Dial Fellowship

Reality Check: How we can fix the US foster care system

Marie Zemler Wu of Foster America explains how shifting the child welfare system’s emphasis from investigations and compliance to resources and relationships could improve lives.

6 min read

In the US, state and federal agencies spend $33 billion on child welfare every year. And yet, as Marie Zemler Wu—an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow and the cofounder of Foster America—explains, “There is very little evidence that being investigated by child protection or entering foster care changes kids’ or parents’ lives for the better. It's hard to point to anything else we do at the same scale—let alone with profound, life-altering implications—with so little proof it works.”

Zemler Wu grew up in an adoptive family in Minnesota, and while studying psychology in college, threw herself into researching adoption, foster care, and the larger child welfare system. The complexity she found there—and the potential to right little-known injustices suffered by families—has motivated the arc of her career, which has taken her from a parent-led nonprofit connecting foster families, to statewide reform efforts, to launching Foster America in 2016 to rethink child welfare systems with local partners in governments and communities. While stories of foster care often have clear heroes and villains, Zemler Wu has seen that reality is more nuanced. And it’s only by confronting these complicated truths that we can begin to build a better system, one that helps both children and their families flourish.


THE MYTHS

Myth #1: Most kids are removed from their homes because of abuse.
Reality: About 75% of children involved in the child welfare system are there because of perceived “neglect.”
While media coverage of extreme cases would suggest otherwise, instances of child abuse are rare, representing just a small fraction of children in foster care. Rather, “neglect” precipitates most interventions—a catch-all term that’s closely intertwined with poverty. “Neglect can look like kids home alone because of insufficient childcare,” says Zemler Wu. “It can look like teachers being worried when a child is hungry or missing at school—sometimes a lot, but sometimes just a few days.” Lack of secure housing, food, health care, childcare, transportation, or steady work can all trigger a child welfare investigation. States set their own definitions of neglect, and while a few have recently vowed not to take children from their parents because of lack of resources, many still do.

Myth #2: Calling the child abuse hotline is always a good way to help kids.
Reality: The resulting visit from child protection is frightening, isolating, and leads to children and families getting more support only about 15% of the time.
Child abuse hotlines began with the best intentions, some sixty years ago, when pediatrician C. Henry Kempe, using improving x-ray technology, started to see that more kids had broken bones than expected. His research on Battered Child Syndrome brought national attention to child abuse and led to the establishment of hotlines to surface it. Today, the problems start with the fact that if a daycare worker or pediatrician is concerned about a child’s well-being, they often have only one tool available: a call to one of those hotlines. And due to mandatory reporting laws in 48 states, they’re often required to make the call. As a result, being investigated has become shockingly common—nearly a third of parents will be scrutinized for potentially maltreating their child. Decades after Kempe’s work, with hotline calls as the only option, they’re resulting in more and more families under investigation, breeding a sense of anxiety and isolation without making most families better off.

Myth #3: Child welfare is color blind.
Reality: Racial bias belies the integrity of the process.
More than 400,000 children are in foster care on any given day; 1 in 17 children will spend time in foster care on the way to adulthood. But these numbers shift dramatically based on a child’s race. 1 in 9 Black children will be removed from their families for a portion of their childhood. And the figure is 1 in 7 for Native American children. At every decision point in the child welfare pathway, children of color are disproportionately subjected to more negative experiences: they suffer higher investigation rates, more frequent removals, longer times in care, and are sent to institutional group care settings more often.

Myth #4: Foster care always improves kids' long-term prospects. 
Reality: Being separated from their family, whether it’s for days or years, is traumatic and associated with a wide range of negative outcomes.
When young people are put in foster care, they lose connections—to their siblings, extended family, schools, and even to their culture. Youth who’ve been in foster care have twice the rates of PTSD as war veterans. Being in foster care increases the risk of trauma exposure, abuse, and maltreatment, and is associated with not graduating on time, early parenthood, homelessness, incarceration, and, as a parent, having one’s own child enter the system. The bottom line: “I think of foster care like chemotherapy,” says Zemler Wu. “It can be life-saving, but it’s inherently toxic. We need to be incredibly limited and precise in deciding to use it.”

Myth #5: Even if foster care isn’t always ideal, it’s the best approach we have.
Reality: Alternatives to traditional models of foster care are showing stellar outcomes.
There’s a growing body of evidence that shows even modest increases in direct economic support to families helps prevent the kind of abuse and neglect that cause encounters with the child welfare system. Child tax credits, housing assistance, childcare subsidies, food programs, or cash assistance could all help improve outcomes for kids without separating families. “Imagine if our policy was to give a portion of what we pay for caseworkers, foster parents, and court oversight to families themselves,” says Zemler Wu.


A BETTER WAY FORWARD

watch

Working to build a child-welfare system in the U.S. that supports families in crisis rather than separating them.

Instead of spending $33 billion per year on investigations and child removals, Zemler Wu asks, what if we focused on empowering parents with opportunities to lift their families up? “We envision changing the role of government to building a well-being system, one that serves families and children well and helps them access what they need to be healthy and successful,” says Zemler Wu. Picture voluntary, community-delivered services and supports that meet families where they are before they ever reach the point of a hotline call, investigation, or separation. “We are on a mission to help design and implement those approaches,” she says.

Foster America partners with communities and state and county governments to find innovative new approaches for offering families support. The work begins with a six-month discovery process in which specialists in design, cross-sector collaboration, equity, fiscal policy, and data and technology help a jurisdiction map their system, analyze the root causes of problems, surface community needs, and develop a strategic roadmap for moving forward. Once complete, Foster America supports the jurisdiction in implementing it—and shares learnings on what works across its network and with public agencies nationwide. 

With their fellowship program, Foster America has already seen success in places like Scott County, Minnesota, where Family Resource Centers have been embedded inside libraries, food pantries, and transit centers, diverting many from the system. And Washington state, where young people of color who’d been in the system developed recommendations that successfully drove state budgeting choices to prevent homelessness in early adulthood. And Rochester, Minnesota, where teachers use a community-based program that helps families access support without involving the system—saving the county $2 million in a decade. In all, since 2016, Foster America has led 63 innovation projects in 17 local communities, cultivating trust and accelerating impact in a historically risk-averse and isolated government sector.

And they’re just one in a growing web of organizations seeking this kind of reform. The big-picture vision is that scaling solutions that are voluntary, community-based, prevention-oriented, and publicly funded could make foster care as it exists today obsolete.   While it’s a big change, it’s not an impossible one, and well worth taking on. “Young people who experience the foster care system are some of the strongest, most resilient humans I know,” Zemler Wu says. “When they and their families tell us what they need and we really listen, we can do better for them.”