Foster care is widely portrayed as a safe haven, used only for the most severely abused and neglected children. That’s the Disney version. In real life, foster care is not a haven. Often it is not even safe.
The issue paper on “erring on the side of the child” described children taken from their own homes only to be beaten, raped, or killed in foster care. Of course most foster parents do not abuse the children in their care (and abuse in foster care includes children abusing each other as well as acts committed by their caretakers). But several studies have found a rate of abuse in foster care significantly higher than the rate in the general population — high enough to demand that we rethink our view of foster care as a safe haven.
An examination of case records in Baltimore found abuse in 28 percent of the homes studied — more than one in four. That’s all the more alarming considering that 35 percent of Maryland foster children wind up in four or more different homes. A second study, also from Baltimore, found the rate of “substantiated” cases of sexual abuse in foster care more than four times higher than the rate in the general population.
Even what is said to be a model foster care program, where caseloads are kept low and workers and foster parents get special training, is not immune. When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in their foster homes — a figure far higher than the real number for the general population. (See Issue Paper 3, Understanding Child Abuse Numbers). Furthermore, this study asked only about abuse in the one foster home the children had been in the longest.
These studies apply only to family foster homes. They do not count abuse in institutions, and they do not count what amounts to “institutionalized abuse” — abuse built into the way the system is run.
During the 1980s, a whole new lexicon became commonplace in child welfare: We had “boarder babies,” effectively caged in hospital beds, “overnighters” who crowded into offices by day and were farmed out to anyplace that would take them each night, and “congregate care facilities” like those in New York City until 1989. Infants and toddlers were jammed into shelters where sanitary conditions were so poor that two children died of infectious diarrhea (there may have been more deaths — the record keeping was as bad as the sanitation). Only nine percent of the children were properly immunized. They were cared for in shifts by untrained workers who often didn’t even know their names. All of these problems are a direct outgrowth of a foster care system overcrowded with children who do not need to be there.
But even when physical conditions are perfect and foster parents do their best, child savers underestimate the emotional trauma of the foster care placement itself — the sudden removal of everything comforting, loving and familiar. It’s a trauma compounded when, as often happens, a child is moved from foster home to foster home emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone. As one such child put it: “I felt I was in a zoo and I was being transferred to another cage.”
This is what some former foster children say about the experience:
Anne. Nine homes in nine years: “When you spend your life going from place to place and knowing you’re not going to be in any place for very long, you learn not to reach out, not to care, not to feel … My bitterness is not that I went through what I did … my bitterness is that I don’t think it should have had to happen. There was no reason why my family’s life should have been destroyed … The people that I’ve seen, the kids that have emerged, [from foster care] are … dead. Their hearts are functioning. The ol’ heart’s pumping the blood around. But they’re basically dead inside. It’s been killed. Either they had to kill it to survive physically, or somebody else killed it in them. Whatever it is that makes people human.”
Maria. Multiple placements over four years: “They told me, ‘leave your home, live in the system, you’ll have better opportunities.’ I haven’t had any of that. I expected a home. One steady home. Someplace at least that I could call home. I didn’t care so much if the parents didn’t accept me as their child, but at least there’d be someone to care for us.”
Jamal. Age sixteen. Number of placements unknown: “I’m a sixteen-year-old kid. Who’s going to adopt me? So I’ve turned hard. I’m a rock now. I’m not letting them get to me. You can call that disturbed if you want, but that’s the way it is.”
1. Memorandum and Order of Judge Joseph G. Howard, L.J. v. Massinga, Civil No. JH-84-4409, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, July 27, 1987. Back to Text.
2. Maryland Citizen Board for Review of Foster Care of Children, 1988 Annual Report, p.4 Back to Text.
3. Mary I Benedict and Susan Zuravin, Factors Associated With Child Maltreatment by Family Foster Care Providers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, June 30, 1992) charts, pp.28,30. Back to Text.
4. David Fanshel et. al., Foster Children in a Life Course Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p.90. Back to Text.
5. Karen Benker and James Rempel, “Inexcusable Harm: The Effect of Institutionalization on Young Foster Children in New York City,” City Health Report (New York: Public Health Consortium for New York City), May, 1989. Back to Text.
6. Michelle Gillen, Florida: State of Neglect, WPLG-TV, Miami, 1987. Back to Text.
7. Richard Wexler, Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990), pp. 175-176. (Interview with the author). Back to Text.
8. Caroline Young, “A Bitter Cry: The System Was a Flop,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 22, 1987. Back to Text.
9. Michael D’Antonio, “A Life In Limbo,” Newsday, Dec. 5, 1988. Back to Text