Over 420,000 children are currently in foster care.30 The majority of these children entered foster care due to allegations of neglect,31 which is largely associated with poverty. Many others entered foster care due to racist policies and decision-making, vague and subjective standards of child maltreatment, and other inconsistent decision-making practices.32 These children are disproportionately Black, Native, and in many states, Latinx.33 The disproportionate involvement of these children results in disproportionate harm due to the adverse outcomes associated with foster care. The harm that results from family separation and placement in foster care is immediate and accumulates daily. To prevent further harm, children should be reunited with their families and communities and reparations should be provided for the harm that was caused.
Require immediate efforts to achieve reunification.
Due to the harm that results from family separation and placement in foster care, immediate efforts should be made to safely reunify all children with their families. Cases progressing toward reunification should be expedited and cases not progressing toward reunification should be reassessed. In the absence of immediate and severe safety concerns, these efforts should be mandated by the courts responsible for overseeing these cases. When reunification with family is not possible, family-driven and community-based solutions should be sought that allow children to live safely in their communities with extended family or kin. These decisions should be made by families and communities.
Eliminate barriers that prevent or delay reunification.
Once children enter foster care, they are often prevented from reunifying with their families due to factors unrelated to immediate and severe risk of harm. These include income, employment, stable housing, criminal histories, immigration status, and others.34 Often the standard for reunification is much higher than the standard for removal, and parents are punished for any form of “non-compliance” without regard to the relevance or accessibility of services.35 Judges and courts should ensure that artificial barriers to reunification are eliminated to expedite the reunification of children with their families and communities.
Ensure all families have free, quality legal representation.
Quality legal representation should be provided in a timely way and from the initial point of contact with the family policing system to facilitate reunification. Research shows that parents who have legal representation have higher rates of reunification,36 and that interdisciplinary legal services—teams of lawyers, social workers, and parent advocates working in non-profit organizations—are effective in expediting permanency for children without impacting child maltreatment rates.37 Further, robust legal aid can help families in accessing benefits, fighting eviction or utility issues, addressing immigration concerns, and other legal issues—all of which are necessary for families to be well and prevent involvement with the family policing system.
Redirect funds used to support children in foster care to families upon reunification.
Families living in poverty are significantly more likely to become involved with the family policing system than families who are not living in poverty.38 Rather than providing families with material supports that can address the concerns that result from poverty, children are separated and placed in foster homes as a means of providing for their needs. The family policing system then provides unrelated foster parents with direct cash payments to meet children’s needs, rather than providing that assistance directly to the parents who need it. Further, when children are placed in foster care, parents often incur additional costs and may experience a loss of wages or reduced employment while struggling to meet the demands placed on them by the state.39 Until large-scale financial supports such as a child allowance and a universal basic income exist, families should be provided with the funds used to support children in foster care, including payments for specialized care, immediately upon reunification as a means of ensuring they have the resources necessary to meet their children’s needs. Additionally, families must be financially compensated for income and/or housing lost while children were in foster care or when meeting service plan demands.
End the criminalization of foster youth behaviors and release youth in foster care from carceral systems.
Due to the trauma and harm that result from family separation and placement in foster care, including experiencing multiple placement changes, children in foster care may engage in behaviors that reflect the trauma and harm they have experienced. These may include running away, absences from school, behavior deemed as aggressive or non-compliant, substance use, and others. These behaviors are often criminalized, and youth are arrested and detained by carceral systems.40 When this occurs, the adultification of Black youth contributes to inequities in decision-making and disparities in punishment.41 Youth in foster care should not be detained in carceral systems. Rather, they should be immediately released, and families of origin should be assessed for immediate reunification along with appropriate non-coercive, community-based resources and supports. When this is not possible, family-driven and community-based solutions should be sought that allow children to live safely in their communities with extended family or kin. These decisions should be made by families and communities.
End the use of congregate care placements.
While congregate care is supposed to be used only for children in need of short-term intensive services, in practice it is used as the default when systems fail to create sufficient placement resources. The use of these institutionalized settings such as group homes, detention centers, and residential treatment centers deprives children of essential connections to family and community, and subjects them to lasting and irreparable harm. These placements are often miles away from children’s families and communities, and children placed in congregate care are often subjected to further abuse.42 Institutionalized congregate care should be discontinued. As reunification is actively pursued, alternate solutions and community supports should be identified that allow children to live in non-coercive settings with family and community.
Provide reparations for children and families harmed by the family policing system.
The state-sanctioned separation of children from their families results in significant and lifelong trauma, as well as increased risk of mental health disorders, substance use disorders, unemployment, homelessness, and other forms of economic hardship.43 These harms are exacerbated for Black, Native, and Latinx children who are already at risk of adverse outcomes due to societal racism and inequities. For example, Black youth44 and youth who are LGBTQ+45 are disproportionately placed in congregate care settings, which correlates with disproportionate “crossover” from the family policing system to the juvenile punishment system—an even more restrictive system. For families and communities who are disproportionately torn apart by these systems, the resulting harm, extended time apart, and disintegration weakens their collective ability to overcome the structural disadvantages they already face.46 Family policing systems are responsible for this harm and must also be responsible for remedying its long-lasting effects. While reunification is an essential first step, family policing systems owe children and families reparations in the form of direct financial assistance to address the costs associated with the physical, social, and economic consequences resulting from family policing intervention.