To Ease the Burden on the Foster Care System, We Must Fight the Conditions that Fuel It

Many years ago, before my time at Empower Missouri, I was a foster parent. While my time licensed was short and I had very few children move through my home, I was (and still am) passionate about easing the social conditions that fuel foster care.

I remember learning how most children brought into foster care are placed there because of neglect. In fact, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2020 76% of children (nationally) placed into foster care are there as a result of neglect. Missouri’s numbers were slightly different, though neglect still accounted for half of all kiddos taken into care here. This was taught as part of the licensing process as a way to understand that not every child we may care for might have a horrific experience of abuse in their past. However, the trainers seemed to miss the larger implications here. 

Missouri law defines neglect as “failure to provide, by those responsible for the care, custody, and control of the child, the proper or necessary support, education as required by law, nutrition or medical, surgical, or any other care necessary for the child’s well-being.” Neglect is not always an intentional choice- and state law doesn’t require that parents have to be shown to intentionally withhold education, nutrition, or medical care- only that it wasn’t provided. In 2021, Missouri had just over 13,000 kids in foster care. Over 5,000 of those kids will have two or more placements, which is a lot of disruption and turmoil in a child’s life.

The primary goal of foster care is to provide safe care for children while their families attain stability. That can happen in the home with significant services, and sometimes it happens while the children are in an alternative placement (like a foster home, group home, or kinship care). There is significant stigma that exists in the foster care system, especially for community members who may be unfamiliar with it. Children in foster care are viewed as ‘problem’ children, especially when the trauma they’re experiencing manifests as maladaptive behaviors. Foster parents are viewed either as self sacrificing saints, or as leeches only fostering ‘for the money,’ which is laughable. Parents who have experienced that separation face the hardest stigma of all- they can be seen as child abusers and monsters. However, as we look at the financial reality that many low-income households face, intervention from Children’s Division for neglect is a very common experience. 

There are many factors of poverty that can fall under the definition of neglect, though they have nothing at all to do with fitness or safety of a parent. In 2022, 225,000 kids experienced poverty in Missouri. Food insecurity is a common experience for low-income families in our state. Between 16-34% of families with children reported they weren’t able to eat enough because food was too expensive. Twenty-two percent of Missouri’s children live in housing with a high cost burden (their household pays over 30% of their income towards housing), and those households are at high risk of eviction or housing interruption. Parents who work in low wage jobs may have to forgo a day’s pay or find different transportation to take their child to regular medical appointments. It is no wonder, families below the poverty line are 22 times as likely to interact with the Child Welfare system. Some estimates say that up to 30% of the kids in foster care nationally could return home if their family was simply able to access adequate and safe housing. Black households are disproportionately overrepresented among children in foster care and in poverty rates, a double whammy that is crushing for many. 

The transition back home is long and difficult for families who experience separation. Nationally, kids spend an average of 22 months in foster care once they are placed there. Separation from their family increases the child’s Adverse Childhood Experience score. Higher ACE scores in children have been shown to lead to poor health and mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and otherwise risky behavior. Seventeen percent of children who age out of foster care in Missouri have experienced homelessness in the past 2 years, only 68% have a high school diploma or GED by age 19, only 44% are working, and 5% have a child before they turn 17. While foster care is sometimes necessary and life saving, it is important to recognize it can also be a form of violence to children who have grown up in poverty. We should be very serious about supporting families with kids who are struggling to make ends meet, instead of quickly jumping to place children. 

Empower Missouri is just beginning to dive into the complicated child welfare system to see how we can best advocate for families and children experiencing poverty. Next Friday, at our October Friday Forum, we’ll hear from Mary Chant, CEO of Missouri Coalition for Children, to learn more about this important topic. Register now to join us!

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