Foster Care Policy – Child Welfare

The primary concern of the foster care policy is to protect the health and safety of the child. Children have a right to feel secure and to be cared for through a permanent and nurturing relationship with a parenting authority (Barbell et al. 2001). The child’s family has the responsibility to provide sufficient and timely support to the child to prevent the need for substitute care from state agencies. The family may not always be available to provide care or could neglect its responsibility to the child. The state must step in and offer alternative arrangements that can meet the child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs conclusively (Barbell et al. 2001).

Once the state identifies a need to intervene in a child’s care, regard for the wellness of the child shall supersede the right of the parent to maintain custody. This regard will be especially essential when such custody would be harmful to the child.  However, foster care is not intended to provide families with a convenient solution to difficult circumstances. The state has a duty to ensure that the child’s family is provided with sufficient support before foster care is considered as an option. When foster care is identified as the intervention of choice, the state shall immediately undertake measures to improve living conditions in the family to facilitate the eventual reunion of the child with the family. This paper aims to explore the child welfare policy area, with a particular focus on foster care.  Specific aspects of foster care policy such as; its inception, history, public perception, overall framework, and current state will be discussed.

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Emergence and need

Throughout history, policies and legislations have evolved in accordance with changing public perception. In the United States, child welfare policy has emerged in response to changing attitudes regarding the role of the government in child protection and care (Leber et al. 2012). It is therefore essential to examine the evolution of these attitudes and needs if an understanding of why and how foster care policy emerged is to be gained.

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Early government interventions, therefore, involved ensuring that the fundamental needs of the child were met with little concern for potential abuse and neglect (Barbell et al. 2001). In the 20th entury public awareness about child abuse grew. Criticism emerged regarding the number of children entering foster care. State agencies were retaining children for extended lengths of time without reuniting them with their families or placing them with an adoptive family. In response to this outcry, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272) of 1980, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-189) of 1997 and the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-169) were enacted.

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Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare act made it a requirement for state agencies to make ‘reasonable’ efforts to ensure that children placed in foster care were reunited with their families. It also outlined adoption and placement with relatives as alternatives for children who could not be reunited with their families. Later, ASFA established exceptions to the “reasonable effort” clause, defined timelines and conditions for termination of parental rights. This legislation also established child safety as the primary consideration in adoption and reunification efforts. It, therefore, became necessary that all prospective foster parents are subjected to background checks. ASFA also made requirements for timely reunification and adoption to ensure permanency for the child.

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 In the 1990s, the reality of foster care for youth who “outgrew” the system with little capability to live on their own began to emerge, prompting the enactment of the Foster Care Independence Act in 1999. This legislation made it a requirement for states to provide youth leaving foster care with education, training, financial support, housing, employment, and counseling services to facilitate effective transition from foster care to self-sufficiency. This act made state agencies accountable for the eventual outcome of individuals who had previously been in foster care. This meant that states would be responsible for any avoidance of independence, employment, educational attainment, homelessness, premarital pregnancy, arrest and high-risk tendencies in the youth would after his/her discharge from their care.

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Who is involved in foster care?

The foster care system emerged in response to instances of child abuse and neglect as well as the need to ensure the physical, emotional, and educational needs of the child were met regardless of prevailing difficult situations. Sectors of the population involved in fulfilling these needs within the foster care parents include; social workers, foster parents, judges (Leber et al. 2012).  The role of the social worker is to identify cases or investigate allegations of child neglect and abuse. The worker must then make recommendations about the safety of the child and get approval from a judge if they determine that living conditions in the family are not safe for the child.

Child welfare agencies often go to court to seek custody of the child if allegations of neglect and abuse are substantial. These agencies are also responsible for ensuring that the needs of the child are met during foster care and that the child has appropriate means to sustain themselves after they outgrow the system. Judges are tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the child’s stay in foster care, revoking parental rights, and developing a permanent plan for the child. This plan could include preparation for independent living, adoption, or placement with kin members when it is no longer possible to reunite the child with his/her biological parents.  Foster parents receive financial support from state agencies to provide temporary residence and care for the child until a more permanent plan implemented (Leber et al. 2012).  

Social perception of foster care policy

When the practice of placing orphans in foster families began in the late stages of the 19th-century prospective adoptive parents were rarely screened or monitored by state agencies. This contributed to cases of neglect and abuse of children in foster care. The enactment of several laws and legislations in child welfare formed the foundation for foster care policy. According to a survey conducted by the Pew commission (2004), members of the public indicated supportive attitudes towards these new legislations. They also recognized a need for society to do more to support children living in undesirable conditions.

 However, a majority of Americans also believe that there is a need to refine current foster care policies. New policies will facilitate the significant changes that are needed to improve the system for the children (Leber et al. 2012).  Survey respondents also felt that although policy and legislations needed to increase the number of resources given to caseworkers and foster care parents. More funds will ensure that the educational, psychological, and emotional outcomes of the child are enhanced. Moreover, members of the public also believed that judges and social workers did not possess the ability to make appropriate decisions regarding the future of the children in foster care. Moreover, a quarter of the respondents believed that the primary motivation for foster parents was the promise of financial gain and not the concern for the children in their care.

Foster care policy in the 21st century

Recent advances in foster care policy such as the enactment of the Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-351) have been crucial in increasing support for guardian caregivers, encouraging adoption and addressing issues of health and education of foster children and establishing the role of the family in making decisions about children in foster care. Foster care policy has also given the option for the extension of foster care and adoption assistance programs for children above the age of 18 who are enrolled in a tertiary institution, participating in any program that removes barriers to gainful employment, are employed for more up to or more than 80 hours a month and have not surpassed the age of 21. Policies have also provided financial incentives to encourage the adoption of special needs and older children who previously had to spend considerable lengths of time in foster care.

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Foster care policy today is focused primarily on providing a safety net for abused and neglected children. This safety net should be in place for a short time while more permanents ways to offer care for them are established and implemented. An expanded variety of permanency options have been developed following the ASFA revision of permanency goals. This revision removed permanent foster care as an option and has ensured that children do not languish in foster homes (Children’s Rights, 2001). Long term foster care is only indicated by policy when the child has exceeded 12 years of age and is unlikely to be adopted.  Adoption has become the ultimate permanency option for a significant proportion of children in foster care, which has increased the number of children adopted from foster homes substantially.

Guardianship is considered as a permanency option to uphold existing family relationships, maintain cultural ties, and as a way to recognize any negative views of the child and the parents regarding adoption. A significant number of states have developed guardianship programs to give relatives legal custody of the child. Several others provide financial support, which ensures that the needs of the child are met without undue strain upon the relative (Barbell et al. 2001). Placement among relatives is expected to provide the child with a stable and familiar environment during family crisis. It also ensures that he/she does not have to undergo the psychological turmoil associated with adjusting to living with adoptive parents. Kin placements also reduce the rate of re-entry into the system and prevent abrupt changes to the child’s cultural values (Farmer, 2009).

States have different policies regarding guardianship programs with some states limiting kinship care to biological relatives and others extending care to neighbors, family friends, and godparents (Boots & Green, 1999).  The Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act has also increased access to foster care and adoption services for Indian children living in tribal areas. This access has ensured that such children receive foster care and are adopted within their tribes.

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A variety of foster care options have been made available to child welfare agencies. These include; group home care, day treatment foster care, therapeutic foster care, residential treatment and supervised independent living programs for children who are transitioning from the foster care system to living on their own (Barbell et al. 2001).   This variety ensures that the child is placed in a foster care situation that is most appropriate for his/her needs. Foster parents are also required to undergo a rigorous and comprehensive training program before they receive licenses to run foster homes. Training ensures that foster care parents can respond to any significant emotional, physical, psychological, and behavioral problems that the child may possess (Barbell et al. 2001).   

The extent to which child welfare agencies adhered to foster are policies has also improved. This has been achieved through periodic reviews of federal government-funded child welfare services. These reviews assess the performance of specific states on child safety, wellbeing, and permanence. The federal government has established seven criteria bases to indicate the extent of state compliance with child welfare policy. Criteria related to foster care policy include; percentage of children reunited with biological parents in less than a year of stay in foster care, the rate of re-entry into the foster care system within 12 months of previous stay, the percentage of children who leave foster care within 24 hours after entry, the percentage of children in custody for a year who have had less than two placements, the median duration of stay in foster care (Barbell et. al 2001). States that do not meet minimum thresholds for compliance are expected to develop corrective action plans which must be approved by the department of health and human services. AS a penalty, the federal government may decide to withhold funding from any state that cannot implement the corrective actions stipulated in the action plan (Barbell et al. 2001).

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State agencies have also adopted innovative strategies such as concurrent planning to ensure they meet the goal of permanency as stipulated by foster care policy. These strategies have been particularly useful when working with children form minority communities who face challenges such as low economic capacity, drug, and substance abuse as well as instances of domestic violence. Concurrent planning ensures that early diagnosis of children who are less likely to be reunified with their parents is performed and the child is placed with foster parents who are willing to work with the child’s family and prepared to become permanent parents for the child should reunification become impossible (Barbell et al. 2001).

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These positive steps may be the reason why there has been a significant decline in the number of children who entered the foster care system and an increase in the number of kin placements in the past decades (Barbell et al. 2001).  However, foster care policy still needs to undergo significant improvement. More incentives need to be provided to attract and retain foster parents. There is also a need to reduce reliance on the goodwill of relatives. This reliance is especially apparent in states where unrelated foster parents receive more financial support than relatives (Leber et al. 2012).

 Furthermore, negative public perceptions regarding the foster care system need to be addressed by providing information to the public. An informed public will most likely lead to the enactment of legislation that actually improves the system instead of increasing its complexity. Moreover, when public perception is positive, the task of attracting and retaining members of the public as foster parents becomes easier (Leber et al. 2012).  

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Conclusion

Foster care policy has undergone tremendous evolution since its inception as a way to ensure the child’s basic needs were met. This evolution has been guided by a need to ascertain that the goals of permanence and stability for the child are continuously achieved even after he/she outgrows the system. In spite of these significant achievements, a lot more still needs to be done to change public perception to facilitate the development of policies that lead to reform.

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