Opinion: Inadequate housing for foster children is only part of the problem

Too many kids are removed from homes because of structural racism, and their families need more support.

Published on: September 26, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

The Baltimore City department of Social Services building.

The Baltimore Banner has been reporting on how, right now, in Maryland, children in the state’s care are living in hotel rooms and office buildings. We’re told the problem is a “shortfall of placement options” and the fact that group homes have closed. But this framing ignores the actual problem: Maryland doesn’t have too few foster homes, Maryland has too many foster children. We should be horrified not simply by where children are being housed, but also because they are being unnecessarily removed from their families in the first place.

At a fundamental level, the overwhelming majority of cases are nothing like the horror stories in the news. In Maryland, over 62% of the children in the foster system are there due to neglect. However, in many cases, family poverty is confused with neglect. Nationwide, 30% of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had adequate housing. But the same Maryland governments that are willing to spend the money to house foster youth alone in hotels won’t house families who lack decent housing in hotels in order to keep them together.

The problem is compounded by structural racism. The proportion of Black foster children in Maryland is far above their proportion in the general population — reflecting an even worse rate of disparity than the national average. And, while it should not be necessary to have to point this out, study after study demonstrates that this is not because nonwhite people are inherently inferior parents — it’s largely due to racial bias.

In many situations, defenders of the status quo blame the kids: They say the children are too difficult for families; they have too many “complex emotional and behavioral needs” so they have to be institutionalized. But research shows that group homes and institutions are not usually beneficial, and in some cases, they can even be more harmful.

That should be no surprise. The premise of such places is that the best way for youth with “complex emotional and behavioral needs” to get better is to institutionalize them with other youth with similar struggles in a place where they lack personal attention and care, right at the time they are most vulnerable to peer pressure.

In contrast, wraparound services do work.

With wraparound, anything a child needs is brought right into the child’s own home, or, when placement is genuinely necessary, a family foster home. There is nothing residential treatment does that wraparound doesn’t do better, and at less cost.

Rather than investing in institutions that take children away from their families and communities, and calling for more support only for foster parents, the state should be supporting families who are trying to raise children without access to the kinds of high-quality mental health care that their wealthier counterparts can buy. This approach benefits everyone. Children are spared the trauma of being removed from their families, and there will be plenty of room in good, safe family foster homes for the children who really need them.

Perhaps most depressing of all is how so many advocates support stopgap measures that will not benefit anyone in the long run. They urge litigators not to sue to shut down makeshift placements “[b]ecause it’s a roof. And it’s better now than it was.” Some reformers even suggest wraparound services for foster parents, rather than for the families they were removed from.

But what if we all demanded that families get concrete help to ease the worst effects of poverty — even a tiny amount can make a huge difference. What if they demanded wraparound services for families instead of another foster parent recruitment campaign that, even if it worked, would only make a bad system bigger.

The foster system is supposed to be a last resort. It’s time to stop treating it like our only option — or even the best option. We know that children in the foster system do worse on virtually every metric than their peers. We cannot justify taking children into state custody, ostensibly for their protection, when the state isn’t capable of giving children what they need. Children need their families, and their families need support.

Shanta Trivedi is an Assistant Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org.