- Blaming corporate America for the problems of foster care will only divert our attention from real reforms. Tweet This
- The truth is that there is a shortage of good foster homes, public and private caseworkers are overworked and undertrained, and many foster parents are viewed as glorified babysitters. Tweet This
If the real problems with the child welfare system were the ones portrayed in the new movie, Foster Boy, we could fix foster care with the snap of some legislative fingers tomorrow. The movie—a foster care legal thriller (a category that thankfully hasn’t existed until now)—was released this month to praise from critics who have excused its terrible dialogue and absurd plot devices because it tells an “important story about systematic abuse within the foster care system.”
The story it tells—ostensibly based on true events—is of the abuse suffered by a child in foster care because of decisions made by a for-profit company that contracts with the state. The service provider, Bellcore, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and its leaders are preparing excitedly for an IPO, but first they have to settle any outstanding legal claims against it. A young man named Jamal (played by Shane Paul McGhie) is suing the company for $20 million, claiming that its caseworkers knew about (and could have predicted) the abuse he suffered at the hands of foster parents and a foster brother who he was placed with despite a violent history.
His lawyer, a fancy corporate attorney (played by Matthew Modine) who is punished for his heartlessness by being assigned to represent Jamal, eventually comes to see the justice of his client’s cause. But first he has to leave behind his conservative, money-grubbing ways. Early in the movie he explains that “you can’t believe everything you read on Google” because “a liberal invented it.” Eventually, of course, the lawyer realizes the evils of corporate America when the multimillionaire foster care executives pay someone to hit him with a car and threaten his family.
This is bonkers. For-profit foster care companies represent a small fraction of the organizations—both public and private—that certify foster homes and place children in them. Forty-three states don’t use for-profit companies at all. In states that do, like Massachusetts, they account for 4.42% of placements. The idea that the problems of our child welfare system are driven in any way by greedy foster care magnates drinking expensive champagne and flying on private jets is laughable.
It’s true, of course, that many foster children do suffer serious abuse. Indeed, one foster mother in West Virginia told me that a caseworker from her local department of social services didn’t inform her about a child’s history of being a victim of sexual abuse before she placed the child in her home with other younger children. But the caseworker and her bosses were all government employees, and none of them were getting paid a bounty to make the placement. The truth is that there is a shortage of good foster homes, public and private caseworkers are overworked and undertrained, and many foster parents are viewed as glorified babysitters, undeserving of information about allergies, abuse histories, or other vital information in caring for children. The result is a system that takes shortcuts when it comes to children’s safety and well-being.
There are egregious cases of badly run for-profit foster care companies. But for every one of these, there are dozens of badly run state and local child welfare systems.
Of course, money plays a role in all this. There are those who argue that because the federal government pays states when kids are in foster care or group homes but does not do as much to compensate them for the preventive services that keep kids out of those situations, we are effectively incentivizing states to warehouse children. But caseworkers also have plenty of incentive to leave children in their homes—removing kids is a bureaucratic morass, requiring court hearings and more paperwork, not to mention the need to find a place for the child besides the caseworker’s cubicle.
We can always change financial incentives to try to get better child welfare outcomes, but the right balance is hard to strike. Paying more when a system achieves a lower number of kids in foster care sounds good, but then the incentive is to leave kids in potentially dangerous homes. Paying when a state achieves a lower rate of maltreatment could be a problem in that investigators could be incentivized to “substantiate” fewer allegations of abuse or neglect. (Rates of repeat maltreatment might be a better indicator.) Even paying to keep kids in families and out of institutions can lead to all sorts of problematic outcomes.
The child welfare system raises a complex set of problems. Frankly, none of us would trust the fate of our own children to a government bureaucracy. And few large companies or even nonprofits would give us much confidence, either. The best hope is that more stable, loving, middle-class families surrounded by supportive religious (or other) communities offer to take in foster kids and hold agencies (both public and private) accountable for making the best decisions about their fate. In the meantime, though, blaming corporate America for the problems of foster care will only divert our attention from real reforms.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.