FCYU125 cover image See all stories from issue #125, Summer 2016

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Introduction: Into Care, or Not?
Represent staff
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Nobody wants to be in the foster care system. For most youth, it’s traumatizing to be taken away from the only family they’ve ever known and sent to live with strangers. And foster care isn’t a guarantee of a safer or better home. Due to a shortage of foster parents, many youth find themselves facing abuse or neglect in foster care that’s as bad as or worse than the situations that sent them into care.

But sometimes you need to leave a parent who hurts or neglects you. And sometimes kids do find safety, support, and love in a foster home or from committed workers. The challenge for the system is to remove youth only from genuinely harmful situations—and help other families stabilize by giving parents the support they need to safely care for their kids at home.

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There are many reasons why foster care systems never get it exactly right. Every family is unique, and the problems of poverty (the majority of children who go into foster care come from poverty) are complex.

Lately there has been a push toward preventive services for a struggling family rather than removal. A federal bill was introduced to give states more leeway to spend their foster care dollars on prevention rather than foster homes. Preventive services include educational and vocational counseling and training. They also include therapeutic and preventive health care, housing services, legal services, child care and home help. Still others are transportation and emergency cash help, parent training, drug treatment, and anger management classes. In this issue, Erica Harrigan Orr, mother of four, writes about how preventive services from Child Protective Services and the mental health system held her family together over the past nine years. And our colleagues at Youth Today contribute a story about how several new preventive programs in New York City are working.

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There are several reasons for this shift toward treating a family rather than dividing it. Researchers have found that foster care itself hurts kids. And the more placements a child is moved to, the more damage is done. Mental health, behavior, and school performance all get worse. Youth who age out of care on their own have bad outcomes, too, which suggests they should stay with their families whenever possible. We interview a veteran caseworker in this issue. She says proper funding of foster care helps a lot, but “even the best system can’t make up for a good parent.”

Some common themes emerge from the personal stories in this issue about going into care. Many writers say that being told to lie about the situation at home is uniquely traumatizing. Extreme emotional swings can be even worse than steady abuse. The bond between children and birth parents is strong but not unbreakable. Some of our writers pinpoint why and how they gave up hope.

On one hand, Selena Garcia, N.V., and the authors of “I Choose Foster Care” and “Building a Better Life” write that leaving their abusive biological (and adoptive) parents made their lives better. K.O. is ambivalent. She regrets that she and her siblings went into care. But she also observes that while in the system, “I started doing better in school. I got to enjoy my childhood.”

On the other hand, Trey C. and the author of “No Reason to Break Up My Family” believe that CPS made a grave error in taking them away from loving mothers. Trey counts the days until his 18th birthday, so he can sign himself out of care and go back to his mother’s house.

Though the number of youth in care is falling, the need for foster care will never go away. But it should be a last resort. Any intervention should be as minimal as it can be to keep a child safe. Parents and children approaching that breaking point should have more of a say in their fate.

(FCYU-2016-07-04)