Is welfare reform sending more kids to foster care?

Despite the success stories, more families at the bottom are falling apart.

Published September 1, 1999 1:30PM (EDT)

In 1994 Newt Gingrich sparked a short-lived tempest by suggesting that welfare payments be cut off and the money used instead to ship the children of the poor off to orphanages.

Officially, Newt's vision never even made it to the drawing board. But as the two-year limits imposed by welfare reform begin to kick in, throwing a number of already struggling families deeper into poverty, a troubling possibility arises: Some families who lose their welfare benefits may also lose their children.

While it is too early to measure definitively, there are some unsettling early signs. In Wisconsin -- which embarked on welfare reform early and avidly -- 5 percent of former welfare recipients, or one in 20, reported being forced to abandon their children. In San Diego County, foster care placements doubled after the new welfare law took effect. When researchers interviewed San Diego families who had become homeless after losing their benefits, 18 percent said their children subsequently went into foster care.

Nationwide, the number of children in foster care is rising, even in a period of overall economic prosperity -- to 520,000 at last count, 20,000 more than a year before.

If growing up on welfare is hard for kids, growing up in foster care is harder. Children raised by the state are disproportionately likely to become homeless, go to jail, have children as teenagers and -- ironically enough -- wind up on welfare. Deprived of stable relationships as children, they often find it difficult to form and sustain them as adults.

In some cases, children may wind up in foster care when mothers who relied on a welfare check to feed them turn to social services departments in desperation when the money disappears. "We are hearing anecdotal stories that concern us," says Ann Sullivan, adoption program director at the Child Welfare League -- "a mother with one or two children is releasing the third for adoption."

Other former welfare recipients could lose custody of their children involuntarily, because they are unable to feed, clothe or house them. Neglect, not abuse, is the most common reason children are taken from their families -- and extreme poverty can manifest itself in many of the same symptoms as neglect.

A recent study by the Children's Defense Fund reveals that the number of children in single-mother families living in extreme poverty went up 27 percent in the first year after welfare reform legislation was enacted. "Extreme poverty" is defined as income less than half the federal poverty line -- or less than $6,401 a year for a family of three. Reports from the states show a significant number of former welfare recipients who have subsequently been unable to buy food, pay rent or keep up with their utility bills.

In a recent report on California children, Robert C. Fellmeth, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, predicts that welfare reform will take children already living below the poverty line "to levels where neglect becomes endemic." If 5 percent of children put at risk by the loss of benefits were removed from their homes, Fellmeth calculates, the number of children who enter foster care in California would triple by 2003.

Madeleine Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, cites research predicting that if even 1 percent of the children previously receiving federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) wind up in foster care, that will represent an additional 100,000 children, or a nearly 20 percent increase in the foster-care population.

Where will all these children go? The nation's foster-care system is already grossly inadequate and overburdened, and the number of family foster homes available is shrinking even as demand rises. While adoption is one widely touted answer, those children who are older when they enter the system are increasingly likely to wind up in group homes, residential treatment centers or other forms of institutional care. Interestingly, one obscure provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation makes for-profit child-care institutions eligible for federal foster-care funds.

Another new federal law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), makes the question even more urgent. This act reduces the time allowed before the state must start proceedings to terminate the rights of parents with children in foster care and make the children eligible for adoption. The law is intended to end the "foster care drift" that leaves children moving from one short-term placement to another for years -- a worthy goal for many children, especially those who have endured severe abuse or abandonment and will likely never be able to return home safely. But for children whose families are thrown into crisis by the loss of welfare benefits, these new time lines may mean a permanent severance from their parents that could have been prevented.

ASFA and the numerous state laws passed in its wake de-emphasize formerly popular "family preservation" services -- providing counseling, drug treatment, in-home support and the like to parents at risk of losing custody of their children -- in part because no one has been able to prove that they work.

But what remains to be seen is the impact of the loss of a family preservation service that, for all its flaws, did seem to work: the monthly AFDC check, the original intent of which was to keep widows from having to send their children to the poorhouse. (The number of children in foster care declined after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, because widowed mothers were able to care for their children at home rather than giving them up.)

Those who worry about former AFDC recipients flooding the foster-care system generally speak in terms of what to do for the children when that happens -- how to find more adoptive homes and improve the child welfare system to better serve the growing numbers of children who will wind up under its roof. But few seem to be expressing outrage at the prospect that poor families will lose their children to the state simply because they are poor.

Measured in terms of shrinking public expenditures and rising numbers of low-wage working parents, welfare reform has been declared a ringing success. But by a more elusive measure -- the public value placed on the private bond between parent and child -- it may yet prove disastrous.

By Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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