Foster care is not good and we should make it better

You show up to live with a foster family at age 12. You’re traumatized from the freshest round of sadistic abuse your biological mom recently inflicted on you, but at least that’s over. You’re hoping for a respite, for some tenderness, for some love. You are instead greeted with coldness and a set of strict house rules. You do the dishes for the family of 8 after every meal. You are told you will be skipping school the next morning to help your new foster dad on outdoor construction sites. You will not be paid.

You are led down to a dingy basement that you share with four other foster kids, including a special needs infant that is not getting the attention it needs. The door is locked behind you. No one is allowed to come up until the following morning. You empty out your garbage bag of belongings and climb into your bed. You try to appreciate the fact that at least you got to walk down the stairs to this dungeon. Your last trip down a set of stairs was when you were sent tumbling after your mom kicked you down a flight at your apartment complex. That bloody adventure is what finally got child protective services to remove you from her care. You close your eyes and try to sleep through the babies cries.


Your first memories are of being a toddler and feeling the sharp pain of a wooden spoon whacking your head. You cry, whack. You try to sit at a table not designated for foster kids, whack. You try to stop your foster mom from hitting your sibling, whack. You don’t like the food on offer? Whack, whack, whack. When your mom is feeling extra medieval you’re hung up by your collar on a door hanger for a while. Complain about that, more whacks from the spoon. You are given no parental love and no hope that anything will ever be different. 


You are 14. You wake up one day to learn that your unstable, violent mother has left. For good. You have 5 younger siblings to look after and an apartment to manage. You are scared to tell anyone what’s happening because you fear being separated from your siblings. You steal to get by and somehow make the whole thing work for 6 months, until your power and water are cut off. 


Those are just a few of the horror-movie scenarios you’ll read about if you go to the library and pick up every book you see about foster care. I’ve learned about parents who prostituted their pre-teen daughters, or pulled out every one of their child’s teeth as soon as they grew in, or scalded their baby before killing it. One teenage girl talked about how her infant brother starved to death because, “There was nothing to eat but jam.”

Excuse the analogy, but peering into the shadows of the foster care system reminds me of the first time I watched undercover videos of animals on factory farms. Before seeing the videos, I knew somewhere deep down that many farm animals were being mistreated. But it’s still a gut punch to watch and listen as a barn full of pigs are killed via ventilation shutdown, which suffocates them over a period of hours.

In the same way, I knew lots of kids were suffering and needed help, but it’s still a gut punch to read first hand accounts of the kind of abuse that goes on both with biological parents and in foster care.

Thankfully, there is also a lot of beauty and hope in these books. There are tough as nails kids who persevere through unbelievable hardship, and parents with huge hearts who do their very best to provide love to people who have felt far too little of it. There are also social workers going above and beyond to help families, despite extremely long odds their efforts will make any difference. 

Of all the books I got, four in particular stood out to me:

  • One from the point of view of someone who was in the foster care system and was eventually adopted — A Place Called Home, by David Ambroz
  • One from the view of a person who worked as a social worker, helping with foster kids and parents, as well as adoption placements — The Children Money can Buy, by Anne Moody
  • One from a parent who adopted five special needs kids out of the foster care system — Whelmed, by Ann Ellsworth.
  • One from a teacher, professor, and foster parent who studied the foster system over the course of a decade in the early mid 2000’s — To the End of June, by Cris Beam.

I came away with several broad takeaways.

Some foster parents are in it for the money

All the books highlight parents that are doing foster care or adoption for all the wrong reasons. The bad families appear to see the kids as paychecks.

We rarely get to hear from those parents directly, but their actions speak louder than words. And the kids are on to them. A girl from To the End of June, Lei, who had recently beaten the odds and left her foster family for college, was not naive about her situation:

Lei had only one picture of her foster family, and she dutifully pointed out each child, and the mom, as though she were naming employees at a job she once held a long time ago. Said Lei, “When I left her house, the mom never bothered to call. I felt like, ‘Screw you, man. I’m ready for my life.’ I felt like she did it for the money. What can I feel?”

David Amborz, from A Place Called Home, stayed with a family that forced him to stay home from school and work as an unpaid manual laborer. He also acted as an infant caretaker and maid.

One of the more disturbing tales comes from The Children Money Can Buy. The author, Anne Moody, had to do a home visit to see a foster baby who lived with a woman who was considered a cream of the crop foster parent. She lived in a beautiful, large home and in the past had won a “Foster Parent of the Year” award.

One day Moody went to check up on one of the kids. The foster mom said the baby was sleeping. But when she went into the room to check, the baby (14 months) was wide awake.

She was sitting quietly in her crib and paid little attention to us as we entered the room. There was no crying — but there was also no sign of greeting or expectation. She did not jump to her feet, lift her arms to be picked up, or make a single sound. It was eerie.

Moody reported this woman, and after subsequent investigations it turned out that this supposedly model parent was essentially imprisoning the babies to their cribs at all times of the day. She eventually lost her foster care license but faced no other repercussions.

The incentives to foster and adopt are not good enough 

Society has no issue advocating for higher pay and more benefits for teachers, first responders, nurses, and other jobs where people help the most vulnerable for the greater good. Why should foster parenting be any different?

To the end of June highlights a foster parent advocating for more pay: 

Bruce Green, who has brought several foster kids into his home on DeKalb in addition to baby Allen, doesn’t see anything wrong with treating forster parenting as  job. “You have people who have been foster parenting for years, and there’s no health insurance, no life insurance, and if they stop, there’s no retirement,’ he said. Bruce riled at the notion that giving parents more money and benefits would yield a more selfish crop of applicants. “There should be incentives to being a foster parent; there should be deals with cable, lights, and water. Being a foster parent should be something that’s earned.”

By earned, I think he means the job of being a foster parent is so desirable that people are meeting a high bar in order to qualify. That’s something I can get behind. 

My paycheck takes huge swaths of money out and sends it social security and medicare. I am all about taking care of the elderly, but maybe we need a big pool of money for all these struggling kiddos, too?

I know this is pie in the sky thinking. I have done zero investigation into the feasibility of any of this. I just know I’d be perfectly happy to give half us much as I am to medicare and have the other half go to some sort of abused children fund. The problem seems that big and important. And in general, though this might sound callous, I value helping people with a lot of life left to live.

The economic argument for helping these kids is that they’ll have much less problems later in life. And these kids cause very expensive, emotionally devastating, society-wide problems. To the End of June puts it like this: 

It’s been said that the economic impact of child welfare reaches upwards of 100 billion — in adult criminality, mental illness, homelessness, and so on — and this backsplash is traditionally pegged to the structural failings of a battered system.

The criminality aspect is especially disturbing. Recent estimates are that 1/5 of the adult prison population is former foster children and almost 70% of kids who age out of the foster system are arrested by the time they turn 26. Equally sad is the fact that, according to estimates from To the End of June, 25-50% of all homeless people were in foster care at one point.

On the flip side, you can argue that the real crux of the problem is a bad home life, not foster care. At least one study analyzed this in a clever way:

We compare the outcomes of children who by chance are assigned a strict investigator and placed in foster care to the outcomes of children who are assigned a more lenient investigator and are not placed.

The study finds that foster care placement reduced later-in-life crime 

If you study specifically a subset of kids in harsh situations who could be left at home or placed in foster care, the system looks better.

Still, even though foster care is often the least bad option for kids, it can still be quite bad. David Ambroz comes up with a few different ways the system can be improved. They seem reasonable to me. His main wishes:

  • Decrease caseloads and increasing pay and benefits of social workers. 
  • Incentivize wealthier parents to foster. “Perhaps above all, we need to recruit more middle and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees. This effort is not to displace but to add to and diversify the incredible commitment of lower economic classes who are already fostering.” 
  • Make foster parents eligible for pensions, give them free health care, and give the foster kids and any of their biological kids free college tuition 
  • Let older foster kids enroll in community colleges as well as high school in order to do vocational training 
  • Provide priority housing for foster youth at community colleges 
  • Put more effort into broad, society wide poverty fighting efforts 

Providing more money and benefits to foster parents would be controversial, for sure. Some people think doing so will attract the kind of person, who is just in it for the money. My take is that those people already exist, and at least if the incentives were better some more upstanding people could crowd out the less savory ones. Whatever we’re doing now is not working.

We should run more experiments where we provide better resources to foster parents and kids

There have been small-scale experiments where foster parents and kids are given more than the standard amount of money and resources. There was one in Oregon and Washington where parents were paid $100 more per month than regular foster parents and overall the children were allotted 60% more funding than normal. Also, the caseworkers working with them had significantly lighter loads than normal. The results are promising. 

From To the End of June:

The nearly five hundred kids in the study had entered foster care as adolescents between 1989 and 1998 and were evaluated in the early 2000s. The Casey kids, now adults, had experienced less than half the rate of depression and substance use, and about 70 percent the rate of bolic disorders. They also endured significantly fewer ulcers and cardiometabolic disorders. The authors, who were headed up by a team at Harvard, claimed that this was the first ever study to look at the long-term effects of enhanced, or more thoroughly funded and supported, foster care.

That’s all great! Sadly, I dug into that study, and the outcomes are not quite as rosy as the author makes it seem. She doesn’t talk about how despite the extra effort and money, 4/5 of the foster kids enrolled still faced “significant challenges in the areas of mental health, education, and employment and finances.”

They still barely had any money when leaving care, and a high percentage of them were not prepared to take care of themselves. Most did not have health insurance, and only 38% had $250 in cash to their names.

This is not to knock the experiment. I’m glad they tried it. In my dream world we would try this again, but with ten times the money and services provided.

State child welfare agencies spend about 33 billion on child welfare purposes, while the federal government spends about 12 billion per year on “federal programs wholly dedicated to child welfare.” That sounds like a lot but is nothing compared to the 274 billion the US spends each year on “Veterans Benefits and Services.”

Maybe we should invest in these vulnerable and traumatized kids similar to how we do for vulnerable and traumatized veterans and see where that gets us. 

The question of how and when to remove kids from abusive homes is more complicated than I realized 

In The Children Money Can Buy, Anne Moody talks a lot about her personal experience doing home visits. She was a social worker for the state of Michigan, and she had some really harrowing experiences. One of her first home visits was to the apartment of a mother who was in the process of trying to regain custody of her young kids after losing it. 

She showed up to a filthy apartment and decided she had to take the 8 year old daughter, Missy, to the hospital. “Her eczema was so severe that she had clawed bloody wounds into her hands and arms. The poor child had no medicine to relieve the itching, and it was obvious the skin was now infected.” 

While that is sad, Moody talks about how it’s not her remove kids from their parents care unless the situation is truly dire. 

What counts as truly dire comes down to a judgment call, often made by a stressed out and overworked early 20-something social worker. While neglect is a reason to rescue a child, determining what counts as neglect that crosses the line is hard. Here’s Moody talking more about how, in her eyes, there was nothing she could do for Missy: 

Despite the risk to her children, Missy’s mother’s inadequacy in this area didn’t constitute grounds for permanently removing them from her care. She couldn’t be compelled to upgrade her standards and she wasn’t amenable to encouragement, particularly since she didn’t even recognize that there was a problem in the way she cared for her children — or herself. She wasn’t at all interested in my explanations about how to tend to her daughter’s wounds, but she did think it was nice that I had taken Missy on a four-hour outing. Not long after the visit, the mother regained full custody, and her children were removed from my caseload.

There are a lot of people that think most kids are better off with their parents than in the state’s custody. They think that we are too quick to remove kids from parents who hit a rough patch and just need a little support. They make some compelling points. And the disastrous state of the foster care system is hard to argue with. This stuff is so, so hard. 

David Ambroz represents the other side of the coin. He comes across as someone who would advocate that social services step in sooner in a lot of cases. You can tell why after reading his book. 

He had to watch in silent horror, multiple times, as social workers investigated his birth family’s living conditions . He hoped beyond hope someone would remove him from the hell he was in, but his mom was always able to trick the workers into believing they’d just hit a rough patch and everything was fine.

When the children’s input was sought by the child protection services workers, it was always in front of the mom. The kids were put in the brutal position. Tell the truth, and possibly be rescued, but face certain and painful wrath from the mother if the workers left him there. Or lie, say things weren’t that bad, and watch as yet another opportunity for help slips their your grasp. That’s a very heavy burden to place on a child.

Ann Ellsworth also ran into much infuriating red tape when trying to adopt children from the foster care system. The first two kids she adopted told her all about the litany of abuses they suffered at the hands of their previous foster mom, Ms. Smith.

Ellsworth could not live with the thought of her kid’s siblings still living in that environment, so she set out to adopt them as well. She was stonewalled for months even after reporting horrific abuses. She was only able to secure approval to adopt after she directly “befriended” Ms. Smith and got her to agree to give up the kids. 

As Anne Moody points out, the number one things CPS workers are trained to do is reunite families. And once they’ve made a placement, they want it to stay that way. Whether that’s because moving kids takes thankless work, or they genuinely believe stability is always more important than escaping some abuse, is hard to say. 

A woman profiled in To the End of June represents the extreme end of the ‘keep families together at all costs’ camp. The author describes seeing this person, a top executive in the NYC social worker world, give a talk about her strong desire to keep families united. The author Beam notes that,“In all her years, working her way up from a case manager to a director overseeing 250 employees, Dr. Rittner terminated parental rights only four times.” 

When the author later relays this story to a teenager in foster care, the foster youth, Arelis, is incredulous:

“For you to oversee a thousand cases and only terminate four, you’re doing something wrong!” She slammed her hands on the table and gazed up at the ceiling in exasperation. “Did the people in the meeting call that lady out? Did they think she was doing her job?” Arelis, who generally speaks softly and with a slight lisp, raised her voice again and then had to get up for a cigarette. On her way out, she fumed, “Less than half the parents could get better if you gave them the right help. Did they have a former foster child there to speak for us?” 

Arelis and her 5 siblings had been sadistically abused and were removed from their mother once, only to be placed back in her care. Then the mother abandoned them. Arelis, at age 14, watched over her 5 younger siblings as a solo “parent” for 6 months at one point. She thinks her mother’s rights should have been terminated the first time around so they could have received the help they needed. 

The foster care system as a whole is not performing well

Something is deeply broken in the system. To the end of June cites a study showing the extent of the issues, as of the early 2010’s:

Federal investigators recently spent three years looking into seven fundamental criteria for successful foster care in all 50 states. They examined the basics: things like kids being protected from abuse and neglect, being safely maintained at home whenever possible, and receiving adequate services for educational and physical health needs. No state met more than two of the seven criteria.

Grades like that should require drastic changes. The fact that they don’t makes clear the depressing reality that we just don’t care that much. 

Attachment is way more important than I realized, and it may never happen between foster kids and their parents 

All four books deal with the importance of a child attaching to their parent. I didn’t come away with a clear idea of what attachment exactly meant, or how you can be sure it’s been achieved. I did gather that the longer one goes without having healthy attachments, the harder they become to form. Without healthy attachments, a kid is at higher risk of developing issues that make it hard for them to successfully function in adult society. 

Attachment is seen as the key thing that needs to happen for a child, and a family, to be healthy. Yet so many of these kid’s lives were so messed up and disrupted that it’s hard for them to trust or bond with people. 

One of the hard lessons Ann Ellsworth had to learn was that no matter how hard one tries, it may never happen. You ultimately have to remember that there are only so many things you can control, and a lack of attachment does not mean you are not a loving parent. 

Making matters tougher is the fact that attachments to toxic birth mothers hinder a lot of kids. David Ambroz was clearly worse off in a lot of ways for having been so attached to his mom. He often lied to social workers about what was happening to him to protect her. It’s a common problem that a lot of kids face.

We need a science for how to de-attach and then healthily re-attach.

Absolute selflessness (and a lot of money) can help make fostering and adoption go well 

Ann Ellsworth and her husband didn’t hope for kids who would shower them in love and gratitude. They simply wanted to help the kids be able to function in society. In the end, they got there. But only after an unbelievable amount of timeouts, physical restraining, home schooling, live-in tutors (they cycled through almost 30), counselors, psychiatrists, and general patience. 

This ties back to the whole foster parents need more money to do well thing. I don’t know the Ellsworth’s exact financial situation, but when they moved out of NYC they bought a house she describes like this: “It was a 4,300 square foot brownstone on a former Air Force base overlooking Lake Champlain. It was enormous, with eight bedrooms and three floors that had sightlines across the parade field and the lake towards Vermont.” 

I am going to go out on a limb and say most foster parents can’t afford mansions on a lake. 

But even with the money and resources, it was an absolute slog to help their kids become stable, non-violent people. You’ve gotta be ready to put in serious work. This passage gives a good sense of the constant drama the Ellsworth’s were dealing with, and the way they met those challenges with determination. Long quote incoming, but I think it paints a nice picture of the stress of dealing with traumatized and violent children:

Two weeks in, Jason was no longer welcome in gym class either. Another week passed and he was pulled out of structured reading and library time as well. I spent more time driving him to and from school than he spent in the classroom and still, I cherished the moments he was out of the house. Another week passed and he was home for good. The principal called. “I have never known a more deceptive, manipulative child than Jason. Get him out of here. This was coming from someone who had worked with a lot of deceptive, manipulative children. It was terrible news yet strangely validating.

Ruby returned to middle school for core classes only. She was not allowed to have a locked and had no unsupervised access to other students. In the three minutes between bells, she had to check in with her guidance counselor and and came home every day for lunch. We were very clear with Ruby, “Engage another child physically and we will pull you back out of school.” A month into her modified program, Ruby punched two of her classmates in the face during math class. I met her in the principal’s office. Even her telling of her side of the story was damning and calculated.

After these failed attempts, I was forced to accept homeschooling as my new calling and took up the mantle of educator.

That woman is tough.

Imposing very restrictive house rules is a socially acceptable (and encouraged!) way of dealing with violent children

In Whelmed, there was a lot of isolating one kid from the others, putting them in physical restraints, and locking them in rooms. In the wrong hands this method feels like it could go very south. But when done with incredible patience and infused with constant affirmations of love, it can work wonders. 

It felt like at least twenty times, Ann Ellsworth said something like, “I restrained Susie as she thrashed and hit me, chipping one of my teeth and bruising my chin. I held her down for 30 minutes until she finally relented. Then she went for a timeout.” 

It seems like half this woman’s parenting life was spent on physical restraints and then timeouts. Apparently that is totally acceptable protocol for dealing with traumatized and violent kids. You are supposed to be strict, maintain control, not let their behavior escalate, and be extremely tough. Timeout often meant putting the kid in a windowless room and holding the door shut while the kid pounded on it and cried. 

I was left wondering if there are any other recommendations. Ellsworth talked a few times about people suggesting she medicate her kids, but she never wanted to. The one time she tried Ritalin on one of them it only made things worse. The hardest stuff she ever gave them was Benadryl.

Amazingly, she didn’t even legally sedate them with TV or electronics. Maybe if you aren’t going to give them iPads and you aren’t going to give them drugs, you’ve got to master your MMA style takedowns and hope for the best. 

I am amazed they had the energy to do it all over the years. But I bet it felt good to get this text from one of her kids after her book was published.

My heart goes out to all the kids in need and to those trying to help them

There are so many kids in the US in unfortunate situations. Here’s another figure from the Casey Family Foster Care study: 

Almost 1/2 of the kids in foster care have been sexually abused!

It’s easy to be cynical when you look at numbers like that, or if you dig into any number of troubling aspects of the foster care system. I don’t blame anyone for finding it easier to just not think about it. The problem is deep rooted and would take institutional upheaval to solve, so why try?

That’s why I am inspired by everyone doing even little things to make these kid’s lives incrementally better, despite the odds.

Those folks reminded of the boy from the famous starfish story. I like this adaptation:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.”

I hope to make that kind of difference for a kid someday.  


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