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Foster Care: Recent Research and Practical Application

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the most recent federal legislation to attempt to deal with increasing numbers of children in foster care, cited three goals for children in the child welfare system: safety, permanency, and well-being. At the signing ceremony,
President Clinton said: "The new law will help us speed children out. of foster care into permanent families by setting meaningful time limits for child welfare decisions, by clarifying which family situations call for reasonable reunification efforts, and which simply do not. It will provide states with financial incentives to increase the number of children adopted each year. It will ensure that adopted children with special needs never lose their health coverage."

Has the 1997 legislation succeeded in its in tent to focus on child safety, permanency, and well-being? What, if anything, has changed in the past five years, and what still needs to be done to improve the status of children who enter the child welfare system?

School of Social Work Expertise

For answers to these questions, we turn to two faculty members and a recent graduate of the U-M Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science. William Meezan, the Marion Elizabeth Blue Professor of Children and Families, has made the well-being of children and families involved in the child welfare system his life's work. His current research, being conducted with Bowen McBeath, Ph.D. candidate, focuses on the impact of an incentivebased payment system, a form of managed care on the outcomes of children in foster care in Michigan. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an assistant professor who joined the School in 2001, was part of a research team that conducted important research on adolescents in Wisconsin as they age out of foster care, and has studied factors contributing to placement in foster care with relatives (called kinship foster care, kinship care, or kin care). David Crampton (PhD '01 ), Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, conducted his Ph.D. research in Kent County, Michigan on a practice called Family Group Decision Making (FGDM). Currently, FGDM and a similar process, Team Decision Making (TDM), are being piloted in other counties in Michigan. 


The 1997 Act is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to remedy problems in the child welfare system.

The first major legislation addressing the length of time children were in foster care was the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which encouraged preventative and reunification services, and mandated that agencies engage in permanency planning efforts. While these goals were accomplished initially, from the mid -1980s to the late 1990s there was a dramatic increase (74%) in children in out-of-home care, a rise in the length of time children remained in care and an increase in the number of children who re-entered care. At the same time, the foster care system faced new challenges, such as an increase in the number of very young children and teenagers, a continued but increasing overrepresentation of children of color, a larger proportion of children with emotional/behavioral problems and other special needs, more children infected/affected by HIV/AIDS, and the discharge from care of youths who lacked jobs and housing. More families whose children were entering care were affected by drugs, mental illness, domestic violence and poverty. Concurrently, there were fewer public adoptions of older children.

In the 1980s and '90s, the prevailing philosophy was to provide more family-centered services to intensify family preservation and reunification efforts. The Family Preservation and Family Support Program was passed in 1993, which added funding for family preservation services and services to reunify families. Despite the legislation and increased funding, the child welfare system struggled, and the number of children in out-of-home care continued to increase. According to the Voluntary Cooperative Information Service of the American Public Human Services Association, the number of children in the U.S. foster care system increased from 262,000 in 1982, to 400,000 in 1990, 507,000 in 1996 and 560,000 in 2001. 

Family Preservation vs. Adoption

Changes in legislation over the past twenty years reflect shifts in the ideological debate between those who favor family preservation and those who favor adoption. At its most simplistic, the debate pits the rights and needs of parents (family preservation) against the safety and welfare of children (adoption). Family preservationists argue that the child welfare system should be focused on rehabilitating the parent(s) so family reunification can occur, because children belong with biological parents. The adoptionists disagree, claiming that once a child goes into care due to parental/familial abuse or neglect, the parents' rights should be terminated quickly and efforts undertaken immediately for adoption, so as to avoid the damage caused by children moving between placements. The 1997 legislation shifted the emphasis towards
those who favor adoption, because it "clarifies which family situations call for reasonable reunification efforts and which do not."

Further complicating this debate is the growing likelihood that when a child is removed from the home, s/he will be in the care of other biological family members. In 2000, GroganKaylor published an important article on kinship foster care that examined reasons children were placed with relatives, rather than some other form of child welfare placement. The 1997 legislation encouraged placements with relatives as a more home-like alternative to out-of-home care. Anecdotal evidence suggests that children who are placed with relatives often are able to remain with siblings, live in the same neighborhood and/or attend the same school, thereby decreasing the trauma created by removal from the parental home. Grogan-Kaylor also found that children removed for reasons of neglect were more likely to be placed with kin than those removed because of physical or sexual abuse. 

Kinship care has increased in popularity because of a philosophical shift that emphasizes placing children with foster parents who share the child's cultural background. In addition, there are financial incentives for family members to care for children. The Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Youakim ( 1979) that if kinship foster parents meet the state standards, they are eligible for the same Title IV-E payments.

Service Delivery

Meezan and McBeath have been studying and evaluating the changes in child welfare service delivery in Michigan in response to the 1997 Act. Starting in 1998 in Wayne County, the Michigan Family Independence Agency contracted with six private nonprofit agencies to provide services using a performancebased, managed ca re fos ter care model.

Meezan and McBeath are conducting two interrelated studies: a process evaluation of the reimbursement system and an output evaluation on its impact. The process evaluation examines the impact on the organizational functioning of nonprofit providers who deliver social services. Interviews have been conducted in both pilot and non-pilot agencies with agency personnel. The output evaluation studies how the movement to managed care impacts the placement status of children in foster care and their families. Underlying the output perspective is the belief that effective child welfare policy is synonymous with a reduction in the time children spend in foster care.

Meezan disagrees with this belief, asserting that, "What is wrong with child welfare at this point is that it is driven by how effectively the system moves children through the system, as opposed to how the family and child are functioning and the condition of the child and family when a case is closed." From Meezan's perspective, the managed care model is primarily a cost containment effort that values movement through the system, but tells you little about the well-being of the child and his or her family. However, he is quick to admit that "well -being" is a difficult construct to define. 


Meezan and Grogan-Kaylor believe that the 1997 Act may have had some positive consequences, but they concur that no one is doing a good job looking at well-being, in no small measure because there is no universal definition of what constitutes well-being. There is a long list of factors that comprise well-being, including attention to physical, emotional, and psychological needs; feelings of security; healthy attachments and good bonding; resilience and coping skills; and access to quality health and mental health care.

For Meezan, the need to focus on well-being is part of his push to study program outcomes, rather than outputs. He would like to see more research on the impact of permanency decisions on children, parents, parent-child interactions, family functioning and social support networks.

The Twenty-Two Month Clock

Meezan is particularly concerned about one feature of the I 997 legislation that mandates a twenty-two month clock that is set in motion when a court order removes a child from the home. If a child is in care for fifteen of the past twenty-two months, the state must move to terminate parental rights, regardless of the age of the child or the parents' efforts at rehabilitation. The clock was established to move children out of foster care and into permanent families-a laudable goal, but the impact has been to create what Meezan calls "system orphans," children whose parents lose rights to them after this artificial twenty-two month period but the children have not yet been adopted.

Grogan-Kaylor cites statistics that demonstrate that, in many states, the point at which half of all children return home between one-and-one-half and two years. Therefore, if a child is out of the home for fifteen of the last twenty-two months, and parental rights are terminated, many children are prevented from going home. As Meezan notes, "If parents are making progress in their efforts to reunify the family, that's important. When you start bringing seven- and eight-year olds into the child welfare system, and they are ten when those twenty-two months have passed, who will adopt them? Parents lose their rights and children remain in foster care. They are not coming out of the system in a timely or acceptable way because they are not adoptable. They are not adoptable because we do not do a good enough job of recruiting families for them. These children tend to be minority children, they are older, and they end up growing up in care."

What is wrong with child welfare at this point is that it is driven by how effectively the system moves children through the system, as opposed to how the family and child are functioning and the condition of the child and family when a case is closed.

Transition out of Foster Care

As a Ph.D. student in social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grogan-Kaylor was involved with the Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study, which explored the post-care experiences of youths who had aged out of the foster care system. The first of three waves of interviews was conducted in 1995, before the youths had exited care. The second was in early 1998, after they had been out of care about twelve to eighteen months. The third was completed last year, but that data has yet to be tabulated and analyzed.

The key findings from the first and second waves included that neglect was the most common type of maltreatment both prior to and during placement, and 40% of the primary caregivers for children in care abused drugs or alcohol. Most troublesome were findings that foster youths reported more psychological distress than the norm for their age group and were more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than their peers. They had difficulty finding and keeping jobs, paying for medical care and experienced housing instability and homelessness. 

What Grogan-Kaylor's research team learned was, "Children enter out-of-home care under difficult circumstances, with the deck often stacked against them. lf one intent of the out-of-home care system is to prepare foster youth to compete with their more traditionally
domiciled peers in society, that intent is far short of realization. The experiences of the young adults in the study suggest that the child welfare system might be able to improve the passage of youths through independent living by building on family strengths while
minimizing negative family impact, providing an improved transitional safety net for those with the fewest life skills, and ensuring that former foster youth have access to health and mental health care during their move to self-sufficiency."

Turning Research into Practice

The results of the Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood study have affected both policy and practice. The findings were cited in one of the Senate drafts of The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 that allocated additional funding for transitional serYices for youth between eighteen and twenty-one. School of Social Work alumnus Alfred Perez (read his article on p. 16) advocated for this legislation and spoke at the President's signing ceremony at the White House in 1997.

Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) is another example of turning research into practice. Originating in New Zealand, the theory behind it is that biological relatives, fictive kin (church members, friends), and support people (public health nurses, teachers, and ministers) can work together to determine the best plan for the care and protection of children.

In 1994, Michigan's Kent County piloted FGDM as a possible solution to the overrepresentation of minority children in foster care and the lack of meaningful family and community member inclusion in the care of maltreated children. With funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Families for Kids Initiative, Kent County undertook a community visioning process to create a comprehensive strategic plan for the child welfare system, and developed the Family and Community Compact (FCC) . This voluntary program targeted children of color who were referred following substantiated maltreatment. With the agreement of the parents, the FCC staff organizes a meeting with the biological relatives, fictive kin and support people. The protective services worker and other staff present their case and concerns.

Following that, they leave the meeting and the family members and others attempt to develop a plan for placement. If they can agree to a plan, FCC members work with the family to connect them with community services. If they cannot agree to a plan, the children are placed in foster care, after which the FCC staff meets with the family every three months, with a goal of reaching a decision of whether or not to return the children home or to another permanent placement within one year. 

Crampton was involved with the FGDM program in Kent County from its inception. He and Deborah Willis, another student in the Joint Doctoral Program, were hired by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in 1995 to evaluate several child welfare programs in Kent County. They worked with the staff in determining how the program would work, how they would measure the steps in the process and provided them with evaluation data over a five-year period.

If one intent of the out-of-home care system is to prepare foster youth to compete with their more traditionally domiciled peers in society, that intent is far short of realization.

The Kent County FCC has been successful, reducing admission of children of color into foster care by over 20% between December 1995 and December 1998. These results were used to secure a federal grant that allowed the program to expand and serve all Kent County children, regardless of race or ethnicity. Most parents want to try FGDM because they wish to reunify their families. However, if reunification is not possible, some children remain in kinship care, but others end up in out-of-home placements.

According to Crampton, more children in Michigan could remain with kin families if the state provided subsidized guardianships to caregivers who do not want to go through the cumbersome bureaucratic process of becoming licensed foster parents.

With a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Family to Family Initiative, Michigan is piloting Team Decision Making (TDM) in J\1acomb and Wayne counties. TDM has the same underlying philosophy as FGDM, but has a shorter time line, uses Family Independence Agency staff to facil itate the meetings (rather than private agencies) and does not include private family meeting time. Crampton has recently started evaluating how TDM is used in Cleveland, Ohio. It will be several years before evaluation data is available to compare the two approaches.

Where do We Go?

According to Grogan-Kaylor, "Poverty is implicated in so much of families' involvement with the child welfare system. I believe that we need to think a lot more broadly, and that is beyond the purview of the child welfare system." Grogan-Kaylor and Meezan note that
neglect, maltreatment, domestic violence and substance abuse are highly correlated with poverty. If researchers and practitioners really want to prevent children from going into foster care, then the fundamental issue of poverty must be addressed.

Fortunately, these connections are being studied at several centers at University of Michigan, including the School of Social Work's National Institute of Mental Health-funded Center on Poverty, Risk and Mental Health. The goal of this center is to develop knowledge about the relationship betw"een poverty and mental health that will inform practice and policy.

It is our hope that the research being conducted at these centers will have an impact across the spectrum of child welfare policy and will lead to new solutions to the issues surrounding foster care.

- Robin Adelson Little is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. She is a past editor of Ongoing.

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