Foster Care: The Crisis Behind the Crisis

The state of foster care in America has stirred deep concern among public officials, social workers, and researchers for decades. More than 35 years ago, Congressman George Miller (D-CA)  was already decrying the “continuing crisis in foster care,”1 a crisis evident in an explosion of the number of children in foster care—just 272,000 in 1962, up sharply to almost 320,000 in 1972, and still slightly over 300,000 in 1980.2 In the late 1980s, when the number of children in foster care remained at about 300,000, Thomas Groninger—a recruiter of foster families for Pennsylvania—was still lamenting that “more kids are being referred to the foster care system than we can handle. . . . It’s a state and national problem.”3 Things only got worse in the 1990s, when observers watched in dismay as the number of children in foster care skyrocketed, reaching almost 570,000 in 1999.4 What was even more alarming about the 1990s surge in foster-care placements was that it brought into the system a flood of children whom observers reported “tend[ed] to be younger and more distressed,” so distressed that they often “set fires, sexually abuse[d] others, torture[d] animals, and attempt[ed] suicide.”5 Alarmed by the metastasis in the foster-care system, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a measure creating new incentives for adoptions that take children out of foster care or—when adoption does not occur—requiring that child-welfare officials hold permanency hearings not later than 12 months after a child has entered foster care while eliminating “long-term foster-care” as a permanent option.6  This measure has helped shrink the foster-care population somewhat, but in late 2011, the number of children in foster care still stood at over 400,000.7 No wonder that in 2013 Claire Pomeroy—the Dean of Medicine for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis—would still label the number of children in foster ca
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