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Human costs of foster care

In a new report released by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, Voices from the Inside, foster children and birth, foster and adoptive parents reveal the daily costs exacted from them by a child welfare system that is overly reliant on foster care. The structure of federal financing contributes to prolonged stays in foster care by limiting states' ability to provide services that might shorten a child's time in foster care or avoid placement altogether.

These Voices from the Inside represent the real-life daily struggles of those in foster care. Together, they provided powerful glimpses of a system that often does not succeed in serving the children and families who need it most. Foster care is vital to protecting seriously abused and neglected children. But too many children languish for years in foster care, moving from one temporary home to another. Federal financing mechanisms contribute to this “foster care drift.” The structure of federal financing favors placing and keeping children in foster care, sometimes for longer than is necessary, over other services that might keep or bring children safely home or move them more quickly to a new family.

“These ‘voices from the inside’ are powerful reminders of how much is at stake for the half million children in foster care today,” stated former Representative Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), Chairman of the Pew Commission. “Their stories illustrate the serious challenges facing the child welfare system, challenges that often have roots in federal financing and court oversight of child welfare.”

The costs of foster care are typically defined in terms of dollars and financial implications. However, in a series of focus group discussions conducted by the Pew Commission, former foster youth, birth parents and foster and adoptive parents described costs that go well beyond dollars alone. The costs are borne first by those on the frontlines of foster care, but society as a whole pays a price when the system does not achieve the positive results it was intended to.

The report identifies six long-term costs of foster care:

“The Pew Commission is dedicated to improving outcomes for children in foster care by developing practical, feasible policy recommendations to reform federal child welfare financing and strengthen court oversight of child welfare cases,” stated Vice Chairman and former Representative Bill Gray. “Because the mechanics of financing and court operations can sometimes seem far removed from the everyday experiences of children in foster care, we have endeavored to keep children at the heart of all of our work.”
“Improving outcomes for these children will take more than the heroic efforts of individuals or the resilience that enables some children to beat the odds,” stated Frenzel. “It will take thoughtful changes in public policy and court oversight. And it will take public will and compassion equal to the individual commitment of the parents and children whose voices shape this report.”

About the focus group discussions

The Pew Commission conducted three focus groups in September and October 2003. The groups were among eight former foster youth in Washington, D.C., 13 birth parents in New York City, and 11 foster and adoptive parents in Denver. Each discussion was led by one member of the Commission, and attended by two additional members who participated throughout the discussion.

About the Pew Commission

The nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care was launched on May 7, 2003 under the leadership of former Congressmen Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) and Bill Gray (D-Pa.). Supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, this expert panel of experienced legislators, child welfare administrators and providers, judges, parents, and youth is committed to improving outcomes for some of the nation's most vulnerable children by developing practical, evidence-based recommendations related to federal financing and court oversight of child welfare. It will report those recommendations in 2004. For more information about the Commission, or to view the report, visit

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