How policies improve the experiences of youth in foster care

Font, S. A., & Gershoff, E. T. (2020). Foster Care: How We Can, and Should, Do More for Maltreated Children. Social Policy Report, 33(3), 1–40.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although large-scale federal policy reforms on foster care are becoming more prevalent, there are still a lot of issues concerning the well-being of foster children.
    • One of the most recent examples of foster care reform is the Family First Prevention Act of 2018, which strives to decrease the use of foster care while simultaneously improving the quality of care. 
  • This report reviews how policy is affecting foster children. It also examines what policy has achieved and what needs to be improved.  
  • The researchers provide some recommendations to improve the experiences of youth in foster care. 
    • Provide more placement options for states with youth that have more needs. This can help decrease the reliance on congregate care, as well as improve the overall quality of foster care for youth.  
    • States should consider developing and testing different strategies of utilizing data (with federal assistance) to help promote better decision-making for youth at risk of entering the foster care system. 
    • Child welfare agencies have to be held accountable for the status and progress of each child in the foster care system, in addition to the state‐level aggregates of youth’s experiences. 
  • Findings emphasize the importance of conducting rigorous evaluations of process and impact (with child safety and well‐being external metrics) in order to innovate while maintaining accountability.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Foster care provides round‐the‐clock substitute care for nearly 700,000 U.S. children who are temporarily or permanently separated from their family of origin each year. Each state manages its own foster care system according to federal regulations. Despite numerous large‐scale federal policy reforms over the past several decades, substantial concerns remain about the experiences and outcomes of children in the foster care system. The most recent effort to reform foster care, the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, attempts to both reduce the use of foster care and increase the quality of care. In this report, we review how policy has shaped the experiences and outcomes of children in foster care, where policy has succeeded, and where it falls short of achieving its goals. We then identify opportunities for federal and state policy to better support the safety, health, and well‐being of children in foster care.

Implications (Reprinted from Policy Recommendations)

The Family First Prevention Services Act has turned necessary attention to the foster care system in this country. However, as we have demonstrated thus far, there are a number of aspects of the foster care system that were not addressed in the legislation or subsequent regulations. We also foresee several unintended consequences of the legislation that could be mitigated with state or federal action. Following is a summary of our policy recommendations for improving foster care.

  • To effectively scale down the use of congregate care and improve the quality of foster care for all children, states need a greater number and array of placement options for children with high levels of physical, mental, or behavioral health needs. To this end:
    • ‐States should develop the capability to track, in real time, the capacity, location, and licensure status of all public and private foster homes, as well as the number and characteristics of children for whom those homes are available (e.g., homes that will provide for teens). These data can be used to target foster home recruitment efforts and to quickly identify placement options for children in foster care.
    • ‐Agencies need to assess the suitability and service/training needs of potential foster parents and the quality of potential foster homes using standardized measures. These data should be available both for research to inform recruitment, retention, and service activities and for placement decision‐making.
    • ‐States should pursue some professional foster homes for foster children who require a stay‐at‐home caregiver with highly specialized skills.
    • ‐States and agencies must evaluate when kin placements may not be preferable to other foster care placements, such as when the child has no preexisting relationship with that kin or kin placement requires other sacrifices (e.g., separation from siblings, changing schools).
    • ‐States should evaluate and improve the quality of services and supports for foster and adoptive families to improve retention and placement stability. Allowing licensed foster families to change agencies without re‐completing the licensure process could incentivize agencies to provide high quality support for foster families and reduce foster family turnover.
    • ‐ACF should revise the National Foster Home Model Licensing Standards to explicitly prohibit the placement of a foster child with an adult who has ever been substantiated as having perpetrated child maltreatment or convicted of misdemeanor child abuse or endangerment in any U.S. state at any time in their adulthood, and to require child maltreatment background checks for all states in which a person has resided as an adult.
  • With federal support, states should develop and test strategies for using data to improve decision‐making for children in, or at serious risk of entering, foster care.
    • ‐Plans for CCWIS‐compliant data systems should include creation or expansion of birth match and predictive risk modeling to improve early detection and intervention for children likely to enter foster or who are at high risk of maltreatment.
    • ‐Competitive federal funding should be made available to develop and test strategies to match children likely to be freed for adoption with foster families open to adoption, and match children likely to reunify with their parents with foster families not planning to adopt.
  • Child welfare agencies need to be held accountable for the progress of each individual child through the foster care system as well as for state‐level aggregates of children’s experiences in the system. To this end:
    • ‐Measures used in the Federal Child and Family Service Reviews should be evaluated to determine whether and to what extent they are associated with child safety and well‐being. Measures that are not clearly associated with safety and well‐being should be discarded, and new measures that capture the quality of foster homes should be added.
    • ‐ACF should offer competitive grant funding for states to integrate health and well‐being outcomes into their child welfare data systems.
    • ‐Child welfare agencies should have up‐to‐date electronic access to medical, juvenile justice, and education records for all children with an active Child Protective Services or foster care case for the purposes of assessment, case planning, and service provision, and for research and evaluation. This will reduce delays or disruptions in health care when children enter or change placements in foster care.
    • ‐States should require that caseworkers and guardians ad litem independently assess and submit detailed information on child functioning and well‐being to the court for each permanency review hearing.

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