Fifteen Years of Failure: An Assessment of California's Child Welfare System
by Justin Matlick*
In 1982 the California child welfare system enthusiastically embarked on the mission of bringing permanence and stability to the lives of children in foster care. The last five years have seen the release of the first comprehensive statistical evaluations of the system's "success" thus far. By presenting the key findings of these studies, this report reveals that, after being given fifteen years and over $10 billion, the child welfare system's mission has been a total failure: no progress has been made in any of the key categories and, in many cases, ground has been lost. This failure, which comes at the expense of the children the system is supposed to serve, has occurred despite massive increases in both expenditures and administrative size.
Major findings include:
* Costs have skyrocketed: In the last decade, the annual expense of the child welfare system has risen to $1.7 billion. Since fiscal year (FY) 1988-89, overall funding of child welfare services has risen by 80%. (page 4)
* Foster children remain in the system for too long: Despite the system's purported goal of universal exit within two years, two of every five foster children in California will be in the system for at least three years. Of the states in which studies have been conducted, only New York and Illinois have worse results. (page 6)
* Family preservation services have failed: Since FY 1988-89, the amount spent by the system on family preservation services has risen by 4500%. Despite this increase, studies show that approximately 80% of foster children come from families that received these services. (pages 5 and 8)
* Reunification efforts have failed: In 1982, one of the system's key goals was increased reunification of foster children with their families. In spite of this fact, the reunification rate did not improve from 1986-96. 51% of the children in California's foster care system will not be reunified with their families. (pages 6 and 7)
* Stability has not been achieved: Another of the system's key goals was increased stability in placement. Today, few children are placed in stable settings: the average foster child is placed in at least two different homes. One in every ten children in care is likely to have been in five or more homes. (page 8)
* The state- supported adoption system has failed: Fewer than 10% of California's foster children will exit the system through adoption. By broadening the use of the "special needs" categorization and by tacitly emphasizing race-matching, the system has created bureaucratic barriers that lengthen the time spent in care. (page 9)
These findings reveal that the child welfare system has squandered the resources it has been given and effectively worsened the problems it set out to solve. Until performance incentives and accountability mechanisms are built into the system's structure, no progress can be expected.
Fifteen years ago, with the passage in California of Senate Bill (SB) 14, California ushered in what was supposed to be a new era for its child welfare system. In response to federal mandates, the system was re-organized around the principle of "permanency planning," which was supposed to assure that children entering the system would be returned to a permanent setting -- either with their birth parents or an adoptive family -- within two years. With this approach, child advocates and welfare authorities hoped to solve the problems that had plagued them during the 1970s, when foster children spent their formative years moving from home to home in a system that had lost sight of their need for a stable and loving family.
Despite the emphasis placed on permanency, the California child welfare system continues to fail the children it was intended to help. In the last decade, it has grown into an enormous, self- perpetuating bureaucracy that exacerbates the very problems it is supposed to solve. While the size, cost, and number of services provided by the system have increased substantially, a survey of the key performance indicators reveals that, since the 1982 reorganization, no gains have been made and, in many cases, ground has been lost.
When faced with these statistics, defenders of the system are quick to point out that it was forced to endure a huge and unanticipated increase in the foster care population during the last half of the 1980s. This increase in caseloads, they assert, created problems and stresses that the system was not designed to handle. While they are correct that some aspects of the population increase were beyond their control, examination of the situation reveals that child welfare agencies were compensated with substantial resources. The rising foster care population should have caused a substantial but brief spike in costs and administrative size, not a sustained increase in both the size of the bureaucracy and the costs incurred by it.
Instead, these sustained increases are attributable to structural aspects of the child welfare system that reward both county agencies and child caregivers for keeping children in the system. Though the stated goal is permanency, neither the administrative nor implementation structure contain mechanisms that penalize agencies or caregivers for impermanence. While the fiscal and economic costs of this are enormously high, the real cost is incurred by the children who are deprived of a healthy family by a system that puts its own welfare above theirs.
These problems will not be corrected by reforms that target specific levels of the child welfare system. Progress towards the goals of permanency will only be made when the system is re-structured in such a way that emphasizes performance, accountability, and cost- effective provision of services. The Pacific Research Institute is currently engaged in a comprehensive study of the system from this point of view. This briefing represents the results of our assessment of the system's structural problems and the potential solutions to those problems. Included is a list of PRI's policy recommendations that would begin to move the system towards its goals.
Background: Fiscal Structure, Population, Costs, and Risk Assessment
In order to gain an understanding of the nature of the problems facing the child welfare system, it must first be placed in the context of its fiscal structure. Unlike most other states, the California system is county-based rather than state- based: though the majority of the funding comes from state and federal sources, the programs are administered at the county level.
Under this structure, the state is reduced to a funnel through which dollars flow. In response to the counties' stated requirements, the California Department of Social Services (DSS) collects state and federal funds and distributes them to each county agency. Under federal law, these agencies are told into what general categories this money must flow; the majority of the funds are earmarked for foster care programs. The agencies are not, however, under any restriction as to how the money is to be spent within these categories. They are, instead, free to invest and distribute the funds as they see fit.
The state, therefore, has relegated itself to the role of hapless bystander. While it is required under its own legislation to distribute the funds, it has neither influence over how funds are spent nor authority to hold counties accountable for the outcomes of their programs. As the child welfare bureaucracy has simultaneously become both more costly and less effective, the consequences of this lack of oversight have become increasingly apparent.
Demographics: Changes in the Foster Care Population
An overview of the recent changes in the foster care population is critical in order to understand the growth in the child welfare system's structure and expenses.
The number of children in care has skyrocketed since the mid-1980s, an increase widely attributed to the high level of crack cocaine abuse during this period. Nationwide, the number of foster children rose from 260,000 in 1983 to 460,000 in 1993, an increase of over 70%.1
The changes in California's foster care population reflect this trend. In this state alone, the number of foster children grew from 33,000 in 1984 to 90,000 in 1995, a 170% increase.2 This total accounts for over 20% of the national foster care population.
While there are many interesting demographic aspects of this growth, the one that is most striking is the rising proportion of infants admitted to care. Since 1987, the percentage of children in care who are between the ages of zero and two has increased dramatically, both nationally and in California. As reported in a study conducted by the Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago, 16% of the children who entered foster care between 1983 and 1986 were under the age of one.3 For the period 1990 to 1992, this number increased to nearly 25%, or one in four.4 These figures are alarming because, perhaps more than any other age group, the emotional and developmental needs of infants are such that a stable and nurturing family is an important factor in their development.
In light of the overall rise in the foster care population, it is reasonable to expect that the child welfare system's fiscal needs would have increased in order to meet its stated goals of permanency and stability in child placement. Though the budget data are limited prior to 1988-1989, an analysis of information provided by the California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) reveals that the amount of funds allocated to the system grew substantially following the increase in the foster care population. Between fiscal year 1988- 89 and FY 1995-96:
* The total dollar amount of funds allocated by federal, state, and local agencies to the child welfare system, which includes both Child Welfare Services (CWS) and foster care programs, rose to $1.7 billion.5
* The annual cost of California's foster care programs alone now exceeds $1 billion and has increased by 84% since 1988-89.6
* Overall funding of CWS increased by 80%, to $652 million.7
* The dollar amount allocated, per case, to the CWS increased by 32%. The majority of this increase was placed under the heading of "salaries and other operating expenses."8
* The amount spent on preservation services (services provided to families considered to have children that are at-risk of ending up in foster care) rose from $1 million to $45 million, an increase of 4500%.9
This data leads to the conclusion that, while state services were certainly faced with a crisis caused by the increase in caseloads, resources have kept pace with this increase. In light of these figures, it is reasonable to expect that, after more than a decade, the system would have accomplished its goals of providing children with stable and permanent placements within two years of their entry into foster care.
There are many visions of the shape that a reformed child welfare system will take. Each of these visions rests upon different assumptions about the ability of caseworkers to make accurate assessments of abusive family environments. An overview of the nature of these assessments is critical in order to understand the principles behind, and goals of, each side of the current debate.
When the child welfare system receives a report of abuse or neglect, a social worker is dispatched to investigate. If the abuse or neglect can be substantiated, the worker must essentially choose between two courses of action:
1) Remove the child from the home and begin providing the family with reunification services. These services are designed to rehabilitate the family while the child is in out-of-home care. The child is returned to the home when rehabilitation is complete.
2) Leave the child in the home and begin providing the family with intensive "family preservation" "family maintenance" services. Such services include family counseling, parental training, and drug therapy. The intent is to, over the course of four to eight weeks, transform an abusive/neglectful home into a stable one.
These decisions rest on the ability of the caseworker to accurately assess three things:
1) The immediate risk of harm to children if they are left in the home.
2) The likelihood that a family's problems are of a nature that they can be solved in a reasonable amount of time.
3) The types of services that should be given to families whose problems are considered solvable.
In California, defenders of the current system argue that, given more time and money, the system could not only make accurate assessments but could also heal nearly every abusive or neglectful parent. This paper illustrates that, in the fifteen years since the adoption of SB 14, the system has failed to effectively accomplish either of these objectives. Children have too frequently been reunified or allowed to remain with families who continue to be abusive; it also is likely that too many children have been wrongly removed from homes where they should have remained. In addition, efforts to rehabilitate families through preservation services have failed. Until the structure is redesigned around both structural incentives and the results of the latest studies, these problems will persist and children will be left to flounder in foster care while the state makes fruitless efforts to rehabilitate and preserve harmful families.
A survey of the primary performance indicators reveals that the system made little or no headway towards these goals. Recent studies show that despite the passage of fifteen years, the system is no closer to accomplishing these goals than it was in 1982 when SB 14 was passed.
There are five key indicators used to evaluate the child welfare system's performance: duration, number of placements, likelihood/rate of reunification, recidivism rate, and the success of preventive services. Each of these indicates the degree to which the child welfare system is successful in moving kids out of care and correctly placing them in a permanent setting -- either by returning them home to a rehabilitated family, placing them in an adoptive home, or relegating them to long-term foster care -- within a reasonable time limit.
A sixth indicator, the rate of adoption, concerns the success of state agencies in finding permanent adoptive homes for children for whom reunification attempts are no longer being made.
Duration is an overall measure of the amount of time that a child spends in out-of-home care before being permanently placed.
* Two out of five foster children in California will spend more than three years in foster care.10
Fifteen years after the adoption of permanency planning, the California child welfare system is failing to efficiently move children into permanent and stable homes. While some argue that the success rate is 60%, it is important to remember that the other 40% covers 36,000 children that will remain in unstable settings for more than three years.
When confronted with these lengthy durations, child welfare authorities often attempt to justify them by asserting that kids are being kept in care so that they may eventually be returned home. The reunification rate measures the system's success at returning children to their families.
* Fifty-one percent of the children entering foster care will never be reunified with their families.11
* This reunification rate did not improve from 1986-1996; it instead remained stable.12
* Of the children that do return home, nearly 50% are reunified within six months, while 70% go home within a year.13
* In 1995, only 5% of children who were in foster care for longer than 24 months were returned home.14
The child welfare system is not making any headway towards increased reunification of families. The longer a child stays in care, the less likely reunification becomes; given the above statistics, it seems difficult to justify the hope that a child will return home after being in foster care beyond the eighteen month deadline.
Recidivism measures the success rate of the state's reunification decisions. The rate of recidivism refers to the number of times that the same child enters the system. If that child enters more than once it means that child was returned to a family that abused or neglected that child to the point that he/she had to be readmitted to care.
* 37% of the children in care in 1995 had been in the system at least three times. This is up from 27% in 1985.15
* On average, from 1989-1995, 17% of reunified children returned to the system at least once.16
* One of every five infants that is reunified with his/her parents is subjected to new episodes of abuse, neglect or endangerment. 17 Conclusion:
Child welfare caseworkers are failing to make accurate assessments; the system is too often reunifying children with families that are abusive or neglectful. While there should certainly be some tolerance of error, this data reveals not a few mistakes but a systematic failure.
Number of placements
The number of placements refers to the number of foster homes that a child is placed into during his/her tenure in the system. As such, this number reflects whether or not state child welfare services are accomplishing the goal of stability.
LAO study of the foster care population in 1993 and 1994 found that:
* The average foster child had been in two different homes.18
* Nearly one-third of foster children had been in three or more homes.19
* One of every ten children in care had been placed into five or more homes.20
* A separate study found that two of every three foster children between the ages of one and two have been in three or more homes. One in three has been placed five or more times.21
Child welfare agencies are not adequately accomplishing their goal of stability within the system. On average, a child should be placed once. The exception should be children that are placed two or more times. As the above statistics illustrate, a single placement is the exception, while multiple placements are the rule.
Success of Family Preservation Programs
Following the 1980s boom in the foster care population, child welfare agencies nationwide began placing increased emphasis on services designed to prevent placement of children into foster care. The hope was that such services would heal parents and facilitate the development of stable and healthy homes. As mentioned above, the amount of funds allocated to these services in California rose from $1 million to $45 million between FY 1988-89 and FY 1995-96.
* All major studies of family preservation services have found them to have no effect on whether or not a child is placed into foster care. The largest study, conducted by the Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago, found that children in families who had received preservation services were just as likely to enter out-of-home care as children in families who had not.22 * A state-financed study of California's intensive preservation services, conducted by Walter R. McDonald & Associates, found that "there were no significant differences in placement rates" between the families that received these services and those that did not.23 The study concluded that "Expectations [regarding the performance of preservation services] will need to be tempered based on the findings to date."24
* A study of 8,748 children in the California foster care system, conducted by members of the Child Welfare Research Center (CWRC), found that 80% of children in care came from families that had received at least one type of family preservation service.25
The expansion of preventive services has been a total failure. This is the result of two factors: the system's inability to accurately assess a family's likelihood of rehabilitation and the nature of the families being treated. The decision to focus efforts on these services should be re-evaluated.
The adoption rate measures the proportion of foster children that will exit the system through adoption. While this rate is most relevant to an overview of performance, included are several other figures that indicate the overall effectiveness of the state's current adoption strategy.
* Fewer than 10% of foster children will exit the system through adoption.26
* As children grow older, they become increasingly less likely to be adopted.27
* Children that fall between the ages of zero and one are more than twice as likely to be adopted as children in all other age groups.28
* An African American child's predicted odds of adoption are five times less than those of a Caucasian child.29
The adoption system is failing in many ways. Of primary concern is the overall likelihood of exit through adoption. Under permanency planning, the system's goal is to either reunify children or, if reunification efforts fail, to place them in an adoptive home. Placement in long-term care is supposed to occur only as a last resort for children who are "unadoptable." Under the current system, the number of children that will be placed in long-term care is three times the number that will be placed in adoptive homes.
Of secondary concern is the fact that the odds of adoption fall as the child's age rises. This highlights the importance of timely and accurate reunification decisions; as durations increase, the likelihood of permanent placement falls.
While efficiency within the system is critical, the system is only as efficient as its exit mechanism. If permanency is to be achieved, alternatives will have to be sought to a state adoption system that is failing to carry out its mission.
There are no bright spots in the performance of the California child welfare system. The system has been given fifteen years and several billion dollars to find solutions to its problems and to bring to life the era of placement stability and permanency planning. Under no circumstances can any arguments be made that the state system is performing properly.
The problems behind this failure are both numerous and complex. Inefficiencies, failures, and misdirected motives exist at every level, from the individual caseworker to the judges that preside over reunification hearings, to the adoption system that is supposed to provide efficient exit.
While each level can and should be examined individually, it must be recognized that every problem can be traced to the fact that, structurally, the system fails to promote its own goals. Administrators and caregivers are neither given incentives to promote permanency nor held accountable when they do not. They are instead rewarded for the very impermanence that they are employed to prevent.
The implications of this structural failure become apparent upon examination of its four most prominent instances:
* The method used by California DSS to allocate funds.
* The kinship care system, the reasonable efforts clause.
* The state-supported adoption system.
* These three examples illustrate how, on the administrative, implementation, and exit levels, the system is designed in a way that prevents permanence rather than promoting it.
Budget Allocation Structu re
The current appropriation method used by DSS is recognized on all sides of the debate as being one of the chief sources of rising costs and increased bureaucracy. DSS perpetuates its own failure by employing what is known as a caseload-driven budget allocation structure. Under this structure, county child welfare agencies are allocated funds based solely on the number of cases that they handle each fiscal year.
This method, implemented in FY 1988-89 in response to county demands, illustrates how the structural incentives contradict the system's goals. Under the caseload-driven methodology, the county agencies are given financial incentives to keep kids in foster care. A reduction of a county's caseloads would lead to a reduction of that county's budgets; fewer foster children translates into job loss on the part of county caseworkers and administrators. DSS is effectively saying "the better you do your job, the less you are going to get paid."
While the budget allocation method illustrates how, administratively, the structure prevents permanence, an overview of the kinship care system shows how this impermanence is perpetuated on the caregiver level. In the last decade, the child welfare system has emphasized kinship care, or the placement of foster children with relatives rather than foster parents. While there are undeniable benefits to placing a child with a relative instead of with a stranger, the kinship care system is structured in such a way that it negates these benefits by rewarding the caregivers for impermanence. As a result of this incentive structure, kinship care is proving itself to be not only a parental trap for children but a financial trap for the state.
The growing number of children in kinship care is one of the most striking trends in child welfare. Since 1984, kinship care has accounted for two-thirds of the growth in the total foster care population. Of the children in the California foster care system, 40% are being cared for by relatives.30
Studies have shown that there are many aspects of kinship care that make it preferable to traditional foster care. Typically, children in kinship care are in closer contact with their parents, are less likely to be forced to move to a new school, and have fewer behavioral problems than children not placed with relatives. Each of these signs points to an increased level of permanence that benefits the child.31
There are, however, an equal number of disadvantages. It has been found that kinship caregivers are typically poorer, less educated, older (63% are grandparents), more prone to severe health problems, and more likely to be single than traditional foster parents.32
The most striking disadvantage is that children in kinship care spend more time in the system and are less likely to be placed permanently, either through reunification, adoption, or legal guardianship, than children not placed with relatives. Studies of previous entrants to the system have found that:
* 40% of kinship children are likely to be in the system at least three years.33
* While 50% of traditional foster children are reunified with their parents within six months, only 40% of kinship care children are likely to return home within eighteen months.34
* Children who are placed in kinship care are 50% less likely to be adopted than children in foster care.35
While there are several possible explanations for these figures, the most likely one is to be found in the financial incentives for impermanence that the system provides to relative caregivers: kinship care providers get paid to keep children in unstable environments, and punished when permanence is achieved.
Under California law, kinship caregivers are eligible to receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) payments for the children in their care. If they meet the licensing requirements for foster parents (as 60% of the kinship caregivers in California do) the base payment increases, and the payment rate then rises as the child gets older. Unlike AFDC payments, the foster care payments are structured in such a way that the caregiver is entitled to equal payments for each additional child that is taken in.
The kinship care structure thus provides overt disincentives for permanence. If a relative caregiver adopts the child, assumes legal guardianship, returns the child to its home, or gives it over to an adoptive family, the payments are terminated. The parents of kinship children are permitted to see them on an unlimited basis, reducing their incentive to seek reunification. Given the fact that the natural parents of most foster children receive AFDC, there is a financial disincentive to assume responsibility for a child that is getting a higher stipend under the foster care rate than it would be given under AFDC.
The Reasonable Efforts Clause
In 1995, Shelby Miles gave birth to her daughter in the dressing room of a Sacramento discount store. After using her fingernails to sever the umbilical cord and flushing the placenta down the toilet, she left the baby to die in a wastebasket, where it was discovered and rescued by a janitor two hours later. At the time of Miles' arrest, authorities found traces of amphetamine in her blood. After pleading no contest to a charge of child endangerment, she was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 240 hours of community service, and six years probation. Her daughter was then returned to her, and the two were placed in family preservation services.36
As a six-week old infant, Jocelyn Hernandez was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital after suffering, at the hands of her teen-aged parents, cracked ribs, broken legs, bruised lungs, and burns to her hands and feet. She was promptly removed from her family and placed in the custody of her grandmother, where Jocelyn flourished until the woman's death fourteen months later. Despite their knowledge of her previous injuries, child welfare authorities then returned the little girl to her parents. Three months later she was bludgeoned to death; she died after suffering what the L.A. county coroner described as "blunt force abdominal injuries." Her parents were the sole suspects.37 In defense of the caseworker that reunified Jocelyn with her birth parents, James Isom, then-director of the Public Social Services Agency, told the Los Angeles Times that "Even after seeing those injuries, the social worker felt the best interest of the child would be to return her to her natural parents...I support the worker's decision because her job is not to keep the family separate, but to keep a family together."38
Under state law, authorities must make "reasonable efforts" to reunify children with their birth parents, even in cases as extreme as those of Jocelyn Hernandez and Shelby Miles.
This open-ended clause doesn't serve the best interests of the child: it acts as a structural impediment to permanent placement while too often allowing for children to be returned to situations where they are likely to suffer further abuse.
As stated above, after responding to a report of child abuse, child welfare authorities exercise one of two options: take the child in custody and provide the parents with rehabilitative services, or leave the child at home and provide the entire family with the more intensive preservation services. The goal of both options is to create a healthy family atmosphere; the risk is that the efforts will not succeed and the child will continue to suffer, either in the instability of out-of- home care, or in a family environment that remains destructive.
While the goals of family reunification and preservation are certainly noble, a survey of certain aspects of family preservation programs reveals that they too often try to preserve environments that are likely to be detrimental to a child's development. This fact is illustrated by the exclusion criteria used by these programs: the criteria that dictate under what circumstances preservation will not be attempted. Of the California counties that were operating family preservation programs in 1995:
* Every county seeks to preserve families in which the parents are known to be substance abusers that are not electing to receive treatment.39
* All but two counties (Solano and Contra Costa) attempt to preserve families in which the parents are homeless.40
* Every county but one (San Diego) seeks to preserve families in which "serious abuse" of the children has been documented.41
While common sense dictates that the best alternative is always to return a child to its own loving and stable family, it also dictates that county agencies should never attempt to force a child to stay in a home where it is likely to suffer developmentally and to be abused. Just as it would be unreasonable to demand that children be removed from stable and healthy homes, it seems unreasonable to expect responsible guidance and decisions from parents who abandon their children in wastebaskets, break their babies' legs, or fail to seek treatment for their own drug abuse.
Unfortunately, it is just these types of situations that the "reasonable efforts" clause allows child welfare agencies to perpetuate. "Reasonable efforts" too often translate into counties' unreasonable attempts to either reunify unhealthy families or to place families into preservation programs that are proven failures. This goes against children's best interests in two ways: it allows counties to keep them in foster care while reunification attempts are unjustifiably made, and it frequently forces them back into an abusive home.
"In 1992 we were truly blessed with our little boy Matthew. When he was nine days old, the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services put him in our foster care...He made all our lives matter a little more than they had.
We told the social worker we wanted him in our lives forever, but we were quickly told `No, don't even think about it. He is black and will go to a black home.'
For the two years we had Matthew, they searched for a black home. At that time, his brother Joseph was in another foster home. In 1994, the state finally found a black home for both boys.
I'll never forget the day Matthew had to leave. He took the world we had come to love so much with him...Our family tried to return to our old life, but it wasn't the same without Matthew. After two and a half months of grieving and wondering what he must be going through, the phone rang....Matthew's and Joseph's adoptive placement broke up.
We asked once more to please let us adopt, and to let us have Joseph, too. This time we were told `No, it would be in the best interest of the children to have a same race home.' My pain was more than any I have ever experienced in my life.
In April, 1995 the Institute for Justice filed suit. Only then did the department finally agree to let us adopt."
- Ms. Lou Ann Mullen February, 1997
The effectiveness of the state-run adoption system is of foremost concern. In recent years, the placement rates of this system have fallen; it is common to hear reports of children who spend two to three years waiting to be adopted after the state has determined that they will not be reunified with their family. This is especially disturbing in light of the fact that private adoption agencies, most of which have more stringent parental criteria than state agencies, have waiting lists of parents willing to adopt children of any race, age, developmental, or physical background.
As with every other aspect of the child welfare system, the fundamental problem with the adoption system is the overall lack of structures that exist to promote performance. This is compounded by bureaucratic and structural aspects of the child welfare system that act to slow the progression of foster children towards adoption. While there are numerous examples of these inefficiencies, there are three issues -- the emphasis on race-matching, the special needs categorization, and the bureaucratic barriers -- that exemplify aspects of the adoption structure that conspire to prevent permanence.
While nearly two in five foster children are African American, these children are only half as likely to be adopted as Caucasians; from 1988-1993, while the average length of time spent in care for whites in California was around fifteen months, the average length of time for blacks was over thirty months. This is because state-run services openly consider race to be a critical factor in the placement of children. Though, under state regulations, race cannot be the deciding factor when placing a child, children of African American descent are typically placed only into adoptive families where both parents are black.42 Even placements with families with one African American parent remain rare. This policy leaves children in foster care that could otherwise be placed in a loving family.
The "special needs" categorization is another example of the systematic bias against permanence. This categorization was originally intended to be assigned to children with severe physical, behavioral, or developmental problems. The hope was that this would act as a signal to adoptive parents that these children were in need of greater attention than those without these problems. The result is that the categorization acts as a stigma that not only deters a child's adoption but also leaves its mark on the child's self-perception.
As with many aspects of the child welfare system, the "special needs" categorization, though created with good intentions, has been undercut by structural incentives that contradict its purpose. County agencies are granted federal subsidies for each special needs child in their care; the more special needs children that they oversee, the greater their income. The result is that these agencies have an overt incentive to place children in this categorization, regardless of whether or not they are needier than the typical foster child. The effects of this incentive are evidenced by the number of special needs children in the system: in 1990, 72 percent of the children awaiting adoption in California had been assigned with at least one "special need."43
Of equal concern are the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that must be crossed in order for a foster child to become eligible for adoption. Once reunification efforts are terminated, it can take several months for the appropriate hearings to be completed and the necessary paperwork to be stamped, filed, and transferred before a child officially enters the state placement services. Given that the likelihood of adoption decreases as the child gets older, it seems critical that the system be structured in such a way that minimizes the amount of time necessary to move a child into the ranks of the adoption-eligible.
While race-matching, the special needs category, and bureaucratic time consumption are all symptoms of an inefficient system, the fundamental problem remains an overall lack of accountability mechanisms. State-supported agencies are free to build whatever barriers they wish, however inadvertent these barriers may be, without being held accountable for their own failure to place children. If efficient placement of children is to occur, this accountability structure must be re-organized.
If any headway is to be made towards the goal of a child welfare system that is both more efficient and more effective, the incentives for impermanence must be eliminated. A system that serves a foster child's need for permanence and stability will only arise from a backdrop that provides incentives for permanence and holds individuals accountable when that goal is not achieved.
As illustrated, the child welfare system is a complex web of failures that conspires to trap children in a state of limbo. A better system would be one that is re-built from the ground up based around a set of private-sector alternatives that emphasize performance and accountability. This system will only be achieved through a two-step reform process, the first step of which is dedicated to accountability while the second emphasizes innovation and alternatives. With regards to the first step, PRI proposes an eleven- step approach designed to correct the system's structural deficiencies. By introducing top-down mechanisms that allow the state to hold counties accountable for their outcomes, this approach would promote performance and penalize failure.
At the same time, our approach does not threaten county agencies with interference by state authorities unfamiliar with county-specific issues. Though county agencies are required to achieve specific outcomes, they are free to devise and implement the plans that will get them there.
State-Based Reforms Targeted at County Agencies:
1 - Free the funding stream
The majority of the monies allocated to county agencies are earmarked by the federal government for foster care programs. It should be of little surprise, then, that the foster care system is where the most growth has occurred. Looser categorical requirements placed on agency spending would provide agencies with broader opportunities for innovation in service. The state should appeal to the federal government to soften these requirements.
2 - Implement stringent reporting requirements
A state mandate requiring each county agency to publish a twice-yearly report on its progress towards permanency would supply analysts with the information needed to evaluate each agency's performance.
3 - Place a twelve- month ceiling on reunification decisions
Child welfare agencies currently have 18 months to pursue reunification of foster children with their families; at 18 months a hearing must be held where it is determined whether or not these efforts should be continued. Counties should be required to make a final decision within twelve months. For parents who are serious about taking care of their children, one year is more than enough time to make the necessary corrections in their lives.
4 - Mandate progress towards each of the five key indicators
Each county agency should be required to make annual progress towards targeted goals in each indicator. Progress would be measured according to percentages that would decrease with each successive year. For example, agencies would be required to decrease the average duration of children in their care by 15% the first year, 10% the second year, 9% the third year, etc., until the targets were reached.
5 - Revise the DSS budget allocation methodology
Counties must no longer receive funds based solely on the number of cases. A revised allocation formula would include variables that account for county demographics. This method was used successfully prior to the adoption of the current caseload-driven methodology.
6 - Impose a salary freeze on sub-par agencies.
The child welfare system has never been approached with the ultimatum that funding will be cut unless performance is improved. This is due to the fact that adversaries of spending cuts could effectively claim that these cuts adversely affected children.
As stated above, the majority of agency cost increases have fallen under the heading of "salaries and other operating expenses." For the agencies that are failing to meet the mandated performance targets, implement a freeze on salary increases for all employees until the targets are met.
7 - Three Strikes For Parents
If child welfare authorities have to intervene on behalf of a child three times, the parent is not serious about ending his/her abusive or neglectful behavior. After the third substantiated intervention, a child would immediately be turned over for placement into an adoptive home.
Kinship Care Reform:
8 - Give Kinship Caregivers 30 Days to Decide on Adoption
After the county's reunification efforts are terminated, kinship caregivers should be allowed no more than 30 days to decide whether to adopt / assume legal guardianship for that child or to give the child over to an adoptive family.
9 - Impose reporting requirements on state-supported adoption agencies
Just as child welfare agencies should be required to report their progress, adoption agencies should publish a twice-yearly report on their performance as indicated by a case-by-case overview that includes children's time to adoption and the characteristics of the family into which they are placed.
10 - End race-matching
Adoption decisions must be color-blind in practice, not just policy. It is clearly better for a child to be placed into a loving and stable home than to be left to languish in the impermanence of foster care.
11 - Impose a 30-day limit on adoption placement
If a state supported adoption agency has not permanently placed a child within thirty days of that child becoming adoption eligible, the agency must contract out to a private agency.44
Approaches similar to this have been very successful in Michigan, where the private sector is involved to create competition and accountability that, in the end, expedites the placement of a child into a permanent family.
Despite being given fifteen years and over $10 billion to accomplish their mission, California's child welfare agencies have failed to insert increased permanence and stability into the lives of foster children. A survey of the key performance indicators reveals that they have instead created an incentive structure that exacerbates the very problems they had intended to solve. When one considers the breadth of the system's failure on the backdrop of the resources it has been given, it becomes clear that we must abandon the standard approaches of higher spending and more programs in favor of a two-step approach that emphasizes accountability and innovation.
The first step is the reconstruction of the current funding mechanism. The funding structure must be rebuilt so that the county agencies are held accountable to the state. If we are to expect improvements in performance, the state must require the counties to meet specific goals and penalize them when they do not.
The second step is to seek out alternatives to the methods that the child welfare system currently employs. Even DSS officials recognize that the private sector can be relied on for more efficient and cost- effective provision of services at every level, from preventive services to adoption agencies. Such an emphasis would lead not only to improved performance but also to decreased costs.
While any discussion of the child welfare system must consider costs, structures, and accountability mechanisms, it is critical to not lose sight of the children beneath these terms. For decades children have been victims of a system that puts its own needs above theirs, and any effective reform must focus on providing children with stable and loving homes that will facilitate their growth and development. If the focus remains on effectively accomplishing this goal, structures that emphasize accountability and cost-effective provision will necessarily fall in line.
1. The Multistate Foster Care Data Archive at the University of Chicago (1994). Foster Care Dynamics, 1983-1992, Chicago, IL, pp. 10-11.
2. State of California Legislative Analyst's Office, ( January, 1996). Child Abuse and Neglect in California. Sacramento, CA, p. 26.
3. Foster Care Dynamics, 1983-1992, p. 22.
5. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 35.
6. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 39.
7. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 37.
9. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 38.
10. Barth, R.P.; Berrick J.D.; Courtney, M.; Albert, V.; From Child Abuse to Permanency Planning (1994) New York: Aldine De Gruyder, p. 111.
11. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 46.
13. Barth, et. al, p. 113.
14. Testimony of Peter Digre, Director, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, November 20, 1996.
15. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 43.
16. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 44.
17. Digre testimony, November 20, 1996.
18. Child Abuse and Neglect in California, p. 45.
21. Digre testimony, November 20, 1996.
22. See Schuerman, John. Putting Families First (1994). New York: Aldine De Gruyder.
23. Walter R. McDonald and Associates, Inc., "Evaluation of AB 1562 In-Home Care Demonstration Projects, Volume 1: Final Report." May, 1990, p. v.
24. McDonald and Assoc., p. 7.3.
25. Barth, et al., p. 110.
26. Barth, et al., p 154.
28. Barth, et al., p. 161.
29. Barth, et al., p. 163.
30. Gleeson, James "Kinship Care as a Child Welfare Service: The Policy Debate in an Era of Welfare Reform." Child Welfare, September-October 1996, p. 420.
31. Compiled from Barth, et al., pp 245-246, & Berrick, J.D.; Needell, B.; Recent Trends in Kinship Care: Public Policy, Finances, and Outcomes for Children, (in press), pp. 6-8.
32. Berrick and Needell, p. 19.
33. Barth, et al., p. 131.
34. Barth, et al. p. 121.
35. Barth, et al. p. 161.
36. Compiled from the Sacramento Bee, 8/13/95, p. A1, and the Sacramento Bee, 4/23/96, p. B1.
37. Los Angeles Times, 6/29/96, p. B1.
38. Los Angeles Times, 7/7/96, p. B4.
39. Report By Westat, Inc., in association with James Bell, Associates, Inc., and the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago: "A Review of Family Preservation and Family Reunification programs." Submitted to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, May, 1995. pp. 15- 16.
42. Child Welfare League of America, Child Abuse and Neglect: A Look at the States. Washington, D.C.: the Child Welfare League of America (1995) p. 68.
43. Digre testimony, 11/20/96.
44. This idea was originally pioneered by the Institute for Children in Boston, MA.
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