Naomi Schaefer Riley joins Brian Anderson to discuss the state of foster care in the U.S., how the system rewards adults at the expense of children, and what policymakers and private citizens alike can do to help. Her new book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives, is out now.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Naomi Schaefer Riley. Naomi's a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she researches child welfare and foster care. And she's a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She's written for City Journal quite a bit on the topic of today's discussion, which is also the theme of her new book, No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives. It's just out. Naomi, thanks for joining us on the podcast again.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: It's great to talk to you.

Brian Anderson: The new book discusses and this has been a theme of your City Journal as well, the state of the child welfare system in the U.S., as you see it in the book. The system is not adequately serving the interests of kids, but it's benefiting the adults who operate in. So, just to set some context, how bad are things in your view and how has the system gotten so messed up?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Well I guess I would start with some numbers just to give people a little bit of context. There are about 440,000 kids who are in foster care right now, like if you take a snapshot today. About 600,000 kids who sort of come into contact and are removed from their homes during the course of the year. There are about 3 million calls that come into authorities, child welfare hotlines, that sort of thing about abuse and neglect every year. And about 800,000 of those are substantiated, meaning we have some reason to believe that there is evidence for that. That doesn't mean that the rest of those calls are false or malicious or something, just that we don't have enough evidence to say one way or the other. There are about 2000 kids who die from maltreatment every year. And I think that we are not serving these kids well, they're the most vulnerable kids in this country.

And unfortunately our child welfare agencies and our family courts have sort of decided that they're going to revolve around the interests of adults rather than the interests of kids. So, I think you can start to see that just in looking at the amount of time that kids remain in foster care. So, the average amount of time that kids are in foster care is about 20 months in some states like New York, it's actually closer to 30 months. Foster care is supposed to be something quite temporary and you have a significant portion of kids, as many as 15 or 20 percent who are in the system for three or four years or more. Those are timelines that work for adults who we're waiting for them to kind of rehabilitate often from drug addiction or mental health issues. But while that happens, the kids' childhoods are being frittered away.

Brian Anderson: In your view of the political or intellectual underpinnings of this inversion that you're describing and what is the role that racial activists basically have had played in especially the foster care system that made it somewhat dysfunctional to say the least?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Sure. The ideology that kind of guides the child welfare agencies and family courts is known as family preservation or family reunification. And it basically means that as soon as we find out that there's maltreatment going on in a home, we immediately ask, how can we keep this family together? Or if we do remove a child, how quickly can we reunify them? And I compare this to our response to domestic violence, it would be hard to imagine that police would respond to a domestic-violence call where a woman has been beaten by her husband or by her boyfriend and would immediately start asking, Hey, how can we get you guys back together? But that's exactly the approach that we take with child welfare. I think in terms of the kind of what's underlying that family preservation, a lot of it is racial. You have an abolished foster care movement that has recently grown up along the abolish the police or defund the police movement.

And I think if anything, the abolish foster care or abolish child welfare movement is actually more dangerous in some ways because the results are often going to be hidden from the public, unlike the results of defund the police, which have become quite obvious to people in the last couple of years. So, what that movement is based on is sort of this idea that there is a kind of disparate effect of the child welfare system, particularly on black children. Black children, it's true, are more likely to be investigated. Their cases are more likely to be substantiated and they're more likely to be removed for foster care.

What these activists don't tell you though, is that black children are twice as likely to suffer from maltreatment, either abuse or neglect than their white peers. And they're actually three times as likely to die from maltreatment as their white peers. So, I see the child welfare system as something that is supposed to be protecting children and we're not supposed to kind of be looking at our spreadsheets and making sure the numbers come out. Even though we're supposed to be sort of asking where the need is and going to that place.

Brian Anderson: Well you described in the book the Adoption Safe Families Act, which was passed in the 1990s. That was about ensuring that foster care was not going to be a kind of permanent arrangement. What in your view is the best way to find good homes for kids who may have neglectful parents, but who are also being ill-served by foster care currently?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: So, I think the Adoption Safe Families Act really represented a point in this country where a bipartisan group of legislators said, "Kids are remaining in foster care for too long, they're languishing there." And it was very similar to kind of the coalition that came together around welfare reform, that there were these kinds of sensible ideas that people could agree on, that kids should not have to wait forever in foster care. But the question then became sort of once we lost this desire, once we kind of lost the will to actually sever parental relationships that were abusive and neglectful after a certain amount of time, then it seemed like agencies really lost the will to recruit foster parents adequately. And so, almost every state in the country reports a shortage of foster parents and what happens of course, when you have a shortage is that these states start to get desperate.

And then the people who end up flooding into the system are the people who are just doing it for the money and the very small amount of money that they'll get paid. So, in the book I talk about the work that a lot of religious organizations, faith-based organizations, and megachurches have done around the country to kind of revolutionize the way we recruit, train, and support foster families. It's something that I've written about for City Journal quite a bit. And some of these organizations I think have really just put their finger on exactly what's gone wrong when we recruit foster families. So, the first thing that they did was they said putting up a picture of a kid on the nightly news and just sort of waiting for somebody to call is not really an effective recruitment technique. And so, actually pastors went into their congregations and said these are the seven kids in our zip code tonight who need homes, who is going to step up? The second thing they did was they changed the training.

So, sure they'll give you all the training the state requires, how many fire extinguishers you need in your home and all that sort of information, but they're all also going to scaffold that training with important information about how to handle kids who have been severely traumatized and give parents the tools that they need to do foster care well. And the final, I think insight that these groups have had is that foster families need a lot of support. About half of foster families quit within the first year. They are often quite frustrated, not with the children themselves, but with the way the system is treating them. And so, a lot of these churches went about starting to recruit people to support these families. They would promise to do respite care to babysit for the kids some nights, they would promise to build furniture at the last minute in case some foster child was going to be dropped off at your home suddenly. And in many cases, they were just willing to provide emotional and spiritual support that I think good foster families need in order to do this work.

Brian Anderson: What were some of the more effective organizations that you've you've looked at? This is in your book, it's something you've again written about for City Journal, but just to one or two of these because they are encouraging counterweight to some of the upsetting stories that you also described in the book.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Absolutely. Yeah, I encourage people to read, get to the second half of the book. It gets a little bit more encouraging. So, in Arkansas there's an amazing group called The Call, which does a lot of this recruitment and training of foster families. And what I really was so kind of amazed by was actually the fact that the call now operates in 75 percent of the counties in Arkansas, some of which are really rural places. And yet they've managed to find kind of volunteers to form networks in these areas to do this kind of training and recruitment. They've even set up like what they call The Call Mall, which is kind of a little room or where people can collect supplies that foster kids might need toiletries clothing, all sorts of things that families might need at the last minute to take in a foster child.

There's also a group in Colorado, kind of a pioneer in this, Project 1.27, which is doing a lot of the training for supporting foster parents, which I think is so important. They actually require people who trained through them to become foster parents to bring along four of their friends who also have to go through the training. And I think just even ensuring that people have that support upfront because once you're sort of in the middle of it, it's really hard to ask for help.

Brian Anderson: A big question in reading the book is the role of government. What your view is the proper role of government? Certainly played a role in creating the crisis, but maybe going forward and solving it or at least to improving things is it just a matter of reforming dysfunctional institutions, some new laws? Or in your view and some of these groups you've just mentioned, point to the importance of the work of civil society in community faith-based groups that get involved for philanthropic reasons. So, what is the appropriate role of government and of civil society and fixing this unfortunate problem?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Sure, I think two things are true. First government is always going to have a role in child welfare. We have to protect the most vulnerable citizens in the same way that law enforcement protects people. And the second thing is government doesn't do a very good job of raising children. So ,kind of how do you put those two ideas together and figure out what the proper role of government is? So, I think child protection is something that we need to be focused on. We need to be thinking about what will keep these kids safe and I just don't think we're doing a very good, good job identifying the kids who are most at risk. A lot of people think child abuse is just a problem that happens behind closed doors. But one of the most surprising things that I found when researching this book was how many of the cases fatalities, near fatalities, and severe cases of abuse are families that are well-known to the system who've been reported multiple times, who've been investigated multiple times.

And so, I just think we need to do a better job of especially protecting the kids that we know about, that we know are in danger. And then sort of thinking about the civil society piece, once the government has done that job of protecting the kids, obviously we need to give parents a chance to figure things out, to see if they can reform. We have a system where we provide families with addiction treatment programs, with anger management programs, with parenting programs. I just think we need to kind of put a time limit on that and say, look, if the law says if a child has been in care for 15 out of the last 22 months, then the state is supposed to move to terminate parental rights. And I think we need to be sticking closer to that timeline, particularly for younger kids.

We know so much about the brain development of these children and how they need a secure attachment to an adult who will meet their physical and emotional and psychological needs in order for them to develop properly. And I think we're ignoring that. But so, then the question is who is going to care for these kids either on a temporary or a permanent basis? And then I think states have a real responsibility to start doing better, not just recruitment of foster families, but treating foster families better. Like I said a lot of people really quit because they can't take the system. It treats them like glorified teenage babysitters, not like people who are doing the hard work of caring for our most vulnerable kids. And that extends to caseworkers who drop off kids without giving foster parents proper notice of their medical problems or histories of sexual abuse.

It extends to judges who rather than listening to a foster parent who has cared for a child for months, if not years, just tell them in a courtroom and a hearing, we're not interested in what you have to say. You're just a foster parent. So, when people ask me what would be involved? What should I be prepared for if I do foster care? I sometimes ask them like, would you be prepared to stand at the DMV every day? Because that's the kind of level of bureaucracy that you have to deal with and I just think that's one thing that The State should be concentrated on fixing.

Brian Anderson: Is there ways to improve in your view the way how the family court system is functioning in this context?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Absolutely. I think the court system needs to be thinking about children's timelines, not adults timelines. And so, what that means is if you have a two- or three-year-old in court and you say we're going to come back for another hearing in six months to postpone decisions about what's happening to you, I think we need to understand that that is a significant chunk of that child's life. It may not be a big deal six months for an adult, but it is a big deal for children. I think that judges need to sort of be taking a kind of heavier hand here and sort of pushing these cases to be heard in reasonable timeframes and not for everything to result in a continuance, which during my time reporting at New York City family courts, it was just almost everything ended in a continuance.

There were no conclusions reached for these children and not making a decision is making a decision. And the decision you've made is to just string this child along indefinitely. I do think that the courts could probably use more resources. They're definitely overwhelmed with cases. There are not enough judges and not enough lawyers to represent these folks. And we are making the lives of adults harder too by telling them you need to take an entire day off from work to come to a hearing that may or may not happen. And so, I just, I think things need to be moved along more efficiently and with more sensitivity to a child's view.

Brian Anderson: Final question. What role has the pandemic played in putting pressure on the child welfare system and family courts and foster care? I imagine it's made things worse.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: It absolutely has made things worse. There was just a study that came out that showed that abuse and neglect among school aged children went up significantly during the lockdowns. And we know that's in part because kids were not being seen by teachers or other adults, like their pediatricians appointments were postponed indefinitely. They were not being seen by other adults. Also, obviously the lockdowns produced enormous stress on adults who may have already been in stressful situations. We saw a big rise in substance abuse and in overdoses. And substance abuse is one of the major drivers of problems in the child welfare system. So, when you combine those things you saw these kids really kind of suffering the consequences of the lockdowns in ways that I just don't think we were prepared for. And now you see kind of coming out of it there are lots more kids who have more severe problems that need to be dealt with.

And I also think it's important to look at the response of child welfare agencies to the lockdown and to the pandemic. And one of the things that immediately became clear in many states is that child welfare agencies and the workers in them did not see themselves as first responders or as workers whose work really necessary. I mean they were literally saying, "Well, it's too dangerous to go into homes to investigate. We'll stand on the front lawn. You show me the kid. We'll have virtual visits." All these things, which I think did not end up serving kids well. I mean, Gavin Newsom even basically gave the workers, the child welfare workers in his state a couple months off. He told them he wasn't going to hold them responsible for doing these investigations. So, I think we need to rethink just how important child welfare agencies and the workers in them are and we need to be hiring people and treating them the same way we would treat law enforcement or EMS or fire department.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Naomi.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: The new book is called No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives. Naomi Schaefer Riley, thanks, as always, for being on 10 Blocks.

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Great talking to you.

Photo: nathan4847/iStock

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