May 25, 1997 in City

There’s Hope For Foster Care System

William Eggers Knight-Ridder
 
Tags:column

Fourteen-year old Dale, an animal-loving Kansan with an IQ of 130, has been in 130 foster homes since he entered the state child welfare system at age 3. “Just when you unpack your stuff it’s time to move again. I learned to turn off my feelings because if I thought about how bad I felt, I wouldn’t be alive,” says Dale.

Dale is a casualty of America’s child welfare system. He is not the only one. More than 500,000 children will pass through America’s foster-care system this year, double the number from a little over a decade ago. Nearly 100,000 of these children will never return to their original homes. Some will be adopted, but even these lucky ones will spend an average of three to five years waiting for a permanent family.

The unlucky ones will spend the remainder of their childhoods like Dale, drifting through foster-care hell. After aging out of the system at 18, many of these foster-care “graduates” will end up on welfare, on the streets, in jail or a combination of all three.

But there is hope. An adoption-reform bill recently passed by the House of Representatives would break the foster-care logjam if states pick up the ball and run with it.

And there is one state - Kansas - that already is providing the model others should emulate.

The Sunflower state recently became the first in the nation to fully privatize its adoption, foster care and family preservation services. No longer does the state recruit foster or adoptive parents or send in social workers to assist families in crisis. These responsibilities - and all others except child-abuse investigations - have been turned over to private organizations.

Kansas’ privatization effort is unprecedented.

Providers are paid a one-time, flat rate per child, regardless of how troubled the child is or how long he has been in the system. Each foster-care provider is paid about $12,800 per child, whether the child stays in foster care for one month or five years. Services for one child typically cost $17,000 to $25,000 a year, so the providers will lose money on any child that stays in substitute care for more than seven or eight months. Previously, the average stay in foster care was two years.

This system gives providers a powerful financial incentive to get the child back into his or her original home. If that’s not in the child’s best interests and the initial prognosis for the family is dim, then the provider will put the child on the adoption track by pursuing termination of parental rights. The end result should be much shorter foster-care stays for children.

Kansas’ privatized system also has rigorous standards of accountability. For example, previously the state was placing only one-fourth of foster-children in homes within six months of the child being freed for adoption. Lutheran Social Services, the lead adoption contractor, must increase the placement rate to 70 percent within 180 days and 90 percent within a year or it risks losing the contract. Requiring certain outcomes is key.

Competition for the contracts has prompted nonprofit providers to create an array of strategic partnerships and consortia, resulting in dramatic structural changes in Kansas’ child-welfare industry. “Within the last year there has been a total upheaval in how this business is done,” says one provider. To improve its services, one churchaffiliated provider partnered with a leading managed-care company in one contract and the Salvation Army in another.

Early results from the Kansas experiment are encouraging. To recruit adoptive families, the adoption providers formed the Kansas Adoption Network, which has blanketed the state with a massive recruitment marketing effort. Now you can’t turn on the television, listen to the radio, open your mail or read your newspaper in Kansas without hearing about a child in need of a loving home. In only four months, the number of adoptions has risen by 67 percent.

The bill making its way through Congress would help states to follow Kansas’ example. Among other things, it would make it easier for states to permanently remove children from chronically abusive parents; financially reward states for each adoption; and require states to provide proof of their efforts to find permanent homes for legally adoptable foster-care children.

Even teenage Dale has become more upbeat about his prospects of getting a real family. “For the first time, I feel like someone is really trying to find a home for me,” says Dale. “I feel like someone is actually doing something for me, someone cares.”

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