June 3, 2011

Department of Mom and Dad?

One in twelve children in the US live outside their biological home. But few receive the resources they need despite laws requiring safe and stable out-of-home care. Some in child welfare - from government agencies to nonprofits to individual activists and caregivers -- are banding together to help fill in the gaps.

By: Serita Cox

Today we have a guest blog from my friend and former Bridgespan colleague Serita Cox on the state of funding and potential paths forward for child welfare services. Serita recently left Bridgespan to start up www.ifoster.org, a nonprofit focused on supporting foster youth and families. Talk about social innovation—in the seven months since launching the site last fall, ifoster.org has enrolled 5,600 members supporting 575,000 foster youth in the country. The child welfare departments of 30 states have distributed their on-line offerings to their beneficiaries. Over this same period ifoster has already saved its members some $4 million on goods and services—no small amount in an age of declining public funding. Please check her site out for a great example of how market incentives and nonprofit initiative can help mitigate gaps in public funding of and support for the social safety net.

One in twelve children in the US live outside their biological home. Close to one million each year will be removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect and placed with strangers in foster care. The other 6.5 million are dumped on relatives, mainly Grandma, by either parents who can’t or won’t live up to their responsibilities, or government agencies who believe that living with kin is best. Trouble is, Grandma then needs to move out of her seniors-only retirement home and give up her life to live in public housing with her grandkids and figure her way through food stamps, individualized education programs and cyber-bullying.

And those caring strangers in foster care who open their homes to our abused or neglected children, they don’t fare much better. Over 50-percent won’t last a year because severe underfunding, lack of support and lack of influence in the child’s future cripple them. On average foster parents receive only 64-percent of what it actually costs to feed, clothe, and provide for school for these children from the government, paying the rest out of their own pockets. In 14 states, they receive less than 25-percent of what it actually costs. And like Grandma, they often feel unprepared. For example, not being told their foster child is allergic to peanuts and shows signs of dyslexia. Don’t blame the social worker; she didn’t know. The little girl’s physical and mental health records have yet to reach her case file at the Department of Social Services from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the local pediatrician, and local mental health clinic all of whom are following their privacy procedures for safeguarding her information.

Outraged? I am. The government, under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, is required to provide safe and stable out-of-home care for these children—it is the law. This open-ended entitlement that conjures up images of white picket fences and rosy cheeked children heading to school where their one-on-one tutoring gets them back up to grade-level in no time. But one law can’t replace Mom and Dad. Despite being uncapped, it can’t even provide financially for the children in formal foster care, let alone the millions living on social security and food stamps with Grandma. Back in the Great Depression when the orphan act was created, no one envisioned the government needing to support one in twelve of our children to adulthood or the fact that adulthood is taking longer to attain. Today, on average, parents support their children until age 24. Even in 1980, when Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act to make funding more flexible and available to child welfare programs, we did not know of the parentless-epidemic looming on our horizon. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of families in grandparent-headed households without either parent present increased by 53-percent. As of the 2000 Census some 4.5 million children are living with their grandparents.

A decade later, we are starting to take action. While funding gaps still exist (in the billions of dollars) for essential services that provide basic needs, structural impediments are easing. In 2008, Congress passed the Fostering Connections Act with provisions to both support youth to the age of 21 and to support Grandma. Government agencies are banding together, realizing they need to act more parental. In California, the departments of social services, health, mental health, education, and courts are working through how to share what is typically private and confidential information about a child so that their caregivers at least have complete health records. In Florida, private agencies are now serving child welfare under contracts based on outcomes. They’ve expanded their services to include prevention programs with parents and case management to help Grandma. Kinship Navigator programs are popping up from coast-to-coast. For example, the Grand Divas of Rhode Island, grandparents with grandkids, man call centers to help other grandparents acting as parents. Independent Living Programs are asking transition-age youth for their input on their lives and helping them plan. Independence is no longer something that just happens on your 18th birthday, but must be prepared for, supported, and owned. There is a realization that these seven million children need more than any single department, non-profit, association, or private agency can provide. Replacing Mom and Dad, or, better, helping Mom and Dad make it work, takes a village. Coordinating the village to provide seamless parental care is our challenge. Let’s hope it doesn’t take us another decade or two to figure this out.

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