain all we want about mom’s nagging or dad’s stupid jokes. Even when the problems kids face are a lot more serious, the fact is that being part of a family unit, a tribe, confers that most critical of all gifts: a sense of who we are and where we belong. Our family doesn’t have to be perfect — what family is? — because it turns out that kids can absorb a good deal of dysfunction and still thrive. In fact, better a little dysfunction in their own home than the trauma of being dislocated to another, a realization that is changing how we administer foster care in several ways.

First, there is the embrace of Family Assessment Response. FAR, which launches next year in 12 sites around the state, provides the kind of support that keeps immediate families, even troubled ones, together. It used to be that a call to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) about suspected child abuse or neglect triggered an investigation which led, more often than not, to a tearful separation. With FAR, investigators from DSHS’s Child Protective Services (CPS) still pursue all reports of sexual and severe physical abuse or neglect aggressively. But if assessment workers determine that the home situation isn’t putting the child at undo risk, they toggle into help mode.

“FAR might provide a utility payment to families whose electricity has been shut off, or seek affordable housing for them if they can’t pay the rent,” says Jennifer Strus, the acting secretary of the state’s Children’s Administration. FAR will also help with job training, mental health treatment or coaching in better parenting techniques. The goal is to reduce the number of kids in foster care. That lightens the state’s financial burden, but research has shown that, by keeping families together and supporting them, FAR-like programs also make kids safer in the present and more likely to succeed in the future.

Another shift in foster care is an emphasis on kin-care. If children do have to be removed from the home, placing them with relatives is best. To that end, caseworkers have 30 days to locate, screen and convene suitable family members who are willing and able to take the children in.

Kin-care works: Compared to kids placed with strangers, children who move in with relatives have a much better chance of keeping ties with their extended families, communities and schools. They also tend to stay put, which helps them avoid the trauma of serial homes and the social stigma attached to being a “foster child.” Kin-care kids usually get reunited with their parents faster too.

Washington State is, proudly, in the vanguard of the kin-care movement. In fact, five times as many foster children in Washington (about 34,000) live with relatives as with strangers.

Finally, the state will pilot a related approach next year called The Mockingbird Family Model (MFM), which attempts to simulate the extended family and all its positive effects, to create that “village” Hillary Clinton so famously wrote about. MFM recruits foster parents from within a neighborhood as a way to approximate the feel and very real support of an extended family living close by. 

Lesson #2: Kids need lawyers too

Imagine a 10-year-old boy with a six year old sister. Both are in foster care, but they don’t live in the same home. They don’t even live close by. All they want to do is be together, but the arcana of the law and the state bureaucracy stand in the way. A lawyer would be helpful. But whether these young siblings get one is a function of their age, the county they live in and the judge who catches their case. In short, it’s a crap shoot.

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Posted Thu, Dec 26, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I must have missed some things. How many foster kids are there in Washington? Fundraising efforts on massive radio advertising slots during the holidays mention the figure of approx. 20,000. Also, how much does the foster kid program cost and how much do foster families receive?


Posted Thu, Dec 26, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Animalal, thanks for your questions.

About 10,000 foster children are in Washington’s child welfare system at any given moment. About 3,300 of these children have placements with licensed foster care relatives. The number of children living with unlicensed relatives in Washington is harder to determine, but a common estimate is 34,000 - hence the figure in the story: about five times the estimated 6,700 kids in licensed non-relative care.

Perhaps the advertisements you mention added a low-ball estimate of 10,000 or so children assumed to be living with unlicensed foster caregivers to the 10,000 in licensed placements.

State support for kids living with licensed foster caregivers includes small child-support payments (http://www.dshs.wa.gov/ca/fosterparents/be_FosterFinancial.asp).

Total child welfare system costs in Washington state: $581M in 2010 (“Child Welfare System Overview” released April 24,2013 by Partners for Our Children - www.partnersforourchildren.org).

Posted Thu, Dec 26, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Freeze -- which should really be called the Pugetopolis Freeze -- combines with the fascist instincts of the voters elsewhere in Washington state to produce an emotional climate that is implacably hostile to any nonconformity not specifically protected by codas of political correctness.

Thus the following should not surprise anyone familiar with the state's unique sociology of cruelty:

"Washington ranks close to last in the nation when it comes to providing legal representation for children whose parents' rights have been terminated."

This is the same viciously conformist attitude that for many years -- and maybe even now* -- caused Washington state to rank dead last in terms of public school facilities that provide for the special educational needs of exceptionally bright children.

When a delegation of angry parents demanded Gov. Dixy Lee Ray explain why Washington public schools were even worse than Mississippi's in this regard, Dixy responded with a classic Marie Antoinette: "let them (the bright kids) use the libraries."

The common denominator in each of these atrocities is manifest vindictiveness -- both de facto and de jure -- toward anyone who is somehow "different." No wonder the Evergreen state is said to have the highest suicide rate in the United States.
*My recollection is the damning figures, which I used in several education-controversy stories c. 1977-1981, came from the U.S. Department of Education. But the tracking of a lot of relevant public school data was terminated by the Reagan Administration, and I am unable to find any comparable numbers for the current era.

Posted Fri, Dec 27, 6:23 a.m. Inappropriate

"No wonder the Evergreen state is said to have the highest suicide rate in the United States. "

Said to have? That does not sound factual, and a bit of research show this to be the case. WA is not even in the top ten:
10. Oregon: 15.2 suicides per 100,000
9. Utah: 15.4 suicides per 100,000
8. West Virginia: 15.9 suicides per 100,000
7. Arizona: 16.1 suicides per 100,000
6. Colorado: 16.4 suicides per 100,000
5. Nevada: 18.3 suicides per 100,000
4. Montana: 19.4 suicides per 100,000
3. Wyoming: 19.7 suicides per 100,000
2. New Mexico: 20.4 suicides per 100,000
1. Alaska: 22.1 suicides per 100,000


Posted Sun, Dec 29, 12:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Jeffro...I wrote as I did precisely because "said to have" is a true statement. I have been told many times by many Washingtonians over the years, mostly social workers, and this mostly during 1970s and '80s, that Washington state has the highest suicide rate in the nation. In that period, the statement may well have been true. More recently the same sorts of unofficial but presumably credible sources have told me Washington state has the highest rate of youth suicide in the nation. Even so, journalistic ethics prohibit citing something as fact unless it is objectively confirmed. Ergo, I wrote “said to have” rather than “has.”

Nevertheless, the assumption behind my entire comment -- that states whose official policies tend toward moral imbecility have the higher suicide rates, while states that are officially more humanitarian have the lower suicide rates -- is borne out by the official statistics I turned up during a two-hour search in response to your comment. Thus the highest U.S. suicide rates are in the West and South, where the social safety-net is either non-existent or under relentless attack. Thus too the lowest suicide rates are in the Northeast, where centuries of Left-leaning politics at least try to guarantee even the most impoverished people an official right to basic human needs. Though I could not find any state-by-state comparisons on youth suicide, I did find any number of links that reveal the association between Ayn Rand principles of governance and high suicide rates in general. Here is one such database: http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

34,000 kids live in kinship placements, that is great. I hope this continues with DSHS eliminating resources and supports for these families.


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