Drug addiction, especially to opioids, is behind a substantial increase in children entering the foster care system across the U.S. This dramatic surge is causing a crisis that’s forcing many states to change laws, as well as partner with local agencies, in order to care for children in need.
Drug Addiction and Foster Care: A Problem Across the Country
The opiate addiction epidemic currently spreading across this country is one of the worst drug crises in history, killing nearly 27,000 people a year, according to Frontline. It affects people of all races, ages and income brackets, and it’s leaving many states across the nation scrambling to help the unthought-of victims: children.
“In Ohio, where more than 9,900 children are in foster care and nearly half of those taken into custody last year had a parent using drugs, case workers are having a hard time placing children with relatives,” according to PBS. “By the time the children get to foster care…many of the adults in their extended family are addicted to opiates, too.”
Ohio isn’t the only state dealing with this issue. In Georgia, substance abuse is involved 40 percent of the time when children are removed from their homes. In California, specifically San Diego and Orange County, agencies have called for more people to become foster parents to help meet the growing need. Continue reading
When we think of why children are placed in foster homes, the first thing that comes to mind is their parents’ inability or unwillingness to care for them. A consultant in Arkansas, however, argues that the reason for a dramatic increase in the number of children entering foster care has less to do with the behavior of the parents and more to do with the decision making processes of the judges.
According to The Times Record, Arkansas’ Department of Human Services reported a 30% gain in the number of children entering foster care over the previous year. Co-founder of Hornby Zeller Associates, Dennis Zeller, spoke to the legislative Joint Performance Review Committee to give his thoughts on what prompted this dramatic increase.
“Families in Arkansas had not simply all of a sudden gotten worse,” said Zeller. “But the way that decisions were made, whether by the department or by the courts, were different.”
Zeller claims that, in many cases, the motivation for the judges’ decisions to remove children from their homes is rooted in a desire to punish parents rather than keep children safe from imminent danger.
What we’re supposed to be about is promoting the welfare of kids,” Zeller said. “That’s why they call it child welfare. Sometimes we forget that…”
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Congregate Care: The Case for Closure
Some believe that group homes and congregate care in general provide only a band-aid for a bigger problem. Though they do provide a necessary service, they are increasingly seen by child welfare agencies as an inadequate solution to the issues facing the national child welfare system. Aside from the fact that regulation varies from state to state (resulting in large differences in the handling of such facilities), group homes and Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs) often put children at a great distance from their families.
Buildings on Waisenhausplatz in Bern – Switzerland
One such group home employed by the state of New Jersey, Devereux, is actually located in Florida. Judge David Bazelon with the Center for Mental Health Law, writes:
“…far too many children are placed at a great distance from their homes. For example, most District of Columbia children in RTCs are placed outside the District—many as far away as Utah and Minnesota. Many families, especially those with limited means, find it impossible to have any meaningful visitation with their children.”
Bazelon continues on to suggest that although it is accepted that children do best in close proximity to their families and with consistent parenting, many governments still rely on distant, out-of-state facilities. To further complicate the problem, residential treatment centers are “inherently artificial” environments, where the child is unlikely to encounter any of the behavior triggers one might encounter outside of an institution. In a bleak reminder of the consistent care that children require, Bazelon goes on to cite a study that shows nearly 50% of children in an RTC get readmitted, and “75% were either re-institutionalized or arrested.”
The use of psychotropic medicine on foster children remains a hotly debated topic. When we polled our readers in our September 2014 issue, the majority believed that the drugs, when given in conjunction with therapy, were an acceptable treatment option. Some, however, believed the drugs can do more harm than good. In that same issue, we reported on a story from Mad in America’s website that asserted the longer children are in foster care the more likely they are to be taking psychotropic medication. Recent news informs us that this trend continues.
The San Diego Union Tribune reports that a 2016 audit of the use of psychotropic drugs in the California foster care system raises serious concerns. The audit “…found that nearly 12 percent of California’s more than 79,000 foster children were prescribed psychotropic medication during the year studied, compared to an estimated 4 percent to 10 percent of non-foster children.”
But the number of children on psychotropic medications isn’t the audit’s most troubling finding.
The audit revealed a startling lack of oversight on the part of California’s county caseworkers. Incomplete and/or inaccurate case notes resulted in workers not knowing which drugs were prescribed to each child, putting children at risk for overdoses and dangerous side effects from drug interactions.
Additionally, caseworkers frequently violate California state law by failing to obtain parental or court approval before securing psychotropic medicine for children in foster care.
“We are failing our foster children,” said California State Auditor Elaine Howell in an interview with KCRA.
What ever happened to the word “orphanage?” It seems like a word that lives exclusively in the past, floating in-between songs in the musical Annie or sweeping chimneys in 18th Century England. With the media-sensationalized images of poor, dirty children crowded together in a dusty bunk room while wiping floors and singing songs, it can be easy to forget that orphanages are the ancestors of modern day foster care.
Today, through increased government oversight and involvement in the needs of displaced youth, the foster care system primarily focuses on placing children into families and away from generalized group housing. However, these communal living arrangements have not disappeared entirely and are now called “congregate care”. Group Homes, Residential Treatment Centers and other forms of community-based living have been embraced in place of the archaic orphanage in the hope that children will be better served. Despite the fact that these congregate care facilities are a vast improvement over the unregulated, impersonal and sometimes cruel orphanages of the past, they are not entirely problem-free. Why is it that group homes and treatment centers across the country are closing their doors? What services did these facilities provide and how will states care for the children who were making use of them? To examine these issues, it is critical to have a clear definition of congregate care in mind.
Throughout the United States foster, adoptive and kinship parents take in children who aren’t there own in order to shelter and protect them from abuse and neglect. These parents are there for the nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system. But what happens when they’re not? Some states are experiencing foster parent shortages right now.
After several years of decline, the number of children in foster care nationwide has started to rise again.
Beginning in 2013, the number of children in foster care rose to 402,378, or nearly 1 percent, from 397,000 the year prior. That figure increased by 3.5 percent in 2014 to more than 415,000, according to the New York Times.