A recent report of a study of young adults who had been placed in foster care as adolescents found that those in a program with caseworkers of higher levels of education and salaries, lower caseloads and access to more services had fewer mental problems, ulcers and cardiometabolic disorders.
This was not a study that randomly assigned foster youth to these two types of care so it is well to be cautious in going too far with the results. Yet it is a very promising finding. We know too little about the effects of foster care. We know that some children thrive and go on to be productive members of the community. Other children leaving foster care have troubled lives involving substance abuse, homelessness and criminal activity. We need to know what makes the difference.
It is good to know that enhancing foster care seems to make a positive difference in the lives of youth. At what cost? The report includes 2 items regarding cost. Enhanced foster care cost 60% more. The youth who were in the enhanced foster care group spent nearly 2 more years in care than the other group.
Would our community agree to spend 60% more on foster care then we do now? As a state we are having difficulty funding K through 12 education. We can’t figure out how to have all of our citizens covered by health insurance. We have backed off of funding higher education. Increasing foster care funding by 60% doesn’t seem realistic.
A note of caution. This study only involved adolescents. They are just a part of the foster care caseload and we don’t know if the same type of enhanced foster care would have the same results for younger children. So if we only funded enhanced foster care for adolescents, total foster care funding would not have to increase 60%.
The second cost of spending nearly 2 more years in foster care raises a more difficult question. Isn’t foster care supposed to be temporary? One idea behind foster care is that children should only be placed out of their home when they are in danger and that a safe and permanent home should be found as quickly as possible preferably with their own legal family. The findings of this study turn this on its head.
In this society we are constantly balancing the value of family independence and autonomy against the interests of the larger community. This study suggests that larger community interests regarding these youth might supersede family interests. On the other hand how about the idea of enhanced family services? Perhaps it is time for a study of what adolescents like those in the study might achieve with enhanced services within their own home.
By John Poertner
9 June 2008