Doing Better by the Most Vulnerable Amongst Us: Our Nation’s Children in Foster Care

May is National Foster Care Month, which provides us an opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made on behalf of the vulnerable children and youth we have taken into our care. It also gives us an incentive to rededicate and redouble our efforts to ensure that every child in foster care has a real chance to reach their full potential. 

In recent years, our child welfare system has made significant strides. Today, there are almost 25% fewer children in foster care in the U.S. than there were in 2002. This reduction is a result of both fewer children entering foster care and more leaving to permanent homes by either returning to their parents after services have been provided, being adopted, or entering into a guardianship. These advances were possible because states across the country have been applying knowledge about the importance of family connections and stable, nurturing relationships, while collaborating with other child-serving systems to better meet the needs of the children in our care. Here are a few highlights of what this Administration has done to support to these efforts:

Over the last two years, the Department of Health and Human Services has  approved 17 new  projects to test innovative strategies aimed at increasing safety, permanency, and well-being of children in the foster care system and HHS is slated to approve up to 10 more by the end of this year.  Innovative approaches include safely transitioning children and youth from more institutional facilities into family settings, employing performance-based contracting so funding for providers is more closely tied to achieving better outcomes for children, and implementing new screening and assessment tools to better identify the unique needs of the children and families. 

Awarded $100 million for a 5-year Federal Permanency Innovations Initiative (PII) designed to improve permanency outcomes among foster care children who are most likely to stay in foster care the longest, such as children with serious mental health issues, older youth, and LGBT youth. One of these grantees, the University of Kansas, is using the funds to provide an intensive, in-home, evidence-based parent training program to help families of children ages 3-16 with serious emotional disturbance reunify with their families more quickly.  Another grantee, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, is using these funds to train child welfare workers on gay and transgender issues, creating a curriculum that can be duplicated nationally, and linking foster youth with services that are sensitive to their sexual orientation.

Awarded $25 million in federal funds, with an additional $10 million through philanthropic partners, to provide services that more effectively meet the needs of families experiencing chronic homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues, and child welfare involvement with housing. This initiative is designed to identify the most vulnerable families earlier and to provide the right set of targeted services such as preventing child abuse and neglect, reducing the number of foster care placements, and increasing housing and employment stability.

However, we can do better for the young people that remain in foster care. As of 2012, there were nearly 400,000 children in our nation’s foster care system on any given day and more than 23,000 youth age out of foster care each year.

For a youth who has aged out of foster care, the statistics paint a grim picture. They are more likely to face challenges with completing their education, access to health care, unemployment, homelessness, and the criminal justice system. We also know that there continues to be a disproportionate representation of African American and Native American children and youth in foster care.

The lives of children and youth should be improved, not diminished, by the foster care experience. One example of how the President has shown a way forward is through his proposal to fund a new initiative to reduce the over-prescription of psychotropic medications for foster care children. Studies have found that these children receive psychotropic medication at roughly nine times the rate of all other children served by Medicaid and nearly 25% of children in foster care may be on these medications on any given day. The President has proposed a concerted effort to increase access to timely and effective evidence-based screening, assessment, and treatment of trauma and mental health challenges. This strategy would help to reduce over-prescription of psychotropic medication as a first-line treatment strategy, improve a child’s emotional and behavioral health, and increase the likelihood that children and youth in foster care will leave to positive, permanent settings, with the skills and resources they need to be successful in life.

Building a child welfare system that responds more effectively to the traumatic impact of maltreatment and promotes social and emotional well-being is complex work. It also involves multiple fields and sectors – social services, health education, and housing, among others, both public and private. I know the President is dedicated to improving our foster care system to create better futures for the young people in our care.

To learn more about foster care, you can visit:

Cecilia Muñoz is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council
Related Topics: Working Families, Kansas
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