Our Foster Care System Is Fundamentally Broken

Ending group homes starts by expanding the support we give to families. If we give more and give first to families, kin and communities, we can prevent a lot of youths from having to go through the foster care system at all.

Second, we can reduce the scope of group homes by placing children in foster care with kinship relations first. These are the nonimmediate family, community and other relationships surrounding children before care.

Prioritizing kinship placements means expanding the legal definition of kinship to encompass more of the loving adults who are in youths’ lives already. That way, we can stop needlessly extracting youths from their communities just because a trusted and familiar adult doesn’t meet the state’s definition of next of kin. Already, some states — including New Mexico and Washington — have an expansive definition of kin that allows children to be placed with a vetted adult they already know and trust. Others, like Michigan, recognize next of kin as only legal relatives. Important relationships — former stepparents, godparents, family friends — are generally unable to step in.

We can also support kinship relationships by expediting and streamlining the licensing process for kin. Paperwork should never determine whether a child has a loving home with kin.

Identifying kin should not be held back by bureaucracy. New Mexico increased initial kinship placements from 3 percent in 2019 to over 50 percent in 2021. One of the biggest changes involved simply asking youths questions to help identify existing, supportive relationships in their lives. More states should follow the practice of asking youths to help determine who would be a good foster parent.

Finally, in those instances when kinship is not possible, we should redirect funding to help foster care services find, engage with and aid eligible and loving foster families and homes. Removing children from their communities and placing them with complete strangers, as happened to me so many times, should be only a last resort. A more data-driven approach can help the system select foster care parents who live nearby, speak the same language, have the same faith and affirm all elements of a youth’s identity.

Then, once we have the right foster parents, we also must make sure these parents have the support they need to be effective. My placement with my foster mom at age 15 could have lasted if she and I had had the support we needed to address the strong emotions we both were feeling.

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