So Many Problems Where to Begin?

Foster care does more harm than good. This is not a fact, but has been openly expressed to me by an array of caseworkers and professionals in the field. It is typically followed up with some lost-hope expressions about feeling powerless but “doing my best within the situation.”

We can fix it. This is a fact. It just requires identifying the failings and exploring realistically-feasible solutions to overcome them. Utilizing modern-day technology and automation tools, everything discussed in this article can be accomplished within a very short timeframe, and with a very-reasonable amount of resources.

The scope of foster care dysfunction is overwhelmingly broad, touching on nearly every stage and facet of the system, so for the sake of brevity, this article will focus on proposed-solutions that are relatively easy and quick to implement, and bear a high likelihood of success. The solutions discussed are primarily focused towards kids whose permanency-goals have ruled-out reunification and kinship care, as those are the kids who will experience the greatest life-disruption. Our realistic goal is to implement a substantial improvement over the status quo that will improve the lives of thousands of kids.

Let’s start by listing out some of the glaring issues:

  • Average time spent in foster care is excessively long

  • Many foster kids freed for adoption never get adopted and eventually age-out

  • Hardly any older-teens ever get adopted

  • Many families with valid homestudies are overlooked as options for placement

  • Institutional facilities are considered an acceptable alternative to family for long-term placement

Where are all these kids hiding?

New York City has nearly 10,000 kids in foster care; at the time of this writing the New York City Administration for Children’s Services lists just 64 kids on the City’s official adoption-recruitment website, and on the federal AdoptUSKids website there are only 22 kids photolisted for the entire state of New York. Where are all the other kids? Wherever they are, they stand very little hope of having any prospective adoptive-family discover them.

Every adoptable foster child needs to be photolisted immediately upon becoming freed for adoption, and remain publicly photolisted until permanency-goals are achieved. What is the barrier to this? The bottleneck is the outdated system; presently, everything falls on the shoulders of the caseworker, and clearly they are overwhelmed. At the moment, a child’s future depends solely on their caseworker snapping some photos during their periodic in-person interaction and then writing a several-paragraph biography about them, and until that happens, there is zero-chance of the child’s situation advancing towards permanency.

Presently, nearly 100% of cellphones sold in America have photo and video-recording capabilities but despite this, most of the kids who do get photolisted have only a single poor-quality photo, and only a tiny few have a video.

To exacerbate the situation, take a look at most typical photolistings and it is blatantly-clear that the majority of caseworkers are not amazing photographers. Photography is an art that when done well accentuates the subjects strengths, and when done wrong can grossly-distort a person’s appearance. When a photo and a bit of text are the only assets standing between potential families determining if they should explore adding a new little human being into their family, to have a subpar photo is a disservice to the child.

This is so easy to fix.

The photolisting effort needs to be shared with the children’s current and former caretakers; they are the people who have the most “face time” and experience with the child, and they are the ones who have extensive opportunity to photograph/record the child during their everyday interactions. Any caretaker, be it foster/respite-care parents or group-home staff, should be able to upload from their cellphone both photos and videos of kids in their care who are in need of other placement, as well as propose text to add/append to the child’s photolisting. The caseworker then only needs to approve the content before it appears publicly to families, substantially reducing their workload.

This is an essential first step to better quality photolistings, but it can grow to be much better than this. There are a huge number of professional and aspiring-professional photographers and filmmakers in this country who would happily open their hearts and spend a few hours photographing/filming a child who needs to find a permanent home. Presently, coordinating the creation of a “heart gallery” is a huge ordeal of collaboration between caseworkers, caretakers and photographers. Utilizing technology, this process can be automated with relative ease, and that would enable most kids to have a professional photo and/or video on their photolisting.

The initial prerequisite would be forming collaborative partnerships with various large-scale online photography/videography communities, and providing them an online interface where they can specify what services they are offering and in what geographic region and schedule. Through this same system, either the caseworker or caretaker can identify a photo/video-professional in their region and request a professional photo/video-shoot for the child. The photographer would then add the media directly into the photolisting, which becomes publicly-visible upon approval by the caseworker.

By providing quality text, photo and video, children photolisted have a much better chance of finding a positive family-match. Video is especially important as it is the only means for a family to gauge a child’s demeanor and personality prior to meeting with them. “Wednesday’s Child” and similar TV segments are known to be very effective in family-finding; there are many adoption-success stories where the parent(s) remark that when they initially saw their child in a video-segment they immediately knew that this was to be their kid. We need to have a system that encourages more successes like this.

All this media can also be automatically published to YouTube and shared on social networks, expanding each child's exposure, while simultaneously increasing the scope of recruitment efforts for potential adoptive-families. Over time, this ongoing social media campaign will form a community-following of subscribers and supporters whose viral-sharing of photolisted-youth will raise public awareness, helping to discover and recruit additional families to foster/adopt.

Additionally, these media assets could easily be repurposed into an electronic slideshow format displaying random kids on video-screens in public venues, essentially modernizing the traditional printed “Heart Gallery” installations that raise awareness of foster children who are in need of families. Having an electronic heart gallery enables venues to instantly begin displaying the exhibit on video screens that they already have installed. This removes all installation-expenses, printing tasks, setup time and logistical hurdles while increasing the quantity of kids displayed at a single installation, and adding video for increased user-engagement.

Granting voices to the voiceless

It is not uncommon for a child to have up to half-a-dozen people assigned to their “case”, including caseworker, CASA, social worker, WWK recruiter, guardian ad-litem, etc. These are the people who make decisions about placement and other extraordinarily-important life decisions for that child. Typically, the child is consulted and their expressed-desires are “considered”, and then the adults handling their case determine what is “actually best” for the child. Typically, these same adults will only spend a few hours per month, if even that, with the child. Laws vary by state, but until foster kids reach their teen years they essentially have no legal-rights to determine any factor of their placement or future. A child in foster care without a reunification-goal has already lost nearly everything that they previously had; empowering them with age-appropriate autonomy would be an enormous benefit to their emotional wellbeing.

All foster kids old capable of using a computer can be granted the option to add their own narrative directly into their photolisting (after caseworker’s approval of content), enabling them to specify what they want in a family, what life-factors are important to them and essentially, what they need to be happy. This tiny effort integrates the kids into the family-finding process and allows them to feel as though they have some control over their own destiny.

Granting them a voice about their foster care transition plans is a good and easy first-step. Kids in foster care would also benefit by communicating with other children who have experienced being in similar situations. Building a central community for all current, former and emancipated foster kids would enable them to share experiences, tips, resources and mutual-support.

It is somewhat common to hear foster-kids express their interest in becoming a foster care social-worker “when they grow up”, implying their desire to help other foster kids. Why should they wait until they grow up? Feeling-needed is among a human being’s most rewarding of emotions – for many families it is the fundamental reason to become foster/adoptive parents. By enabling foster kids to help other foster kids who are in similar situations they establish positive camaraderie and empower themselves to feel needed – something exponentially-critical for this demographic that often openly expresses feelings of being “unwanted” or discarded.

Families need support too!

A community for foster youth is a huge step forward; we can advance yet another step with a centralized community for all homestudied-families to correspond with each other. Open interfamily collaboration would be a huge asset, and having that support could potentially result in saving families from disrupted placements. Families can offer each other information about available resources, an exchange of respite services and referrals to professionals who have proven effective. Parents can also utilize this platform to share parenting strategies of kids who have experienced extreme life-challenges, providing suggestions and guidance to recently homestudied-parents and exchange many other forms of support.

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…

Many caseworkers representing adoptable-kids will request that families fill out a “needs checklist”, essentially a form listing the common challenges with a series of checkboxes for the family to mark if they can, cannot or maybe-can manage each of those issues. The caseworker then cross-checks that form with a similar form filled out for the child to determine if this is a potential family-match. Having this as a manual comparative-process is a total waste of caseworker time/effort.

Building a computerized algorithm to automatically match kids with placements nationwide is remarkably easy with modern technology. Foster/adoptive parents would need to register their current child-needs and limitations, how many kids they can provide a home for and other placement-related details such as if they are available for emergency respite care, or if they are only seeking adoptable (freed) kids. The caseworker would enter the child’s needs within a private interface of the photolisting and would immediately be presented with all potential family matches, with a clear view of any discrepancies between child-needs and family-capabilities. Maintaining a unified nationwide database of adoptive-families would dramatically accelerate the home-finding process and remove much of the caseworker workload.

Once this child-family-matching algorithm is in place, this same system can also notify families of potential child-matches immediately as the kids get listed, enabling the caseworker to begin receiving proactively-submitted homestudies within hours of photolisting a child. This effort to streamline the family-matching process has the potential to dramatically reduce the time spent on family-finding efforts, and thus shortening the amount of time foster kids spend in care.

Childhoods lost in residential facilities

When a child’s behavior classifies them as “difficult to place” it is common practice to commit them into a residential treatment center or facility (RTC/RTF) for a typical period of 9-months to several years on the premise of hope that the child’s behaviors will improve and then the child will be easier to place after the stay. During this time they are living in a regimented group-facility environment, usually without parents or a family or any access to have friends within the general community. Often, family-recruitment efforts are put on hold during this time too. Many facilities have on-site schools too, so essentially the child loses all exposure to the outside world while serving their time in the facility.

Kids in facilities are looked after by a rotating-staff that changes by shift. Although foster care considers institutional facilities to be an acceptable option for long-term placement, it is in no way an ethical alternative for children having the unconditional love of a family. No matter how well-intentioned the facility staff may be, they still would not choose to look after these kids if they were not being paid a salary to do so.

The blatant flaw in this process is how excessively drawn out the program-timelines are. By the time kids typically complete an RTC/RTF program and are discharged, they are now several years older, essentially having been robbed of their childhoods. The home-finding situation also gets progressively more difficult after their facility-stay because older kids are more challenging to find permanent homes for.

To exacerbate this, there is very little data demonstrating therapeutic-facility success rates, and the data that does exist is typically metrics measured by the facilities themselves, which are prone to bias.

Because foster kids typically have little or no family to advocate for them, and HIPPA/privacy-laws keep their case history confidential, there are no records or consequences when a facility is ineffective or counter-effective in helping a child. This situation is dangerous as future caseworkers who are considering facility-placement of a child do not have the information to be able to make an educated determination whether this placement will be genuinely beneficial.

There is a family for every child. No child is “unadoptable”.

These are common statements from adoption-advocates. If these are true (and I believe they are) then placements in residential facility environments must be readily terminated as soon as a suitable family is identified. This is a major diversion from the current practice of keeping children institutionalized until the facility makes the determination that the child has completed their program. Considering that facilities are paid on a per-day/per-child basis, there is financial-motivation to abuse this system and delay discharging youth.

The reality is that if families were offered the same per-child “day-rate” stipends that these facilities receive, then no matter how monumentally-intimidating the problems may be, there would be families lining up for miles ready to quit their day-job and do nothing but focus on helping the child overcome their challenges in a one-to-one family setting. The high day-rate stipends also wrongly-incentivize facilities to focus on extending time in their care instead of increasing program effectiveness and efficiency. A better system would be to incentivize based on measurements of placement-success after their facility stay, as well as post-placement reports to the caseworker that determine if the facility’s treatment has successfully corrected the issues that they were admitted for.

We need transparency & accountability

Statistics about the success metrics of each facility-placement need to be publicly visible; this transparency will be a self-policing tool that will immediately increase the quality of facility care provided nationwide.

Considering that facility self-reporting would be unreliable and biased, and youth records are private, how do we accomplish this? The solution is to create a comprehensive system that retains intelligence of every child’s history throughout their time in foster care. We would maintain a private database of each facility-placement’s outcomes per-child from intake to discharge, as well as family-placement successes and disruptions. These records would be confidential but the cumulative statistics that they generate can be publicly visible. Having a unified system that follows both children and facilities will enable collection of recidivism analytics and identifying the effectiveness of each facility based on what happens to the kids after discharge, providing an accurate metric of each facility’s efficacy.

How good are foster agencies at home-finding?

Foster kids will often tell you how critical it is to get a “good” caseworker who will aggressively advocate for the best-interests of kids in their caseload; while the results of the “not-as-good” caseworkers are, well, not as good. As with residential facilities, we also need to establish the same success-rate transparency for foster agencies to generate performance "competition" between agencies. This would increase their sense of accountability and be a motivator for agencies to improve quality of service.

This system would also provide public analytics about each foster agency, revealing the average length of time their kids spend in foster care, their typical response time to submitted homestudies from potential family-placements and other relevant metrics to incentivize quality of care improvements.

Although having these performance metrics revealed can be potentially intimidating to the foster agencies, accumulating the data for these metrics can only begin after the tools discussed in this article have been deployed and are effectively reducing caseworker/agency workloads, and thus improving the overall outcomes of foster care.

A comprehensive online foster care system

These hurdles and dozens of other issues can be remedied by unifying the majority of foster care processes into a central automated online interface to be utilized by everyone involved- families, caseworkers, foster-youth, group homes, facilities, etc.

A unified system will help kids transition between placements

Presently, when a child changes placement the parenting-insights of former-caretakers who were with the child daily get essentially discarded for the most-part. By maintaining a per-child log, caretakers can build a unique parenting guide that remains associated with that child until their permanent placement is obtained. This guide is written/appended by each caretaker/placement, and every entry may be moderated by the caseworker. The caseworker has the option to make this guide also viewable to individual prospective adoptive-parents.

By reducing areas of uncertainty when a family receives a new placement, the guide minimizes the scale of disruption caused by placement-transition. This purpose of the guide is to share insights learned by every interim-caretaker and to inform future caretakers of important aspects that are unique to each specific child.

Examples of useful information could be:

  • He is quite a talented budding-chef, but frequently forgets to shut off the stove - always check it when he is done in the kitchen!

  • When there is a struggle to get her to go to sleep, reading her a story is a consistently-effective solution

Additionally, quality of care would be further improved by providing future placements with the option to communicate with caretakers of prior-placements. Former placements would need to opt-in to this and the caseworker would have ultimate control over who sees whom, but essentially this would provide an open forum for communication within a private online environment that is accessible only to current and former caretakers for that child.

Accelerating the adoption processes

When a new family wants to inquire about a waiting-child they can expect a 6-9 month process to get training, background-checked, homestudied and their home approved, and only then can they begin waiting on the next phase of child-inquiry. If the family gets matched with an out-of-state child they begin another 2-month delay, and at this point it is while both family and child are eager to begin their new lives together. The caseworker of the receiving-state (where the family lives) has up to 60-days to read and approve (or decline) the interstate-compact (ICPC) agreement during which time the child must remain in the prior placement (or interim housing within the sending-state.) Every step and interaction with foster care has a tediously-long wait until resolution. These delays trickle down to the children who will spend an excessively long time in foster care while there are families who would readily welcome them into their home today, and this dragged-out pace is a contributing-factor that leads to some kids aging out of the system before ever finding their “forever-home.”

Again, we can fix this. Let’s envision a new streamlined process where most facets of foster care can be accomplished rapidly through a single unified online system. A new family wants to begin their journey to adoption? They will be able to register online to begin taking classes at an agency near them.

When the family completes the process, their homestudy and family-profile are added into this system and can be immediately submitted for inquiries to provide a home for “waiting children.” Families may choose to add additional photos/video to their family-profile to aid in matching. Some states require homestudy submissions to be worker-to-worker, adding yet another hurdle to the current process and more workload for the caseworkers. With a unified system, the family submits the homestudy through the website normally and in worker-to-worker states it gets relayed through the family-caseworker’s account; the caseworker would then only have to approve the submission but is otherwise relieved of any of the correspondence workload.

Next, it is time to replace the current system of arbitrarily-formatted paper and PDF homestudies. With a unified foster care system, the caseworker for each child receives every homestudy and match-checklist in a consistent standardized content-format that is viewable directly within the online system, making the family-matching process much quicker.

When a family is selected for an out-of-state placement, the system presents the caseworker with a list of forms/processes needed for the ICPC in that state, along with relevant contact information for the Compact Administrators for that region. In the future, when the National Electronic Interstate Compact Enterprise (NEICE) is adopted by more states, the unified system can include the option to directly submit the ICPC online via NEICE.

Once the placement-plan commences, the new family gets granted access to the child’s full information electronically, also viewable through the unified system, avoiding the clerical task of providing stacks of paper-records at each change of placement for each child. When new records are accumulated during a placement, such as school history and behavioral reports, they are uploaded into the system directly by the child’s caretakers, further reducing the caseworker’s workload.

Pulling it all together for improved foster care outcomes

The effects of a comprehensive unified online foster care system would be a great improvement in foster care outcomes while substantially increasing the quality of care provided and reducing the workload of caseworkers. The long-term effects will be increased placements of foster children into suitable forever-homes and fewer foster youth aging-out. This benefits everyone; what are we waiting for?