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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