Let’s try a word association. When you hear the words, “foster care,” what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Abuse? Perhaps even more abuse! Money? Money as in the cost to the taxpayer? Or money as in the motive for foster parents to take children in? We could go on and on, but generally, while most people have a positive attitude toward foster care, many people still misunderstand and misconstrue many aspects of foster care. Whether because the media focuses on the sensational stories that present foster care in a malevolent light, or whether many people misunderstand the subject, or whether other images come to mind, “foster care” still needs to be shared in a more positive light with more people more often.
The conundrum is that foster care is both good and bad in the same way an emergency room is good and bad: It’s sorely needed in crisis, but it needs to be over as soon as possible. Since I have spent my whole career in the field of foster care, I obviously see the desperate need for foster care, but I also believe that my main goal in foster care is to find the safest way to get a child out of foster care as soon as possible.
In 1874 the famous “Mary Ellen” case was resolved under the provisions of American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and instigated the movement toward a formalized system for protection for children. And not until the 1960’s did every state legally require reporting of suspected child abuse. (This is especially disconcerting to me since even in my lifetime I could have been abused and it could have gone unnoticed without consequences to a responsible adult). So in terms of the history of mankind, considering children human beings with the right to be safe and nurtured is a relatively novel concept. Therefore, my thesis is that despite all the bad things that still happen to children and a flawed system that still needs repair, we have made relatively rapid progress.
Since my career began in the late 1970’s I can look back and discuss foster care from an experiential as well as historical perspective. When I started as a case manager (“Counselor”) in 1977 we were not required to devise a plan of service for a child that would provide for his or her well-being and a permanent family outcome. Therefore, children could languish in foster care until they became adults, regardless of the age when they entered the foster care system, without any accountability. I remember telling children that the minimum amount of time they would spend in foster care would be two years, (because it would take at least that length of time for them to recover, and the family of origin was considered the enemy rather than a viable option for salvaging on behalf of the unfortunate child), sounding almost as though their placement was their responsibility—as though it were a prison sentence for something they did wrong. All good intentions, but dreadfully misguided! In addition, we required very little, if any, pre-screening or pre-training of prospective foster parents. The upshot of this shortcoming is that too many foster parents, with good intentions, asked for the removal of children who, because of the trauma of abuse and neglect they had suffered, acted out in ways for which the foster parents were unprepared, and children suffered one rejection after another, adding to their load of trauma. And additionally, there were, of course, those ill-intentioned foster parents who, because of the lack of pre-screening, became approved at the expense of exploiting children.
As a result of this set of circumstances, within two weeks of marrying my sweetheart, one of the foster families asked for one of the children on my case load—a teenage girl—to be removed. Having no options for her, I called my newly wedded wife and announced that I’d be bringing home a guest. Thus began our experience as foster parents, as which we served for months at a time for displaced children until we could find them a better option. (Nowadays, this type of intervention would be considered a conflict of interests and is prohibited).