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  • Children in foster care have had difficult lives, but there is nothing inevitable about their trajectories. Tweet This
  • Is foster care responsible for the kids in the system who end up in prison as adults? And is there anything we can do to fix it? Tweet This

You’ve no doubt heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, “a disturbing national trend,” according to the ACLU, “wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Now, according to some experts, including those present at a recent Brookings Institution event, there is a “foster-care-to-prison pipeline.”

It’s true that a shocking number of kids who have spent time in foster care or who have aged out end up incarcerated. As much as 7% of the prison population in the U.S. has spent time in the foster care system, according to Ron Haskins of Brookings. And 15% of inmates in California prisons have spent time in foster care.

But the “pipeline” metaphor is supposed to imply inevitability. Once something is in a pipeline, it can’t get out. But the word also implies something about the institutions and people who may have prevented a child from choosing a different route. The knock against schools is that their zero-tolerance policies and use of police officers, rather than “restorative justice” or in-school suspensions are part of the problem.

There are plenty of reasons to question that assessment, but how is foster care responsible for the kids who end up in prison as adults? And is there anything we can do to fix it? One idea would be to put fewer children into foster care at the beginning. If they don’t get put into the pipeline, the thinking goes, none of this will be a problem.

JooYeun Chang, the managing director of public policy at Casey Family Programs, told the Brookings audience that we

traumatize kids by removing them from only communities they have known…place them at best in family settings or multiple family settings or congregate care settings…that are no better than jails.

And the reason we take so many kids out, particularly minority kids, she explained, is that “our system has been built on centuries of racism classism and xenophobia.” We have “this idea of rescuing children from bad people instead of treating underlying poverty addiction or mental illness.”

So, is the problem that we remove too many kids from their homes? It’s awfully hard to demonstrate that since we can’t separate the effects on kids of being in abusive and/or neglectful homes and the effect of the foster care system. As Youngmin Yi and Christopher Wildeman point out in their article in the new issue of The Future of Children, “prior research provides little insight into the direct effects of foster care placement on children: the few studies designed to isolate the effect of foster care placement haven’t reached a consensus regarding its impact on children.”

The authors also note that in addition to the difficulty of determining whether foster care is causing negative effects on kids or is merely correlated with them, child protective services systems vary widely across the states. In principle, this could mean we could do some interesting research comparisons based on different approaches to child welfare, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

But even if we wanted to reduce the number of kids in care, it’s not at all clear who would take them in. Most states have a severe shortage of foster families. Many people in the child welfare world would like to see a greater reliance on kin care.

But as Harvard Professor Robert Sampson, who offered the keynote lecture for the Brookings event pointed out, it will be very difficult to keep these children at home or even in their communities because the problems likely affect their extended families as well. “If you have a parent who has been arrested, you are twice as likely to have an aunt or an uncle who has been arrested,” he said during his speech. When I asked Sampson about kin placement as a strategy for keeping kids out of the foster system, he said that at least with regard to the neighborhoods he has studied, “it’s not a viable strategy.”

Many of the panelists were excited about the prospect of the recently passed federal Family First legislation to offer more evidence-based preventive service programs to families in crisis. As of now, only 7% of these programs seem to have any effect, according to a presentation by Brookings fellow, Ron Haskins.

All this being said, there is no doubt we could make foster care better. We could do a better job recruiting more stable, middle-class families of all races. We could do a better job supporting the families who do this work (the Brookings Institution’s recently-launched CHAMPS program aspires to find policies that will help with these goals.) And we could do more to move children into permanent adoptive homes more quickly. Children in foster care have had difficult lives—both before entering the system and while they are in it—but there is nothing inevitable about their trajectories.

​​​​​Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. Her latest book is Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat (Templeton Press).