More than half a million children are in foster care in the United States today — roughly double the number who were in foster care in the mid-1980s, according to the Child Welfare League of America.
“Having thousands of kids in foster care is a cause for concern because it’s at an enormous financial and human cost,” says Carrie Friedman, who runs the the CWLA’s national database of child welfare statistics. The number of children in foster care nationwide fluctuates between 550,000 and 600,000, according to Friedman.
In 1980, about 500,000 children were in foster care, but a series of successful reforms, starting with that year’s Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, dramatically decreased the number of children in foster care. But in the early 1990s, with the advent of crack cocaine and an economic recession — the numbers went back up, Friedman says. “Nationally, we saw a dip and then a rise, and now the numbers are staying flat.”
Advocates Urge Strengthening Communities
Child welfare advocates say the foster system is in need of changes so that children spend less time in foster homes, with foster families who are more competent. Young adults who have grown up in foster care also need more help in making the transition to independent living, the advocates say.
Another problem is that today more and more children are going into care as victims of violence or sexual abuse. “Kids are much more disturbed than they ever were,” says Max Donatelli, director of care management at Baker Victory Services, a nonprofit that provides services, including foster care, to children in the Buffalo, N.Y. area.
Some advocates also argue for greater efforts to strengthen the impoverished communities where foster children often come from. When communities break down, foster rolls grow and the cycle feeds itself, they say. Because of the connectedness between the health of communities and the safety of kids, many experts recommend child welfare agencies look to rebuild old-fashioned safety nets.
“The key today is to build a stronger neighborhood to protect kids,” says John Mattingly, senior program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md., where he studies state and national trends in childcare services.
In places like Cleveland, where Mattingly worked for years, a history of poor foster care is part of a more complicated picture, he says. “Cleveland still has serious problems, made worse by drugs and unemployment.”
Cleveland was also where Antwone Fisher, the man whose life inspired Denzel Washington’s new movie, spent years in foster care. Mattingly, who has met Fisher as an adult, believes his difficult years in the foster care system might have been avoided if child welfare authorities had been more aware of his extended family in the city. “What’s so tragic about his story is that Antwone used to walk by his paternal grandfather’s house every day. The first thing child welfare workers need to do is to find these kids’ relatives. That’s why neighborhoods, particularly knowing who’s in the neighborhood, are both so important.”
Despite difficult circumstances, foster kids can be great achievers, advocates say. As well as Fisher, basketball star Alonzo Mourning and actor Victoria Rowell were both foster children. Mourning and Rowell now advocate for foster kids.