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.
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The universe of at-risk kids is vast and varied.

Join Crosscut as we set out on a six-month journey into the world of Washington's sprawling foster care system.

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?  

Lots more questions than answers at this early stage in our investigation, but here’s some of what we do know about foster care in Washington State (Statistics courtesy of Partners for Our Children):

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Last year, 6,025 kids entered the state’s foster care system. That’s about 4 percent of the 1.6 million minors in the state, the smallest foster care class since 2000.

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Nearly half of the 2012 foster kids were infants or toddlers (age 4 and under). More than two-thirds were white. They were almost equally split, male and female. 

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Foster placements varied widely by county. With 413,730 kids, King County reported the highest number of “out-of-home placements” in 2012. Columbia County, in southeastern Washington, topped the state’s 39 counties with its one percent (10 placements per 1,000 kids) placement rate. (King County’s rate was 2.2 percent per 1,000 kids. See the above chart for other county placement rates.)

What will become of the foster Class of 2012?

The median length of stay (LOS in foster care parlance) is around two years, based on trends for children who entered the system in 2011. The median is the point at which half the kids who arrived in 2011 have left the system. The 2011 median is a little longer than in previous years. It’s unclear at the moment why.

In fact, most 2012 kids will spend very little time in the system. They will return home to their parents or parent (“reunification”), or move in with an aunt, grandparent or some other relative (“kinship care”) with the means and inclination to take them in. Often within a week. Of the children who don’t go home, some will be adopted or enter “guardianships.” A very small few will live out their childhoods in foster settings, probably in more than one home. “Permanence,” the system’s euphemism for home, will elude them.

The at-risk universe is vast and varied. In it, you’ll find homeless kids, foster kids, poor kids, abused kids, neglected kids, handicapped kids, kids with mental health or substance abuse issues, kids with learning disabilities, kids who are bullies or bullied, kids whose parents are divorced, kids who know domestic violence and kids who fall into more than one of these categories. To be thoroughly reductionist about it, says Lisa Mennet, a psychotherapist who specializes in the parent-child dynamic, the two conditions that put kids most at risk are "poverty and poor relationships."

And the two aren’t necessarily related.

“The quality of a child’s relationship with its parent will be influenced by the amount of stress the parent’s under, so if the parent is dealing with domestic violence, homelessness, poverty then their resources for creating a positive relationship with their child are really diminished,” says Mennet. “Now, that said, I work all the time with families of means, who do not have those kinds of external stressors but where the parents still have significant relationship challenges with their child.”

Why do parents of means have trouble relating to their kids? Well, we’ll leave that for another story.

For this one, the bottom line is: Whether you peer at the problem through a psychological, policymaking, programming or human lens, the subject of kids at-risk is complex, fascinating and wrenchingly urgent. Foster kids are far more likely than non-foster counterparts to develop eating disorders, suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and other psychological conditions, drop out of school, run afoul of the law or wind up homeless.

Check back tomorrow when contributor Claudia Rowe kicks off our Kids at Risk coverage with an essay on resilience, that elusive and all-important quality which, if we could just bottle it, would help foster kids, indeed all of us, survive the vicissitudes of life.

We hope you’ll join us in our quest to explore and understand this world. And maybe even help to make it better.

Kids at Risk coverage is made possible by a grant from Ballmer Family Giving. All infographics for this story were designed by Kate Thompson, using statistics from the Partners for Our Children Data Portal. Go here for more on Kids at Risk.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mary Bruno

Mary Bruno

Mary was Crosscut's Editor-in-Chief and Interim Publisher. In more than 25 years as a journalist, she has worked as a writer, editor and editorial director for a variety of print and web publications, including Newsweek, Seattle Weekly and ABCNEWS.com. Her book, An American River, is an environmental memoir about growing up along New Jersey's Passaic.