Updated: Nov 14
The foster care system in the United States is broken. More often than not, the system actively harms those it seeks to protect.
There are measures we can take every step of the way to reform our broken foster care system: prior to removal, during proceedings, and after placement. In honor of Foster Care Awareness Month, we’re going to explore these varied solutions.
Preventative Care: Remove Fewer Children from Their Homes
Being removed from one’s home is always a traumatic experience, especially when a child is removed due to abuse or neglect in the home. The goal of the foster care system is to ensure the well-being of vulnerable children, but it often fails in this regard.
A removal of a child from their home should always be taken seriously, and it must consider many complex aspects of the child’s life to determine if they would truly be better off in another home.
Here are several preventative measures we can take to avoid the traumatic situation of removing a child from their home.
Provide Financial Resources to Families in Need
In many cases, children suffering from neglect come from families struggling with poverty. In the US, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25. A single parent working full time falls below the federal poverty line—and that is before accounting for the additional costs of childcare.
Many states offer financial assistance programs such as TANF, but accessing welfare can be a struggle in itself.
We can help these families by:
lobbying for higher state and federal minimum wages
paying workers more, if we are in a position to do so
increasing accessibility to welfare programs
increasing funding for welfare programs
providing free and affordable childcare to low-income parents
Increase Accessibility & Affordability of Mental Health Services
Many children in the foster care system have parents who struggle with addiction. Our culture often labels addiction as a personal failing, but addiction is a medical condition, just like depression, chronic anxiety, or a broken bone. Proper care is required to heal.
People who struggle with substance abuse issues require additional support. By increasing the accessibility and affordability of insurance and mental health services, we can reduce the number of children placed in foster care.
Universal healthcare would be the ideal solution. The United States is an outlier in the world when it comes to healthcare. Every other industrial, wealthy country in the world offers universal healthcare to its citizens.
According to the World Health Organization, universal healthcare can be defined as a system where “all people and communities can use the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”
In short, universal healthcare offers guaranteed medical care to those who need it without the risk of financial ruin.
By supporting parents in maintaining their own health and well-being, we can support the health and well-being of their children.
Provide More Family Planning Tools to Parents
Universal healthcare would increase the access to mental health services to parents in need of them, and it would also provide adequate family planning resources, such as contraceptives, to those who are not ready for children.
In 14 states across the US, abortion is banned, meaning pregnant people who know they cannot provide for their children must bring those children into the world regardless of the impact it has on their and their children’s lives.
Ensuring that women and people who are pregnant have access to the healthcare they require will help us reform the foster care system by making sure parents are prepared to bring their children into the world.
We can also offer educational family planning tools to parents, such as free parenting courses, books, and videos through the public library system.
Connect Parents to Community Resources
When parents struggle with personal and systemic sources of trauma, they often seek out isolation, which further impacts their mental health and overall well-being negatively. Stigma and stress cause further trauma in their lives, and their children suffer as a result.
By connecting parents in need to community resources, we can build supportive communities and give vulnerable children a network of support.
This might look like offering more community activities, increasing funding for community-based programs, and developing online and in-person community spaces.
Help Parents Heal: Foster Care Reform from the Inside
Ultimately, removing fewer children from their families of origin is in the best interest of the United States children and their families, and we can achieve this goal by supporting parents and guardians of vulnerable children.
By working through our own personal trauma, we create space to support others' well-being. Spreading awareness about trauma-informed values, concepts, and tools is another way that we can reform our foster care system.
The Best Foster Care Reform Solution: Hold Investigations Prior to Removal
In some states and counties, removing children from their homes is the first step in an investigative process. Instead of being quick to take children away from their parents, court professionals must make rational and thoughtful decisions that consider various complex aspects of a child’s well-being prior to removal. We must assume the best rather than the worst.
In 99% of cases, we must complete investigations prior to removal. County and state courts must be able to prove that removal is the best option for the child before that removal takes place. Many foster cases hinge on neglect, poverty bias, and racial discrimination, and their cases do not hold up in court.
To prevent further traumatization of vulnerable children, we must do our due diligence.
During Proceedings: Trauma-Informed Approaches to Foster Care Reform
Actionable solutions for people who work in and with the system every day are as essential as preventative solutions. Now, let’s explore trauma-informed solutions that address some of the glaring issues within the foster care system.
Provide Trauma Training to Court Professionals & Families
Trauma-informed training is a valuable tool for teaching court professionals and families the science and skills of healing. TIC training transforms our perspectives, beliefs, and behaviors to better serve ourselves and others.
Anyone working in foster care—from social workers to judges—should receive some form of trauma-informed training. Embedding TIC into collegiate degrees is another step we can take.
In addition, providing accessible and affording training to families, parents, guardians, or anyone with a vested interest in the children of the court would help spread trauma-informed values such as safety, compassion, DEIB, collaboration, trust, and empowerment.
Increase the Number of Permanent, Loving Homes
There is a shortage of homes for children in need, and the pandemic only worsened conditions. We need more housing with responsible adults for children in the foster care system.
To achieve that, there are several steps we can take:
increasing foster care awareness
decreasing stigma around children in the system
ensuring children receive the quality care they deserve
increasing the number of social workers and case workers
increasing funding for foster care
Avoid Temporary Placements
The ultimate goal of foster care is to protect children and ensure children are in loving homes. However, the foster care system often does more harm than good by uprooting children’s lives and causing more trauma, which contributes to mental health issues and developmental delays.
In many cases, children are moved from home to home, forced to leave everything behind, and start over—again and again. For children in foster care, moving is traumatic. It removes any remaining sense of stability, especially when kids are forced to change schools, leave their community and friends behind, or take long commutes that take away time from other social experiences.
By avoiding temporary placements, we can reduce the number of moves a child must endure.
Find Supportive Relatives or Family Friends
Even with these reforms, there are still situations in which a child is better off at a placement that is not their family of origin. In most cases, a trusted family member or someone the child already knows and feels safe with is the best choice.
We must make more efforts to seek out biological and fictive families as a first step. Keeping children with people they are already connected to is critical to improving outcomes.
How You Can Help
While our broken foster care system requires structural changes, we can make a difference as individuals to work towards systemic change. Here are a few actions you can take if you want to help mend this broken system.
Consider fostering a child. If you’re considering growing your family, learn more about foster care to see if it’s right for you. There are hundreds of thousands of children in the US who need loving homes with people like you.
You can help by normalizing being a foster parent, even if you choose not to foster in the near future. Even considering it and talking about it with friends and family can go a long way to changing perceptions about children in the system.
Learn more about foster care. Education is power. You can help foster children in need by learning the truth and getting interested. You can watch videos online, read articles, and learn about my firsthand experience in my memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase.
Recognize your impact. Even though this is a systemic issue, you can have an impact. By speaking up, advocating for foster children, learning more, and opening your home, you can have an enormous impact on the outcomes for these children.
Final Thoughts: Foster Care is Connected to Systemic Issues
The solutions to our broken foster care system are multi-faceted. If we want to support vulnerable children, we must also address the housing crisis, financial instability, and access to healthcare.
If you work in the foster care system or want to see reforms on this front, these are the biggest takeaways:
Courts must be able to prove their case before children are removed.
Great efforts must be made to ensure children stay with adults they are already connected to.
There is so much more I could say about this topic that it would fill a book. If you want to learn more about trauma-informed care, be sure to check our Trauma-Informed Masterclass. Early bird pricing is available for a few more days!