Kansas agreed to settle a federal lawsuit against its child-welfare system earlier this month, consenting to grant substantial oversight authority over its restructuring to a prominent advocate, Judith Meltzer. “This ends the awful placement and instability that continues to exist,” an attorney for the plaintiffs told the Kansas City Star. “The state wanted . . . to do better by kids than has been done in the past,” said Teresa Woody, litigation director for the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, one of five organizations that sued on behalf of the state’s 7,000 foster youth.
Whether this settlement will accomplish those goals remains to be seen, but the bigger question is why Kansas has agreed to give responsibility for monitoring and fixing foster care to a radical activist who wants to eliminate foster care. Meltzer, who, like many child-welfare experts, has crossed the line from expert to advocate, is head of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), which has just launched the upEND Campaign. It’s goal: ending children’s removal from families entirely.
The Kansas foster care system doubtless needs an overhaul. Foster children were being transferred to different homes every night, sometimes sleeping in the offices of child-welfare agencies. One child had been through 130 placements. Some children had run away or been sexually abused while in foster care. All this had a major impact on both the physical and mental health of children who had already experienced severe trauma. Placement instability is associated with worse outcomes for foster kids—though it’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation here. Kids who have experienced more problems before they entered foster care are also more likely to be moved multiple times, and to have bad outcomes, but these outcomes are not necessarily the direct result of the foster-care system.
The new settlement requires, among other things, strict limits on the number of moves a foster child can experience—4.4 moves or fewer per 1,000 days in care—and that foster kids have access to mental-health screening within 30 days of entering the system. The question of how to reduce the number of placements has plagued policymakers for years. A 2010 study found that in Illinois, “the average length of time in care is 7.8 years. The total number of placements per youth ranges from one to 39. The average number of placements is 8.3.” The authors noted that, “since the mid-1990s, child welfare class-action litigation has occurred in well over half of all states, and 10 consent decrees specifically seek to minimize high rates of movement among youth in foster care.” They explain that “behavioral problems . . . are often the most common reason given for placement moves.”
It should not be surprising that a child who has been in foster care for years or has been repeatedly removed and put back with his biological family would develop behavioral problems. This is what happens after experiencing years of living with unstable adults. Foster families, not surprisingly, often find themselves overwhelmed by kids with severe behavioral issues.
The answer, at least in part, must be better training for foster parents and recruitment of a larger number of foster parents. The more options that caseworkers have for placing a child, the less likely they will be to place a square peg into a round hole. It’s not uncommon for foster families who say they can handle young kids to hear demands from caseworkers that they take an older one, or to get pressure to accept more kids than they can handle. Relatively few families are equipped to deal with special-needs children or medically fragile ones, but these kids have to go somewhere. Improving the recruitment, training, and support of foster families should be a priority for anyone who cares about fixing the child-welfare system.
Under the oversight of Judith Meltzer, that’s unlikely to happen in Kansas. In a June press release, the CSSP and other sponsoring organizations explained that “the upEND movement works to create a society in which the forcible separation of children from their parents is no longer an acceptable intervention for families in need.” The physical safety of children, according to this ideology, is secondary to preservation of the existing dysfunctional home environment. “Instead,” the press release continues, “the upEND movement seeks to end the current child welfare system as we know it and to reimagine new, anti-racist means of keeping children safe and protected in their homes.”
Believing that the foster-care system is systemically racist, Meltzer and her CSSP colleagues will not devote much time to recruiting more foster parents. Making foster care sound inherently evil and racist will discourage volunteers. Pressure to abolish foster care will result in worse outcomes for children, because it will reduce the pool of potential foster parents. The remaining volunteers will be the least qualified and most likely to be doing it for the small amounts of money that they receive.
Many states that have entered consent decrees giving third-party advocacy groups such as CSSP similar powers have remained under their oversight for decades, without seeing any improvement to their systems. If policymakers in Kansas want to bring in an independent authority to make sure that vulnerable children are better served, more power to them. Those overseers should have the best interests of children in mind—not the trendiest social-justice ideologies.