The foster home system in American began in the mid 1800’s when the trend shifted from providing care to children in home environments rather than institutions. The philosophy was that it would be preferable to raise children in situations that resemble average family homes as much as possible. Ideally, this temporary foster care was meant to provide for a child while the natural family is receiving the needed services to strengthen them and make it possible for the child to return home.
In the United States today, approximately 500,000 children reside in a foster care setting. While the child welfare system in the U.S. has in the past devoted much attention and resources to investigations and to the institutional care of children, the focus now is on increasing the prevention services that can identify families at risk and avoid the need for out-of-home placements. The prevention system includes services such as family preservation programs, family-centered service programs, parenting program and substance abuse treatment. The idea is that children and families are impacted by their experiences in life and societal influences. There are situations and experiences that place children and families at risk, including substance abuse, poverty, and lack of education and a history of abuse.
Across the country, the goal is to maintain children in their own homes to the greatest extent possible without jeopardizing safety. There is concern that the drastic measure of taking a child out of their home causes long term effects. The disruption in a child’s life must be the last resort and the decision to make such a move must be deemed necessary to assure safety. The system has begun to recognize the emotional impact and long term mental health issues these children face as the result of out-of-home placements. The system has also begun to assess and plan for children and families holistically, looking at all of their life domains with the goal of strengthening families and children.
For those children who do require foster care placement, the challenge for the social service system has been recruiting the number of homes needed. This has been an increasing problem over the last 50 year. With women working and an increase in single family homes, the commitment to fostering a child is too much for many families to consider. Unfortunately, the need for foster care has grown and may be related to societal changes including community violence, and families in poverty as well as substance abuse. The combined result has been an increase in the number of children in or at risk of foster care. With less foster homes available and the ability to recruit new homes increasingly difficult, the philosophy must shift to identifying families at risk early. Services to strengthen families and avoid the need for future foster care placements are better for children, families and society as a whole.
For those children who are placed, it is critical that the foster homes received training and have all the supports needed to maintain the child. The goal is to make the foster care experience a successful experience for the child. The history of children moving from one home to the next and ultimately more restrictive setting is problematic and creates more problems for the child, family, system and society. The importance of properly screening and training foster care families cannot be overstated. Training and supports are critical to making placements successful.
It is also critical to provide a complete assessment of the child to assure that the out-of-home placement is appropriate to the individual child. Child protective services system have a continuum of options available including therapeutic foster care for children who need more attention and support, residential care which is a more institutional setting but can be necessary for a child with extreme behavior problem and issues that are too much for a foster family to address. The assessment of a child can lead to the best placement, traditional foster care being only one option.
The basic model of care for children and families at risk involves a treatment plan, which organizes the needs of the child, natural family and foster family. The plan is a holistic, strength based plan for strengthen the child and family with the goal of returning the child home, if that is possible and appropriate. The goal will be different for some youth and can include adoption or, for older children, independent living. Either way, the goal is to develop a plan for permanent living for the child.
Across the country, child protective service agencies have adopted wraparound models of care that seek to wrap service around he child as needed. This approach strives to provide what the child needs rather than give the child the services that are available. There have also been models of family treatment implemented including Multisystemic Family Therapy, which has proven to be successful. These models ideally, treat each family individually and can be successful with children in placement as well as those at home.
The problems with all of the system theories are inherent in social services. The people working in the system are typically not well paid and have high caseloads and not enough ongoing training and support. The system for staff should also include supports and supervision to meet the individual needs of each employee. The other major challenge is of course funding to provide the services needed and to ensure a complete system of care. Including all of the system in a child and families life can also be a challenge and require a great deal of work and direction on the part of people in control of the system and the agencies involved.
The foster care system has made a great deal of progress since the 1800, moving from institutions to home care models. An emphasis on holistic assessment and wraparound planning is a major improvement and therapeutic models with proven outcomes and evaluation methods are important. Continued coordination, collaboration and system reform is necessary if the state and county are to assure good outcomes for the children who are the products of these troubled families.