As a field, child welfare seems to be particularly vulnerable to myths and misconceptions, which are often backed up by inaccurate interpretations of research. Unfortunately, these myths and misconceptions, when promoted by powerful and wealthy advocates, can be perpetuated and enshrined into policy. This is the beginning of an occasional series in which I attempt to deconstruct some of the most common myths. We start with one of the most common and potentially destructive–the myth that children left with their families always do better than they would if placed in foster care.
This myth was recently exhibited in all its glory by the Arizona Star as part of a major series on child welfare in that state. Here is how reporter Emily Bregel describes a frequently quoted study.
Research indicates that children left with their own troubled families fare better than those brought into the foster care system. A 2007 study found children whose families were investigated for abuse and neglect but remained home were less likely to become teenage parents or juvenile delinquents than similarly abused children who were removed from home. Those left at home were also more likely to have jobs as young adults, compared with children of similar backgrounds who were put in foster care.
This oft-misquoted study was published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Joseph Doyle in 2007. Doyle’s study has been used relentlessly–and often inappropriately–by advocates of reducing foster care placements. Doyle used a creative method to estimate the effects of foster care on Illinois children ages 5 to 15 who were receiving welfare and who were investigated for maltreatment for the first time between July 1, 1990 and June 31, 1991. He compared long-term outcomes (delinquency, teen motherhood, and employment) for the children assigned to investigators with higher removal rates to outcomes for those assigned to investigators with lower removal rates.
By comparing the outcomes for the two groups, Doyle could estimate the effects of being placed in foster care for children who were on the margin of placement–those who might have been placed by one investigator and not by another. For those children, Doyle found large differences favoring those children who were not removed from their homes. Doyle’s results say nothing about the children whose cases were unambiguous and who would have been placed (or not placed) regardless of the investigator.1
Obviously, we cannot do a controlled experiment in which the same child is both placed and not placed in foster care to get at the true difference that it makes in children’s lives. Perhaps the best we can do is ask the children themselves. Researchers at the University of Chicago’s ChapinHall research center surveyed 727 sixteen and seventeen year olds who had in foster care in California for at least six months. When asked about their treatment by their parents or other caregivers before entering foster care, 36% reported that they were hit hard with a fist, kicked or slapped; 32.4% reported that a caregiver threw or pushed them; 28.4% reported missing school to do chores or care for a family member; 28.3% reported having to go without things they needed because the parent’s paycheck was spent on “adult interests,” 26.4% reported that their caregiver beat them up; and 24.9% reported that their caregiver failed to protect them from harm by someone else. A shocking 29.7% reported sexual molestation and 20.7% reported rape. Horribly, 18.6% reported that their caregiver tried to choke, smother or strangle them and 16.9% reported being locked in a closet or room for several hours or longer.
When asked about characteristics of the parent or caregiver they lived with before entering foster care, 48.8% reported inadequate parenting skills, 49.7% a criminal record, 48.3% drug abuse, 48.8 alcohol abuse, 33% reported that a caregiver was abused by or abused a spouse or partner and 25.6% said a caregiver had mental illness. In addition, a total of 56.9% reported that they either agreed, strongly agreed or very strongly agreed with the statement, “All in all I was lucky to be placed in the foster care system,” while only 17.6% disagreed.
The California survey suggests that more often than not, foster care is an improvement over families where children are unsafe, fearful, hungry, unsupervised, or unloved. However, I have learned from my own experience as a social worker that, while some children make the miraculous journey from hell to heaven when they are placed in the best foster homes, many foster homes are only slightly less chaotic and more nurturing than the homes from which the children have been plucked. The beatings, rapes, and hunger may be over but many children and youth continue to be neglected emotionally, educationally, and in other ways in foster care. When combined with the trauma caused by separation from family, it is not surprising that young people whose home lives were on the border between acceptable and unacceptable to an investigator may do worse in foster care than they would have done at home.
Neglect of children in foster care is inexcusable: these children need more than the usual nurturing in order to make up for the trauma and deprivation they may have already suffered in their birth homes. That’s why we need to increase the number of children placed with kin as well as other alternatives to traditional foster care, such as residential schools and hybrid arrangements that combine features of foster and group homes. But what we don’t need to do is abandon children in homes where they are not safe.
The misuse of Doyle’s article has supported the ideas that it is always better to reduce the number of children in foster care and that reduced care numbers are a prima facie indicator of improvement. It has led to many systems, like that of my home town of Washington DC, using reduction of foster care numbers as an outcome in itself–independent of trends in actual maltreatment. Using foster care reduction as an indicator of success fails to recognize that some placements are needed to keep children safe. It also means that jurisdiction, like New York City for example, may be claiming partial credit for the results of gentrification.
The misuse of research and data, especially when translated into policy, should disturb everyone regardless of their feelings about the particular issue. Doyle’s research suggests that when the case for removal is marginal, the default option might be to keep the child at home–with supervision and services by the state. It does not suggest that removal of a child from home is always the wrong decision or that programs should be rated solely on the ability to cut foster care rolls.
- Another problem with making inferences from Doyle’s study about foster care today is the age of his data, which are from 1990 and 1991. Child welfare culture and practices have changed greatly since that time and the relevance of research from 25 years ago is questionable. ↩