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Fostering changes

Trump administration efforts are starting to mend a foster care system that has been in crisis for years

Fostering changes

(Professor25/iStock)

Trent Taylor’s earliest childhood memories involve trauma. His biological mother left him crying in a swing for hours. His parents regularly allowed an uncle to babysit, even after they knew he was sexually abusing Trent and his siblings. 

After neighbors spotted 4-year-old Trent and his siblings digging through a trash can for food, the North Carolina Division of Social Services removed the children. Trent entered the foster care system—but the trauma didn’t stop. That’s partly because his older brother continued to abuse him sexually. It’s also because Trent spent the next five years in five homes. 

“When a child floats around in the system for five years, it affects their ability to trust and attach to people,” Trent, now 19, says. “Every one of those moves is traumatic for the child.”

Trent’s biological family members fought legally to retain their rights, but they continually failed to meet court-appointed benchmarks. The court granted repeated extensions, but finally, in 2010, a Christian couple named Mac and Pam Taylor adopted Trent at the age of 9.

“It was an answer to prayers, that’s for sure,” said Trent, whose younger brother Michael was also adopted by the Taylors. Trent has since written two books and with his family runs a ministry to foster families called Watch Me Rise.

THE NATION’S FOSTER care system has long been troubled. Each state administers its own program, and some—including Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia—are so broken that they’ve become entangled in years-long litigation. System neglect, poor oversight, and accusations of racism have led some to call for the abolition of the system. 

Whatever government problems may exist, at least as many problems come from societal factors. The opioid epidemic has funneled more minors into state care (parental drug use was the cause of 34 percent of removals in 2019, but some experts believe the real number is higher), and the further breakdown of the two-parent home continues to wreak havoc (children living with their mother and a boyfriend are 11 times more likely to suffer abuse or neglect than children who live with their married parents). A shortage of eligible foster care parents is also a perpetual problem, leading some children to bounce around in group homes and even juvenile detention centers.

This complex stew of issues contributed to a steady rise in the number of children in foster care from 2012 to 2017—an increase nationally of roughly 45,000. Last year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported a small decrease, and in August HHS reported a decline for fiscal 2019 from 435,000 to 424,000. That’s the fewest children in the foster care system since 2015.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow who focuses on child welfare issues for the American Enterprise Institute, cautions against reading too much into the numbers, because removal decisions can be based on external factors—such as the availability of foster care homes. “The numbers may not be directly tied to how children are being treated in this country,” Riley said. 

Still, fewer children in foster care is a good thing, and interviews with a range of child welfare advocates and policymakers revealed praise for the Trump administration’s efforts to make that happen—at both ends of the foster care system. 

Spearheading the push is Lynn Johnson, a devout Catholic from Colorado with a long history in social work. She was active in state politics and spent a decade as executive director of Jefferson County Human Services (which includes part of Denver). 

President Trump nominated Johnson in 2017 to become assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at HHS, and the Senate finally confirmed her more than a year later. With a portfolio ranging from Head Start to the then-ongoing child separation crisis at the southern border, Johnson made foster care and adoption a top priority. Under Johnson, ACF has moved to eliminate red tape and pressured states to do the same. 

“I’ve worked with ACF for a long time, and it’s not always easy to get them to move on something,” said Joseph Ribsam, director of the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth, and Families. “They approved our ‘foster care to 21’ program in a month.”

Last October, Johnson launched the All-In Foster Adoption Challenge, which aims to get some 125,000 children adopted out of the foster system by October 2020. To promote that effort, Johnson and her staff have met with all 50 governor’s offices—often with Johnson talking directly with governors—to emphasize the importance of eliminating barriers to adoption. 

Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis

The Taylors (from left: Trent, Mac, Pam, and Mike) pose on the back porch of their home in Wake Forest, N.C., holding a photo from 2010 near the time when Trent and Mike were adopted. (Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis)

“There is not a single place that has said, ‘We don’t want to be all in for foster adoption,’” Johnson says. She specifically praises the work of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu—whose state has only 43 foster children available after adoptions tripled between 2016 and 2019. 

Johnson’s message to governors also includes encouragement to seek out and work with faith-based groups—to find both foster care and adoptive homes. She says during the last decade she watched as faith-based groups in Colorado were defunded and boxed out due to their beliefs and the religious component of their programs. 

“These kids just went on to the streets because no one else wanted to deal with them,” Johnson says. “By bringing nonprofits and faith-based together, we build a bigger team.” 

Some of that team-building has occurred in concrete ways: Last year HHS issued a waiver for a South Carolina ministry with a long-standing commitment to work only with Protestant families, a policy that came into conflict with a nondiscrimination regulation the Obama administration enacted in its final days. This year HHS proposed a rule to remove that regulatory burden from all 50 states.

(A Catholic woman is suing the state and federal governments for allowing Miracle Hill Ministries to work only with people who share its Protestant beliefs. This fall the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case in which Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia is challenging the city’s right to cancel the agency’s contract because it will not place foster children with same-sex couples.)

The Taylor family has felt the effects of Johnson’s effort to create a more friendly environment for faith-based organizations. “I have seen that change,” said Pam Taylor, Trent’s mother. She says the most important part of their ministry is the hope and healing found in Christ, but they had seen doors close if they included it in their work. 

Earlier this year they changed their organizational structure to incorporate their Christian faith more clearly. “There are a few agencies I assumed would no longer work with us, but they were very, very willing,” Pam said. 

The net result has been compelling: In addition to the number of children in foster care dropping, adoption numbers are rising. Foster care adoptions have consistently totaled 50,000-plus per year, but the last two years saw 63,000 and 66,000 adoptions—the highest numbers since data collection began in 1995. 

“The degree of emphasis Assistant Secretary Johnson has put on adoption has been greater than her predecessors,” said Nate Bult, senior vice president for government affairs for Bethany Christian Services, the nation’s largest evangelical adoption agency. “It’s not that previous assistant secretaries were hostile, but Johnson has put it at the top of her agenda.”

“When a child floats around in the system for five years, it affects their ability to trust and attach to people.”

IN JUNE, President Trump signed an executive order that does little now but encourages improved data collection about public-private partnerships, support for caregivers, keeping siblings together, and eliminating bureaucratic barriers to adoption. “The executive order is a long-term solution,” AEI's Naomi Riley said. It also mandates a study of the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (which aimed to remove barriers to interracial adoption) and emphasizes the need for faith-based organizations. Nancy Kay Blackwell with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute said the latter two objectives are directly related: “A lot of faith-based partners led the way in interracial placements and adoptions.”

Much of the order’s success will hinge on the better data collection it requires from states. Right now most states don’t know exactly how many foster families they have or the retention rate among the families they do have (between 30 percent and 50 percent of foster parents quit in the first year). Most states also don’t have a good profile of the most successful foster families, preventing them from launching targeted recruitment efforts. Most foster recruitment consists of a broad call for help using mediums such as TV, radio, and billboard ads. “The data is hugely important, because it can be used to do more targeted recruitment of potential families,” Riley said.

Even with better data, the challenges appear daunting. More than 120,000 children are waiting on a family to adopt them, and each year about 20,000 age out of the system with no permanent support—which makes them much more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes as young adults. Critics said the executive order did not provide “tangible supports” (i.e., funding for things like housing and day care) for low-income families or sufficiently address racial disparities in the foster care system: “The administration could achieve greater impact by researching front-end inequities—such as reporting and investigations—which could shrink the universe of youth considered for care,” the left-leaning First Focus on Children said in a statement

But, undoubtedly, the biggest challenge is COVID-19 and its related fallout. Since March, child abuse hotline calls have plummeted, hospital reports of severe abuse cases have risen, and mandatory reporters (school counselors, pediatricians, etc.) have much less to report with fewer touch points with children. Perhaps worst of all, this month The New York Times reported many child welfare workers are not investigating incidents out of coronavirus fear. 

“The idea that calls have come in and they’re sitting at home, that’s a huge source of concern,” Riley told me. “Time is not on your side with these kinds of reports.”

At HHS, the Administration for Children and Families has sent out repeated guidance making it clear that child abuse must be investigated as usual. In March, Children’s Bureau Commissioner Jerry Milner sent a letter to child welfare and judicial leaders reiterating the requirements HHS would continue to enforce during the pandemic. He called for courts to “use flexible means of convening required hearings” and adjudicate cases “in a timely manner.” 

In April, HHS officials sent related letters to governors, state supreme court chief justices, and child welfare leaders, calling for, among other things, innovation, provision of personal protective equipment, and class 1 emergency classification for child welfare workers.

Lynn Johnson cited Arizona as an innovative state, successfully closing hundreds of adoptions virtually. She wants that work to continue: “Whether [the pandemic] gets better or worse, now we have to keep this going.”

Trent Taylor said he appreciates Johnson, and her actions give him hope. “I am so truly thankful that foster care and adoption are the focus of those who have the ability to make a positive change for those who are in the system,” he said. “We have been invisible for so long.” 

—with reporting from Harvest Prude 

Family first

Federal and state governments roughly split the cost of foster care, but most of that funding goes to help people already in the ­system. Of more than 2.5 million children who live with nonparent relatives, only about 5 percent are currently eligible to receive support. 

A 2018 reform bill sought to change that. The bipartisan Family First Prevention Services Act—which President Trump signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018—aims to fund more family supports that could prevent children from entering the foster care system. 

“We all know kids do ­better in the home,” New Hampshire’s Joseph Ribsam told me. “This is the first time the federal government recognized that and backed it up with resources.”

Full implementation of Family First was originally scheduled to occur this fall, but the law includes a cap on funding for group homes (“congregate care”) and a requirement that preventive services be evidence-­based—two areas where compliance proved difficult. So far, 42 states have received extensions, while HHS has approved plans submitted by five states (Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Utah) and the District of Columbia. Several other states and tribal jurisdictions have ­submitted plans for ­evaluation. —J.C.D.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.