A Critical Look At The Foster Care System:
How Great the Need?


Today, over half a million children are in foster care in the United States. The vast majority of these children have been removed from their homes without legal excuse or justification. Psychologist and author Dr. Seth Farber explains:

Only a small minority of these children have been separated from parents who are dangerous to them. The overwhelming majority have been separated from loving and responsible parents. One does not need to be a child psychologist to realize the devastating effect of removing a child from parents with whom he or she is deeply bonded.[1]

The number of children removed from their homes is staggering, and by many accounts continues to increase. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, for example, confirmed during the 1990s that it removed over 1,000 children per month from their homes.[2]

Do these children really all come from families who are so abusive and neglectful of their children that they need to be removed from their homes?

“The majority of parents who come before our court love their children,” explained Denise Kane, Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, to a Congressional subcommittee. “Their children look to them with love and seek the attention and nurturing of their parents.”[3]

A 1990 study conducted in Illinois by the Chapin Hall Center for Children would bear this out. At least 40% of the children in foster care found the reasons for placement confusing, while one-third of them did not even know why they had a caseworker.[4]

In Los Angeles County, California, 26,947 children entered the foster care system for the first time in 1995.[5]

Did these children truly all arrive from abusive or neglectful households? Just as in Illinois, many could safely have been left in their own homes, according to the testimony of Department head Peter Digre.

Under questioning by a Congressional subcommittee, Digre admitted to legislators that about half of the removals of children from their homes in his system are due to poverty, and not abuse or neglect.

“It gets down to those very specific issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care, and thing like that,” he explained, adding, “about half of the families are not physical abusers, not sexual abusers, not people with propensities to violence but simply people who are struggling to keep ends pulled together and are eminently salvagable.”

This was too much for a frustrated Congressman Herger, who replied: “Evidently, it is your department’s practice to remove children from families in about 50 percent of the cases because they don’t have enough money.”[6]

In Sacramento, California, child protective services caseworkers removed an estimated 400 children per month during the late 1990s–up from previous levels of 200 per month. Authorities reviewed cases that in some instances stemmed from five-year-old reports, conducting random sweeps of homes late at night without search warrants.

The majority of the children removed in these midnight raids have not necessarily been abused or neglected, rather they are determined to be “at risk” of abuse or neglect at some point in the future.[7]

How did it come to pass that so many children could be unnecessarily removed from salvagable and loving homes without inspiring public outrage? Professor of social work Leroy Pelton explains:

In the 1960s and 1970s, a child abuse crusade, based upon the discovery of the “battered child syndrome,” and the social construction of child abuse as a social problem of “epidemic” proportions, served to drive the explosion in foster care placements, fueled by new child abuse and neglect reporting laws, public awareness campaigns, and increased funding for social services, much of which was used for foster care.[8]

“Increased reporting has led to a dramatic rise in the number of children who are taken away from their parents and placed into foster care,” writes Douglas Besharov, the founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

In 1963, no state had a law mandating the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect. By the 1980s, all 50 states had such laws in place, and as a result of these new reporting laws, scores of children have been inappropriately removed from their homes. Besharov explains:

In 1963, about 75,000 children were put in foster care because of abuse or neglect. In 1980, the figure had ballooned to more than 300,000. Of these children about half had been in care for at least two years, and roughly one-third for over six years. Yet, according to data collected for the federal government, it appears that up to half of these children were in no immediate danger and could have been safely left in the care of their parents.

Vague laws “set no limits on intervention and provide no guidelines for decision making,” Besharov explains, adding that they are “a prime reason for the system’s inability to protect obviously endangered children even as it intervenes in family life on a massive scale.” Without exception, efforts to develop more precise laws have been met with resistance and hence have been unsuccessful.[9]

“County child protection agencies differ somewhat in their definitions of what constitutes maltreatment,” explains the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. “The result is a system of widely varying practices and standards, sometimes operating without the full confidence of the public or the professionals who make many reports of maltreatment.” The lack of clear definitions also leads to widely differing substantiation and child removal rates among county agencies, as the Auditor explains:

some county agencies require evidence of an injury “such as a bruise” before determining that maltreatment has occurred, while other agencies do not. Some county agencies think it is acceptable for children ages seven or older to be left unsupervised, while others do not. Some counties rarely if ever determine that caregivers have caused “mental injuries,” while other counties frequently–and sometimes without psychiatric or psychological diagnoses–justify maltreatment determinations on the basis of mental injury.[10]

Federal financial incentives contribute to the crisis. While federal funds for the maintenance of children in foster care have historically been unlimited, monies that could have been used to provide in-home services have been appropriated at levels far below that authorized by Congress. And, many of those funds appropriated by the states for in-home services have historically been diverted instead to foster care.[11]

Current child welfare policies extract a high fiscal cost, in addition to the toll they extract on innocent families and children. As veteran journalist and author Richard Wexler explains:

Half the children now in foster care could safely be in their own homes if proper services were provided. Now, the federal government spends eight times more on children in foster care than on services to keep children out of foster care.[12]

Indeed, a Los Angeles Grand Jury investigation revealed that it costs up to $10,000 to maintain a child in the County’s emergency shelter for just one month of time.[13]

The tragic reality is that while a small fraction of this amount would serve well to eliminate the “issues about a place to live, food on the table, medical care” and other factors leading to placement which Los Angeles’ director Peter Digre described, his Department continues to remove children from their homes at an astounding rate.

“There are no family oriented, preventive services to keep children from coming into State care and no reunification services for children who come into State care,” explained District of Columbia Bar Association Attorney Diane Weinroth to a Congressional committee.

Not only is this appalling in terms of the emotional costs to the children and families, she said, but “it is ridiculous because the cost of keeping children in State care is enormous.”

“The cost of providing services to children in family settings, or with their natural families, is a fraction of the cost, generally speaking, than it takes to keep a child in the care of the State.”[14]


Perhaps the best indication of how many children could be averted from inappropriate placement is suggested by a diversion program established in Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee.

In a study sponsored by the Urban Institute during the early 1970s, it was found that children were often inappropriately entering state care. Child welfare services consisted of a hodgepodge of different agencies lacking in coordination.

Professor of social work Duncan Lindsey describes what happened once these children entered the system:

Once in, the bureaucratic door closed behind them, and they found it hard to get out. Bureaucratic inertia suddenly asserted itself. Procedures had to be followed. Forms filled out. Hearings held. Interviews. More forms. No one wanted to take responsibility for releasing children back to a possibly dangerous home environment. The burden of proof shifted from the agency, which, in its view, had acted correctly in removing the children, to the parents who must now prove definitively why their children should be allowed to return home. The system designed to serve children and families had lost sight of its mission.[15]

As a result of this study, and through a joint initiative between federal, state and local government, the Comprehensive Emergency Services program was established, the first objective of which was to “reduce the number of dependency petitions filed and the number of children entering into they system by screening out those cases where a petition was not justified.”

Through a combination of screening, coordination and provision of services, remarkable results were obtained.

As a result of the CES program, the number of dependency petitions dropped sharply–from 602 before the program started to 226 two years later. “This was achieved largely by screening the number of petitions sworn out and averting or preventing the inappropriate placement of children in care,” notes Lindsey.

What is even more remarkable is that the number of cases coming to the attention of the system increased from 770 to 2,156 during the course of the program–an increase of 180 percent. Thus, while the number of potential entrants increased threefold during the course of the program, the number of actual admissions into care dropped by two-thirds.

The number of children removed from their homes and placed into care declined from 353 to 174, a decline of about 50 percent. The number of children placed in residential facilities was reduced from 262 to 35, a decrease of more than 85 percent. Perhaps most significantly, the number of children under six who were admitted dropped from 180 to zero.

But diverting placement would prove to be futile if the child showed up again due to continuing abuse or neglect. This did not appear to happen. The number of children for whom petitions were initially filed and who turned up again by the end of the following year due to abuse or neglect declined from 196 to 23.

The remarkable success of this program notwithstanding, it has yet to be replicated on any meaningful scale.


The inability on the part of many child protective services caseworkers to differentiate between poverty and neglect is a major contributing factor to the continued inappropriate removals of children from their homes, argue many system critics.[16]

Close to 85 per cent of the cases agencies label as neglect are actually poverty cases, says Trevor Grant, former Director of Social Services of the New York City Child Welfare Administration, and removing children from their homes is often the safest course of action for a caseworker to take:

For the most trivial reasons families are destroyed. If the furniture is broken down or the house is messy, CWA workers will remove the child. When in doubt, the safest practice for the workers is to remove the children and then to file neglect charges that never have to be proved in court.[17]

Two Massachusetts studies serve to demonstrate the inextricable link between poverty and child removal.

Contrary to the results one might expect, in a study of abused and neglected children entering a hospital emergency room it was found that the severity of a physical injury served to decrease the likelihood of a child being placed outside of the home.

Specifically, the researchers found that the highest predictor of removal was not the extent of a given physical injury, but rather whether or not the family was Medicaid-eligible.[18]

In a follow-up study of 805 children, researchers found that the degree of physical injury to a child only became statistically significant in the reporting of child abuse when the family’s income was excluded from the analysis.[19]

The consequences of vague statutes, increased reporting, and poor decision making among child protective services caseworkers are everywhere to be found.

In Los Angeles, lawyers at the office of Public Counsel reviewed every abuse and neglect petition filed in the county during one week in 1987. They found 30% of the petitions to be so groundless that they should never have been filed at all.[20]

Two years later in Seattle, Washington, the Governor’s Commission on Children came to the same conclusion, finding that 30% of the petitions filed were for children who did not need to be in foster care.[21]

In Illinois, researchers for the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta examined cases in three Illinois cities in 1994, conducting interviews with parents, foster parents, and caseworkers. Again, the researchers reached exactly the same conclusion. Reports the Chicago Tribune:

The Child Welfare Institute determined that in one-third of the cases, there was absolutely no reason for the children not to be home with their parents. The children were in foster care for the protection of their caseworker, not for their own safety.[22]

Defensive social work of the variety identified by the Child Welfare Institute would appear to permeate the field. In 1997, for example, removals of children from their homes in the Tampa Bay area of Florida reportedly doubled after a child known to the CPS system died.[23]

Similarly, according to Faye Moore, a senior official with the New York Social Services Employees Union Local 371, many of the removals of children from their homes that followed the tragic death of Elisa Izquierdo were unnecessary:

People are working not to make mistakes, and that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the children. How so? Unnecessary removals.[24]

If the vague statutes, increases in reporting, defensive social work and poor decision making in the field aren’t enough to ensure that a large number of children will be unnecessarily removed from their homes, one other factor is certain to do it.

The Children’s Defense Fund undertook a comprehensive review of the child welfare system. Project coordinator Jane Knitzer explained the studies findings to a Congressional committee, identifying as a major finding that “there is an antifamily bias that pervades the policies and practices of the child welfare system. The system works against families, not for them.”

The children in care are subject to continuing neglect at the hands of public officials, she explained, adding that the federal role exacerbates both the antifamily bias and the public neglect of children.

This antifamily bias is “reflected at all points in the placement process,” she explained, adding that as a result: “Children are inappropriately removed from their families.”[25]

Worse, as child protective services caseworkers lack an empirically validated knowledge base to guide them in their decision making, they often fall back on hunches, or gut instinct. A user manual for child protective services supervisors issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages the case manager to “analyze intuition without stifling creativity and spontaneity,” explaining:

As caseworkers gain confidence, they begin to act on hunches, common sense, and intuition. Supervisors should assist caseworkers to validate these instincts by helping them analyze what led to the intuition.[26]


Responding to mounting criticism on one side about the high number of wrongful removals, and criticism on the other about the large number of children who manage each year to die under the watchful eye of child protective servises, the industry devised another gimmick to aid the social worker in making appropriate decisions.[27]

Enter the risk-assessment matrix–a checklist of “risk factors” typically used to aid the caseworker in predicting the likelihood of abuse or neglect at some point in the future.

“Risk assessment can be defined as the systematic collection of information to determine the degree to which a child is likely to be abused or neglected at some future point in time,” researchers explain.[28]

Dozens of variants have been identified as being in use throughout the states. Some have as few as a handful of risk factors, while some others have several dozens of factors grouped together in various ways. These assessment tools are typically experimental and unvalidated in design, with some researchers having identified only half of the factors typically employed in their design as having been subjected to any empirical testing whatsoever.[29]

Like others among the many “solutions” devised to improve the severe deficiencies that plague the child welfare system, the risk assessment device would only appear to have made things worse.

“Many agencies have acted prematurely, implementing risk assessment instruments that have not been adequately designed or researched,” writes Stanford University Law Professor Michael Wald with Maria Woolverton in the industry journal Child Welfare.

“It is not possible to to make highly accurate predictions of risk with existing instruments.” Nevertheless, they have gained an almost uncritical acceptance in the field of child welfare, as Wald and Woolverton explain:

Unfortunately, some child protective services (CPS) agencies appear to be using risk-assessment instruments in an unjustifiable manner, given the limited knowledge base regarding the validity of these instruments. Moreover, we are concerned that many agencies are adopting risk-assessment instruments in lieu of addressing fundamental problems in existing child protection systems, such as the excessive number of inexperienced or incompetent workers and the lack of adequate resources. In fact, use of inadequately designed or researched risk-assessment instruments may result in poorer decisions, because workers will rely on mechanical rules and procedures instead of trying to develop greater clinical experience.[30]

But if there is one thing these assessment tools would appear to have in common, it is that they virtually define poverty conditions as indicating “neglect” on the part of parents. Among the countless factors typically included are such things as “dirty or unkempt home,” “children’s clothing torn or dirty,” “lack of pride in neighborhood,” “poor and unsafe living conditions,” “family can only afford inadequate housing,” “leaky faucets,” and “exposed wiring.”[31]

Hence, it should come as no surprise that whenever a close review of the foster care population is undertaken, it is revealed that a significant portion of children in care should never have entered the system to begin with, and that the majority of children in the foster care system come from poor families.

Sociologist John Hagedorn, a reform-minded administrator who spent two and a half years trying to reform the Milwaukee social services bureaucracy explains the results of one recent analysis:

After foster care cases were categorized by social workers and reviewed by a panel of experts, we found that most children did not need to be in foster care at all. The social workers and our expert panel agreed that a third of all children in foster care could immediately reunited with their families, if family preservation services were available . . .

The panel found another third of all children in foster care were in placement with relatives and in need of few services, and that only one-sixth of these cases could legitimately be categorized as having no chance of reunification.[32]

Consistent with these findings is a 1992 report issued by the Little Hoover Commission in California, which determined that only 19.9% of removals of children were due to allegations of physical or sexual abuse. The report concluded:

The Commission finds that the State’s foster care system runs contrary to the preservation of families by unnecessarily removing an increasing number of children from their homes each year. Moreover, the children in the foster care system are staying in the system longer. As a result, the State’s costs continue to skyrocket and children continue to be harmed by the removal from their families.[33]

The Philadelphia Daily News reports that a recent study sponsored by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation concluded that for every 1,000 children placed in the state’s care, only 30 were victims of actual abuse.[34]

The 3 percent figure mirrors reporting trends, as only 3 percent of the the millions of reports frequently represented as “reports of child abuse and neglect” actually involve allegations of severe physical abuse.[35]

How can so many hundreds of thousands of children be needlessly torn from their homes? Aren’t reasonable efforts to prevent removal required? Don’t child protective workers first have to visit the home and conduct an investigation?

Not according to Dennis Lepak, a Deputy Probation Officer from California, who told a Congressional subcommittee:

Most tragically, children are placed with little or no services to prevent their removal from families. Children are often removed from homes that no representative of the removing agency has even visited.

“Decisions to remove children are based on information from old reports, office interviews, and phone calls. Caseload sizes dictate this approach,” adds Lepak. “We cannot deliver the child the required services, or the family, so we deliver the child alone to the group homes.”[36]

Marcia Robinson Lowry, speaking at the time as an attorney with the Children’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, identified failure to provide reasonable efforts to prevent placement as a nationwide problem, having told a Congressional subcommittee: “reasonable efforts are not made in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of cases across the country.”[37]

The modest requirement to provide some reasonable effort to prevent placement in foster care was the result of hearings held over a period of several years, over the course of which it was found that children were often being unnecessarily removed from their homes.[38]

“In fact, there were many instances then, as now, of children being removed unnecessarily from families. It is important to recognize that children almost always are traumatized by removal from their own family,” explained the Child Welfare League of America during more recent hearings.[39]


“A 1986 federal study evaluating child welfare caseworkers found that up to two-thirds of substantiated cases of child maltreatment involved no actual wrongdoing on the part of parents,” writes author Dana Mack.

Many removals of children into foster care are “capricious actions of ‘preventive intervention’ — undertaken on a caseworker’s presumption that though a child’s home situation poses no immediate dangers or deprivations, it might sometime in the future,” argues Mack.

In examining studies conducted by the American Humane Association during the mid-1980s, Mack found that half of the families child welfare agencies compelled to undergo therapeutic services for child maltreatment had never mistreated their children at all.[40]

And these therapeutic services are foisted on families on a massive scale. Douglas Besharov notes that even after the extensive screening of reports that takes place, as of the mid-1980s, roughly 400,000 families across the country were being “supervised” by child protective agencies, compelled to accept such “treatment services” under threat of court action.[41]

Beyond these numbers are very real children. How do these figures translate into human terms?

One foster mother from Utah has had 40 children in her care. She recounts: “Sometimes it’s real rewarding to see them get back to where they should be. I only had one child that was really physically abused.”

If only one of the foster children she cared for had been abused, what of the other thirty-nine that had passed through her home? “. . . I have a problem when parents repeatedly fail treatment plans and kids bounce back and forth. Luckily, we’ve had only two or three of those.”[42]

In other words, most or all of the other thirty-nine children who were not abused had been removed from their homes in order to coerce their parents into complying with the “treatment plans” imposed by the Department of Social Services.

In a case which the 1991-92 Santa Clara Grand Jury reviewed, the principal of a school reported suspected “emotional abuse” to the local Department of Family and Children’s Services, based on a comment a student had made. The parent was given one hour’s notice of the detention hearing, and as a result failed to attend. His daughter was taken from his care. This occurred in 1991 and the Jury found, as of May 1993, that the student still remained out of her home.

In its review of this case the Grand Jury did not find any reasonable evidence of abuse on the part of the parent. What was found was a parent who appeared to care greatly for his daughter and her welfare but would not admit to something he did not do. His refusal to admit to abuse was viewed as a lack of cooperation on his part; therefore, his child was not returned.[43]

The children know they belong with their families, and not in the hands of strangers.

According a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, lengthy interviews conducted with children and parents from 200 randomly sampled cases revealed no surprises. Parents who were separated from their children felt they had been unfairly separated. As for their children, the article continues:

At least 80% of the children, asked to name three wishes, mentioned that they wanted to be with their mother or father. Many tended to believe that the separation was their fault.

Not only are child protective workers quick to tear children away from their families, but they are slow to return them as well.

The same article cites a 1992 University of Southern Maine study of the state of Kansas, which found that in 86.8 per cent of cases where a child was put in foster care, the state failed to make the required reasonable effort to reunite him with his parents.[44]

A similar situation is to be found in the District of Columbia. In a landmark suit initiated by the Children’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Court determined that the agency had:

consistently failed to provide services or otherwise use “reasonable efforts” to prevent placement. The result has been an increased risk of arbitrary or inappropriate placements as well as an increased cost to the District.

Just as the agency often failed to provide any services to prevent the removal of children from their homes, the Court found the agency “consistently failed to provide services once children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care.”

Based on case records of the children in foster care as of December 1989 whose goal was return home and who had entered into care through voluntary placement, the Court found the agency “had failed to provide services in 77 percent of their cases.”[45]

In Illinois, Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Robert A. Smierciak chided child welfare officials for failing to rectify a lingering problem of child-care workers–failing to show up for scheduled court appearances without explanation.

According to statistics compiled by the Cook County public guardian’s office, during three weeks in May of 1994, 106 child welfare workers failed to appear for cases assigned to courtrooms that handle abuse and neglect cases. As a result, several children remained separated from their families, remaining instead in dangerous foster care placements.[46]

Douglas Besharov was invited to testify before the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families in 1987, in his capacity of director of the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect.

During his testimony, Besharov called for better screening procedures and improved intake methods. He also cited the need for training and educational programs that would set clear definitions of abuse and neglect. He continued, defining the standards that ought be applied in cases of state intervention:

[S]tates should be required to demonstrate that they are making efforts to prevent children from being removed from their homes without an appropriate investigation–unless they appear to be in imminent danger.[47]

This is not to suggest that there is no need for foster care. Sadly, some children do require a safe haven from chronic abuse or neglect. The greatest tragedy is that those children in true need of placement often are not identified–even in the event that they come to the attention of the system–while those for whom placement is inappropriate are removed from their homes by the hundreds of thousands. As professor of social work Leroy Pelton explains:

It is my belief that not only are there many children in foster care who should not have been placed there, but that there are other children who are being wrongfully left in their natural homes. In short, children are being removed from their homes in the wrong cases and being left at home in the wrong cases. Furthermore, it is my belief that if only those children were placed in foster care who actually need it, we would have very few children in foster care.[48]


The press plays its role in the molding of public perception. That perception is one largely based on sensationalized accounts of relatively infrequent occurrences of brutality at the hands of parents. Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed a landmark suit against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, responds to such sensationalized coverage as provided by the Chicago Tribune, writing:

Incredibly, there is another side which often is at least as bad and is rarely reported by the media. Those are the tragic situations in which children are needlessly removed from their homes or not reunited with their families when more appropriate, less expensive services would keep the family together.

“The cases that grab headlines and the attention of columnists are of course the ones in which the unrehabilitated parent regains custody only to inflict injury again,” writes Wolf.

“But by not telling about the often silent suffering of perhaps thousands of children who could be reunited with their families with just a little bit of help, we all reinforce an atmosphere in which case workers will be forced needlessly to shatter families contrary to the best interests of the children.”[49]

Foster care was never intended as a holding ground for children while caseworkers conduct an investigation, or as a coercive tool to enforce compliance with social worker demands. It was intended to offer an alternative home-like environment for those relatively few unfortunate children who are truly subject to an abusive home environment.

The sad reality is that it is all-too-often misused by child protective services caseworkers who are less than capable of conducting an adequate assessment, or who fear liability for their failure to remove a child who is subsequently injured. As professor of social work Duncan Lindsey points out: “Caseworkers in doubt about a child’s situation make the safe decision to remove a child.”[50]

As a result, the number of children removed from their homes has reached staggering proportions. It is precisely because the system is so flooded with children who don’t belong there that tragedies in state care continue to mount.