Problems Remain

I don’t think they (people) understand how it feels not to say ‘mom’ and ‘dad’…Going through foster care, you don’t get to say that, you know, that often. And if you do trust somebody enough to say that, who knows how long they’ll stick around. (Iowa foster youth)

The rights of the child come first. All children have the right to a permanent home within child time. In practical terms, that was and is the intent and promise of ASFA. Fifteen years later, the results appear mixed. Improvement has been steady, although progress has been slow. As the critical time of development passes for children, unnecessary delays continue the harm done to already vulnerable children.

The Adoption and Foster Care Reporting System (AFCARS) provides us with a report card. Here are a few interesting comparisons:

Foster Care Population


Foster Care

Avg. Age

Median Age













As can be seen, the overall number of children in foster care has dropped dramatically in the past 15 years and has steadily continued to decline. Children in the foster care system are generally 6-12 months younger.

Case Goals         



Kin Care











LT Foster Care


No Plan










As required by ASFA, there has been an increase in early plans for reunification. Planning for adoption has also increased. Combining these two plans for a permanent home, the data shows a laudable 15 percent increase in permanency planning. Kin care planning remains low, reflecting either an unwillingness on the part of relatives or an inability to locate them. There is little change in plans for emancipation, which reflects a sad anticipation of failure. The biggest change and clearly an improvement is the decrease from 17% to 5% for children where no plan exists.

Length of Stay in Foster Care


Avg. No. of Months

Median No. of Months








The data shows a significant decline in the time spent in foster care. The problem remains that children today still drift in temporary care for one to two years. The implicit goal of ASFA was to find a permanent home for each child within 12 months. Over half of all foster children exceed that time. Hopefully, we can continue to shorten time in foster care.

Waiting for Adoption after a Termination of Parental Rights


Waiting Children

Avg. Months

Median Months










The overall delay and the number of children waiting to be adopted have decreased. Very good news. And yet, even today, parking them in temporary care for one to two years while a search begins for an adoptive home suggests that we need to cut bureaucratic delays and find permanent families sooner. One obvious remedy would be to implement concurrent planning.




Kin Care























Slightly over half of foster children continue to be returned to their birth family. Kin care remains steady. Adoptions have increased by 4 percent. The disturbing news is that the percentage of children aging out of foster care without a permanent home has increased. Why is this? Emancipation to independent living is surely not an outcome intended by ASFA. Have we accepted the notion that emancipation is a legitimate case plan? Even with advance preparation for the details of daily living, independent living remains a cruel outcome. No one lives independently. Statistics show that 23,439 foster children left the system in 2012 without a permanent home. They represent our failures.

The Child Welfare Outcomes report to Congress (2008-2011) summarizes the desired goals succinctly in just a few words: “Safety. Permanency. Well-Being.”



Foster Children

Avg. Age

Median Age










Here is good news. Adoptions have increased since ASFA, both in numbers and percentage.

Summary of Progress

The data show a significant decline of children in foster care from 1999 to 2012 of approximately 30 percent. The children are 6-12 months younger. Agencies are significantly more apt to have a case plan in place. Adoptions have increased in both percentage and overall numbers.

Less encouraging are the negative data on the length of time children spend in foster care. Children still remain in temporary care in excess of ASFA’s standards. The average wait of over one year to find a permanent home for a child when parental rights have already been terminated is unacceptable. Even more alarming are the facts on emancipation. The number of children aging out if the system without a permanent home has actually increased.

Three major roadblocks have stood in the way of permanency. We contribute to the initial harm done to foster children through delay, multiple placements and emancipation.

Delay: The pain of waiting

One year is already too long a time in the life of a child. Waiting for permanence is especially painful and damaging. Failing to provide a permanent home for a child is to break a promise that is implied when the child is removed. The very fact of removing a child suggests that the state will improve the situation. And yet many children suffer a painful and often fruitless wait. ASFA has helped decrease the time spent waiting, but the child welfare system still has a way to go in eliminating delays.

Adults are aware of the torturous state of uncertainty. Ignorant of the outcome, one is likely to imagine every possibility, and especially the worst. The tragedy of a coal mine disaster is a heartbreaking example. Remember the relatives waiting on the surface for news of their loved ones? The pain of not knowing, even for those of us who were mere spectators, was very difficult to endure.

Imagine you are awaiting the results of your mammogram exam or prostate test. You call daily but they still don’t have the results. What are you thinking? Feeling?

Pretend you are working as a temp, hoping to get a full-time job so you can have access to benefits and support your family. The months slip by. You are doing a good job but are afraid even to inquire whether they plan to hire you. Nothing is happening. You are worried but try not to let it show.

Waiting is much longer and much worse for a child living in a home with no permanent commitment. Most adults have other life experiences, memories of times when patience was rewarded with good results. Adults learn to hang in there on the big issues. The child has no such reassuring experiences.

Imagine you are a four-year-old who has just been ripped from your birth parents by the police. Screaming and crying, clutching only a doll, you are handed from the police officer to a strange woman. This woman puts you in a car and tells you that you are going to live with a new family. Scared and alone, you don’t understand what is happening. Bewildered, you arrive at a strange house. You wonder why you are here. Can you play? Will they feed you? As you go through a new routine, not knowing what is expected, you wonder: “Where is my mom?”

Extensive psychological research has documented the negative consequences of delay. ASFA reflects this concern by setting deadlines for permanence. Yet, too often the state has moved from neglect and abuse by the birth parents to further neglect by the welfare departments and courts, the very systems that were designed to protect the child.

The foster child’s whole life and future are on the line. He will not understand all the bureaucratic reasons adults may provide to explain the delay. He is much more likely to interpret a lack of results as a lack of love. “If you loved me, you would promise to be there forever for me.” Or even worse, the child may wonder whether it is his or her own fault. “Why doesn’t anyone want me? I must not be lovable.” We fail to show the urgency that the research and our laws insist upon.

Multiple placements: Why children are moved

Moving a child from one home to another is an intervention that has serious consequences and should be done only for the most serious reasons. Ideally, every move should be made as if that move were to be the last one necessary. As has been seen, the interruption of relationships in a developing child can have both immediate and long-term detrimental consequences. If this is so, why are children ever moved?

A move may be mandated by concern for the health and safety of the child. Children must be moved when their life and health, both physical and mental, are in danger. Too often, however, children are moved for less compelling reasons, when the cost to the child from moving far outweighs any benefit that might be obtained.

Unfortunately, some child welfare workers do not recognize the importance of maintaining significant attachments, nor the harm done when children are moved from home to home. Children are sometimes moved for trivial reasons, even upon whim or to demonstrate power. A compilation of complaints by foster parents from a Midwestern state revealed the following reasons why children are moved:[1]

  • Because the child ran away.
  • To reunite the child with other half-siblings.
  • To make room for a larger sibling group.
  • To place the child in a home of the same race.
  • To be on the “safe side,” protecting the foster child following uninvestigated and unsubstantiated charges of abuse by the parents or foster parents.
  • To keep foster parents from becoming too attached.
  • To accommodate birth parents who complained about the distance they had to travel to see their child.
  • To punish foster parents who have made too many demands and are considered troublemakers.
  • Because of a lack of communication between case managers and foster parents.


Since the adoption of ASFA, the average length of time spent in foster care has decreased from 32 to 23 months. That is progress, but it remains far beyond the ASFA deadlines. Sadly, during this same time, the number of children aging out to a life on their own has shown an increase of 2 percent. From 1999 to 2012, the actual number of emancipated children has increased from 18,964 to 23,439 despite a smaller foster care population. The “graduates” have moved from a life of transience to enter an unforgiving world. The transition is cloaked with euphemisms like freedom and independent living. In fact, the youths are alone, their problems compounded by the lack of a supportive family. Emancipation to independent living is a fancy phrase to cover up failure in the foster care system.

We have glossed over our failures by labeling long-term foster care, guardianship and independent living as permanency plans. These terms are misleading at best, a way we lie to ourselves. How can long-term temporary care be considered a permanency plan? A guardianship that can be dissolved at any time is also not permanent. And independent living would be a joke if it were not so tragic. No one lives independently. The newly minted adult may be seduced by the attractive notion of freedom. He or she will soon discover that we all need others on whom we can unequivocally rely.

Differing policies present problems in finding homes for children. Nowhere are the entangling complications of red tape more obstructive than with interstate adoptions, where the laws and regulations differ between states. Only 71 interstate adoptions among non-relatives were reported by AFCARS in 2003. “It is a national scandal that 25,000 children age out of foster care each year, while waiting adoptive parents are ignored because they are in the wrong state or even the wrong county. It shouldn’t be harder for a New Jersey family to adopt a child from Manhattan than from Moscow…The primary reason is that we do not have a national adoption system.”[2]

What happens to youth who age out?

Mike was in seven foster homes before being emancipated. Like all foster children, he had been taught the required skills for independent living: how to find a job, rent an apartment, balance his checkbook, cook and so on. He was happy to say goodbye to his final foster home the day after his 18th birthday, but he left with no place to go. Mike lived in the park for two weeks, and then went to live with his aunt. She helped him find a job. He left again when she was arrested. He lost his job and went back to live in the park. By coincidence, he met up with his second foster family and they took him in. They helped him find another job and a new apartment. Unable to pay the rent on his minimum wage job, he was evicted. Then he lost his job due to erratic attendance. Once again he was adrift and alone in the world.

Mike had a high school diploma with no real job history, with no place to live and with no family. He tried to get himself arrested at one point so he could get a good meal. By the time he was 24, he had spent all but 18 months of his “independence” dumpster-diving and living in the park and in shelters when there was an empty bed.

Westat[3] reported in 1991 on the outcomes for foster children from 2.5 to 4 years after their discharge from foster care at age 18:

  • 54 percent of the population studied had completed high school.
  • 49 percent were employed.
  • 18 percent maintained a job for at least one year.
  • 40 percent were a cost to the community in some way.
  • 60 percent of the young women were already mothers.
  • 25 percent had been homeless for a time, and their median weekly salary was $205.
  • Only 17 percent were completely self-supporting.

ABC Nightline reported in 2002 on foster care graduates, labeling the statistics as “staggering.” The piece noted: “Of the 20,000 who age out of the foster care system each year, 40 percent fail to graduate from high school and 40 percent end up on welfare. Within two years, a third have children (mostly out of wedlock). As sobering as those numbers are, it’s not until you spend time with kids just emancipated from the foster care system that you really begin to appreciate that world.”

Poverty. Adults with a history of foster care are significantly more likely to be below the poverty level.[4] Out-of-home public care is a major precursor of adult poverty.[5] Emancipated foster youth were found to earn an average of $6,000 per year, well below the national poverty level. Emancipated females were four times more likely than their age-mates to receive public assistance.[6]

Unemployment. Foster care alumni experience problematic employment and financial situations. Less than half of former foster children are employed from two to five years after leaving foster care. Only 18 percent have maintained employment for at least one year.[7]

Pregnancy. Females emancipated from foster care are four times more likely than their counterparts to become single parents prematurely. According to a Midwest study, nearly half of the emancipated foster women had been pregnant at least once by age 19, compared to only 20 percent of their peers.[8]

Education. Youth in foster care throughout the nation are less likely to graduate from high school. Only 46 percent of former foster youth complete high school, as compared to 84 percent of the general population. Of the youth who have aged out of foster care and are over the age of 25, less than 3 percent have earned a college degree. This compares with 28 percent of the general population.[9]

Shirk and Stangler[10] describe the difficult lives of ten children who were emancipated from foster care with their sometime successes and predictable tragedies. The lives of children who have been emancipated are realistically presented in Weisberg’s 2006 award-winning documentary that follows five children through the system and into an independent life.[11]

Few of us are able to live alone for long, especially not beginners. Classes in independent living may provide the tools. Statistics show, however, that adult living skills are far from enough. Without the necessary overall structure, these skills become abilities without grounding, or the busywork of living without a permanent base.

“We know that a child who is without the safety net of a family at 18 is at an increased risk of homelessness, unemployment, early parenting. substance abuse, and/or incarceration. Not because they are bad kids, but simply because they don’t have what so many of us take for granted—a family to help them in moments of need, to celebrate with them in times of joy, or to patiently allow them to grow into adults at their own rate.”[12]

Recent data confirms this sad prophecy. At age 26, individuals who have been emancipated from foster care experienced more unemployment, lower incomes, a greater likelihood that they would not be able to pay their rent or utilities, poorer health and higher arrest rates than their peers. In addition, they were less likely to have a high school diploma or GED and health insurance.[13]

The excuses we use to kid ourselves

We have deluded ourselves with four excuses: that there is no hurry, that birth parents are always the best choice, that it takes time to get things right, and that older children should be allowed to choose whether they want to be adopted or not.

No sense of crisis: The institutions designed to protect children have no sense of crisis. The longer a child is in temporary care, the more damage is done. The belief that children are emotionally safe in temporary care is false. Evidence shows significant correlations between the length of time in temporary care and increased mental and social problems. Unfortunately, case managers and courts do not often feel this sense of urgency. We should treat foster care like an emergency room or hospitalization. Use our resources to address the problem as quickly as possible.

Birth parents are always best. Repeated failed efforts to reunify can drag foster care out interminably and put the child through a continuing cycle of hope and disappointment. Abusive and neglectful birth parents are not necessarily the best option. Assuming that the reasons for removal were quite serious, the chances for the parents’ rehabilitation are not high within the short window of time available to a developing child. We need better data on the successes and failures of reunification. Case managers need to keep focused, not on what is due the birth parents, but on what is best for the child.

Getting it right takes time: Some case managers assert that they must wait until they are certain they have it right. Unfortunately, the child does not have time. The clock is ticking. The child is growing and developing, both physically and psychologically while the system dithers. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good. No matter how “right” the initial case plan or the final resolution may be, a sure way to get things wrong is to delay.

Older children should be allowed to choose whether they want to be adopted: This is a tough one. Of course the young person must have a voice. Yet most 14-year-olds have a naïve idea of how the world works, and what it takes to survive as an adult. They may brashly want to be free of any parental controls. They may have hopes of being reunited to an idealized birth parent, having forgotten the neglect and abuse they earlier experienced. They may be responding with rejection to the way that society has thus far treated them. Listen to them. Help them temper their impulses and desire for freedom from controls with the practical knowledge that everyone needs connections to survive in an uncaring world.

The system is flawed

ASFA is a good law with a promise of a safe home within one year at most. Why the discrepancy between law and compliance? Why are we progressing so slowly? Why do over half of our foster children remain in care for more than one year?

Endless paperwork, miles of red tape and obsolete policies can lead to discouragement and even malaise. The delays caused by bureaucracy continue to postpone permanence even after there has been a termination of parental rights. Clearly, procedures need to be streamlined with a focus on the immediate needs of the child in temporary care. We need people who are on a mission to cut through the red tape.

Case managers are undertrained and overburdened. High turnover and a shortage of child welfare staff is the result. Case managers come and go. Foster children are transferred from one staff member to another and left to drift, under the assumption that they are safe in the foster home. The Association of American Social Workers recommends an ideal caseload of no more than seven children to move things along. In fact, case managers carry many more, as many as 150 in some situations. If the system could become focused on following ASFA’s deadlines, there would be fewer children in foster care and smaller caseloads.

Another big problem is the unwillingness to share power. When a child is removed from the home for cause, the child is made a ward of the court and the case manager becomes the responsible party. The birth parents are often treated as the problem rather than part of the solution. The foster parents may have 24/7 care of the child but have no legal standing. Case managers, rather than working with either the biological or the foster parents, may be tempted to perceive themselves as the sole decision-makers. The major players need to learn to work together. Gathering input from all sides and cooperation in shaping and working out a plan is the smartest way to achieve the best permanent home available for the child.

Follow the money. This is a reason not often discussed because it involves the very agencies who manage part of the system. As licensed child-placing agencies supervise more and more of foster care, agency income is based on keeping children in foster care. A permanent home means the loss of a young client and of income. Pointing out that older children are still not ready, they propose extending foster care to age 21, and even age 24. An obvious correction would be to reward agencies financially for successful reunifications and adoptions.

The child’s rights are not given priority. Many courts and judges have still not grasped this basic concept of ASFA, which states that the child’s rights are paramount. The child’s right to a permanent home supersedes the rights of the birth family, the foster parents and the prospective adoptive parents. The child’s rights come before the state’s need to save money. The first consideration must be what is best for the child. And yet many judges retain a bias toward birth mother, believing that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, children always belong with and to their birth parents. Birth mother is given endless opportunities to improve, letting terminations drag on year after year.


Children are our most valuable resource, our hope for the future. Foster children are our most vulnerable citizens. Concern for their well-being must have the highest priority. Delays in establishing permanence add to an already negative situation. Reunification and adoption are the only true measures of permanence. Every child has the right to a permanent home within a year.

Chapter 5: Problems Remain Notes

[1] James A. Kenny, unpublished.

[2] Jeff Katz, “Adoption scandal: Interstate barriers keep kids in foster care,” The Huffington Post, Dec. 22, 2009.

[3] “A national evaluation of Title IV-E foster care independent living programs for youth,” Phase II, final report, Vols. I & II, (Rockville, MD, Westat, Inc., 1991)

[4] Larry Rohter, “To save or end a troubled parent’s rights,” New York Times, Vol 142 Issue 49109, Oct 4,1992.

[5] Jane Aldgate, “Graduating from care: a missed opportunity for encouraging successful citizenship,” Children & Youth Services Review, Special Issue: preparing foster youth for adulthood, Vol. 16(3-4), 1994, 255-272.

[6] See the following websites: and


[8] Jim Casey, “The Casey Young Adult Survey: Findings over Three Years,” Casey Family Programs-Fostering Families, Fostering Change, 2005.

[9] For statistics about emancipated youth and education see: Jim Casey, “Time for Reform: Aging Out and On their Own—More Teens Leaving Foster Care Without a Permanent Family,” Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2007. Also and Mark Courtney, Sherri Terao, and Noel Bost, “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care,” (Chicago, Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, 2004)

[10] Martha Shirk and Gary Stangler, On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System, (Cambridge, MA, Basic Books, 2004)

[11] Roger Weisberg and Varnessa Roth, “Aging Out: What happens when you’re too old for foster care,” Public Policy Productions in association with Thirteen/WNET, New York.

[12] Rita Sorensen, President the Dave Thomas Foundation.

[13] Mark Courtney et al, “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at age 26,” (Chicago, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 2011)


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