Since the 1980s, Washington State has never seen such low foster care rates.
Even Hunter didn’t brag about the numbers, possibly because he wanted them to go even lower. It’s not often that you hear the head of a state agency describe one of their main functions as cancer. But that’s how Hunter characterizes foster families, whose former students graduate from high school at worse rates than any other category of students – even homeless children.
And, in fact, about 33% of children in foster care end up becoming homeless. Consider that over 600,000 children across the country are placed in foster care each year, and you begin to feel the scale of this annual wave, putting thousands of young people homeless, and worse. It is no wonder that 30 states have been prosecuted for damage to children in their child protection systems.
These results, and the fact that they hit black and indigenous families harder than other groups, ultimately forced state bureaucrats to heed what once looked like a rather distant call from activists to “abolish them.” host families “. No, Washington is not about to completely dismantle its system. But advocates here – echoing a national outcry over the systemic inequalities that hamper communities of color – have made strong arguments to reduce it dramatically. The work is already underway. Between 2018 and 2020, foster care in Washington State decreased by 1,693 children, or 18%.
The gist of this debate is that all too often children are taken from their parents for reasons of poverty, not abuse. Hunter therefore focused his staff on assessing the physical security of a home and removing children only in the most extreme cases.
This spring, state lawmakers passed legislation enshrining this approach. I’ve written about some of its potential risks. But that shouldn’t obscure the larger point: Washington is about to radically change the way it approaches child welfare.
Its success will depend on the state’s ability to connect parents with services – from food banks or shelters to addiction and mental health counseling – before their problems become serious enough to threaten the safety of their families. their children. Hunter envisions a system where a mom or dad could request drug treatment and see an Uber arrive 20 minutes later, ready to take them to rehab. Rather than approaching every report of suspected child neglect as an accusation to be investigated, the new focus would treat each call as an indicator of a family in crisis.
“The vast majority of these parents are not horrible people,” said Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy at the Children’s Home Society of Washington, the state’s oldest nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment. ‘childhood. “We’re changing the narrative around parents and how we see them. “
That’s a huge turnaround for a 125-year-old agency traditionally focused on adopting children into new families – rather than helping families in need.
It doesn’t come out of nowhere. Twenty years ago, Chicago sociologist Dorothy Roberts published a damning review that described the overwhelming effects of foster families on families of color. At the time, she was considered a brand, well outside the mainstream. But last month Roberts reiterated her call for abolition during a keynote address at Columbia University, where she was adopted as a pioneering thought leader.
“What is called child protection is not a social service system,” said Roberts. “It’s a multibillion dollar device that terrorizes families by taking their children away from them.”
Roberts once considered herself a reformer. It was the Washington system that convinced her that her foster care was irreparable. Appointed to a panel of independent experts tasked with ensuring our state meets a series of court-ordered improvement goals, Roberts spent the years between 2004 and 2013 traveling back and forth from Illinois to a SeaTac conference room, monitoring progress. There were dozens of meetings, action plans, benchmarks and all the memberships that one could ask for. But after nine years, foster care as a system has stalled.
“We need a total paradigm shift,” said Roberts.
Selivanoff of the Children’s Home Society agrees. But she’s not calling for outright abolition – there are parents who kids are really not safe with, she says, though her take on who is and isn’t safe will back off some. people. For example, a mom or dad doesn’t have to be 100% drug-free, Selivanoff believes. Consider how many middle-class white pot smokers or two-cocktail after-work guys are never in danger of losing their kids, and you can see his take.
New Orleans provides a model of what our system might look like one day. In the early 2000s, juvenile court judge Ernestine Gray admitted that many child displacements were the result of social workers misinterpreting poverty as neglect. No food in the fridge? Don’t take the kids, just send the family to a food bank, Justice Gray would say. No electricity in the house? Keep the kids with their mom and help pay the utility bill instead. The state spends more on keeping children in foster care than on helping families in need, she notes.
As a result, while the number of children in foster care increased 8% nationally between 2011 and 2017, the number of children in New Orleans plunged 89%.
How have these children behaved since? Hard to say. Casey Family Programs, a private Seattle-based nonprofit, studied Justice Gray’s work but declined to release his report.
The keystone of the whole approach is, of course, the services. And this is where our plan still seems a little slack.
Hunter plans a statewide network of independently run resource centers where parents can seek help, instead of exposing their problems to child welfare social workers. (You don’t have to be a genius to understand why a mother may be reluctant to confess her struggles to someone who has the power to take her children for exactly the issues she just faced.) But for at the moment, most of these centers exist as pilots. programs or in small operations west of the mountains.
State Representative Carolyn Eslick R-Sultan, a former restaurant owner who champions efforts to create more, remembers when the light bulb lit for her. It was 1992, and one of her cooks had just made a third suicide attempt. The woman was a single mother of five, but she did not need to take her children away. She needed treatment for depression. For Eslick, this is precisely the type of scenario where family resource centers could make a difference. In fact, six have opened in his neighborhood since then.
Currently, Washington has 46 such sites – eight of which are operated by the Selivanoff organization – and there are plans to open 200 more over the next two years. Evidence from other parts of the country suggests that reports of child abuse are drastically decreasing in communities with these centers. Teller County, Colorado, reported declines of more than 57%.
This is how public policy moves slowly towards progress. The abolition of foster care seemed a long way off 20 years ago. Today, the idea is the center of attention at Columbia University and shapes the work of academics.
Even long-time bureaucrats like Ross Hunter are answering the call. If his plan works, we should have fewer homeless people and a lot more high school graduates.