Naomi Schaefer Riley joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss the state of the American child-welfare services, and describes and what some nonprofits are doing to improve foster care across the country.

Nationally, Riley notes in City Journal, about 444,000 children are in foster-care. And in many states, “officials report a severe shortage of families to take in these children.” On top of that, disturbing incidents like the death of Zymere Perkins in New York highlight the failure of local child-welfare services to intervene in the face of clear evidence of abuse.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal on today's show. We're thrilled to welcome back Naomi Schaefer Riley, a frequent writer for the magazine who follows child welfare issues closely and that's exactly what we're going to be talking about today.

Hello again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Naomi Schaefer Riley. Naomi is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on issues regarding child welfare. As well as a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a longtime contributor to City Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @NaomiSRiley. This is Naomi second time joining us in the studio and we're happy to have her back. Naomi, thanks for coming on.

Naomi S. Riley: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

Brian Anderson: You've been writing a lot for us recently about foster care and I know it's something you feel strongly about and have covered for a while. So let's start with this question. What is the general state of foster care in America? And what is the size of the foster care population?

Naomi S. Riley:  So they're a little over 440,000 kids who are in foster care at any one time during the last year or when the fiscal year closed but there are many more kids who are going in and out over the course of that year. The number has been rising for the last several years. Many people say this is linked to the drug epidemic that has overtaken the country. That is certainly at the heart of a lot of child removal cases.

I would say in general the foster care system is pretty broken and I think New York, certainly that's the case, but it's true all the country, both in rural and urban areas. I think you are seeing a lot of kids who are going in and out of the system over and over again. Certainly family reunification is the main objective with most foster care cases, what that actually means in reality is that children are taken out of their home and put back often several times, before being permanently removed

Brian Anderson: And the system varies from state to state? Or is there general agreement on how the system should operate?

Naomi S. Riley:  Child welfare is a state run system but about half of the funds for foster care come from the federal government. The federal government though doesn't really exercise a great deal of authority or control over how the systems are run. They do say what they think the money could be used for, but there is a some federal legislation that was passed certainly in the 1990s regarding foster care system and that is not enforced.

Two very important pieces of legislation are the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which says that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, the state is supposed to move to terminate parental rights and I can say both anecdotally and looking at the data, that actually rarely happens. Most children are left to languish in foster care. Something Congress was really trying to push back against with this legislation, for years at a time.

Often the parents claim that they did not get the appropriate services and so they cannot be held to this timeline, but regardless it means a lot less permanency for children. The second piece of legislation which I also think was so important and represented the nineties consensus when it came to adoption and foster care was the Multiethnic Placement Act, which said that you should not be able to discriminate based on race when you're placing a child for foster care or adoption.

And I talked to people regularly who talk about how in family court their race is regularly brought up, typically white parents who are told that they could not possibly know what it would be like to raise a black child. And so the foster care system would rather twiddle its thumbs and wait around for somebody else who looks like the child.

Brian Anderson: There's a story here in the news lately, a horrible case involving a six year old boy who died. I guess it's over three years ago at this point. Zymere Perkins, he was allegedly beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend. So it certainly illumines some of the awful situations that these kids can find themselves in.

As the story has emerged, we now know that the children's services here in the city had launched five different investigations into allegations of abuse against the boy, yet never sought to remove him from his home. Could you talk a little bit about that case and you know what might be done to prevent those kinds of circumstances.

Naomi S. Riley:  Yeah, so this was 2016 and as you say, particularly the aspect of this case that involved the mother's boyfriend, unfortunately that is a pattern in a lot of these cases. A non relative male living in a house means that a child is insignificantly greater danger than if they were living with two biological parents.

And certainly not with two married biological parents. I think a child is about a 10 times as likely to be abused when they are living with a mother. And a non-biological relative male in the house. So certainly that comes out here. I think the other thing that's important to note is that, the mother really did not intervene.

This is a case, unfortunately I think of a mother deciding to stand by her man instead of standing by her child. And she stood by while this was going on and some of the details that have come out in the trial, that she waited quite a while doing her makeup, when she thought the child might be dead before actually calling emergency services.

I think the administration for Children's Services in New York has certainly undergone quite a change in the last couple of years. Gladys Carrión, who was the commissioner when this happened and who oversaw a lot of failures and the system was forced to resign in disgrace after the Zamir Perkins case. David Hansell who's taken over, certainly did a top to bottom assessment of what was going on in the system.

And I think he's certainly made some important administrative changes. Unfortunately, it's very hard for us to figure out what goes on behind closed doors in some of these families. A lot of our caseworkers are not very well trained. They're certainly not trained to do the investigative work, which I think is much more akin to law enforcement than social work. And so that's one of the systemic changes I'd like to see is in terms of how we recruit CPS workers.

I'd like to see them coming out of a much more law enforcement oriented background because that's what we're actually asking them to do. The second thing I would just mention, this is a big topic, is the use of predictive analytics, in order to try to figure out which children are most at risk. We get tens of thousands of calls into child abuse hotlines in urban areas.

Often these systems are overwhelmed and in part they're overwhelmed because some of the calls coming in are simply not worthy of any investigation or there's not enough information to do any investigation. But if we could combine some of the data that we have about these families from TNF programs or education records or criminal records of the parents, we might be able to know which cases need more urgent attention.

Brian Anderson: That's a very interesting point. So that big data and increasingly sophisticated technology may be able to help in these circumstances. The-

Naomi S. Riley:  It's not just for baseball.

Brian Anderson: Right. Well police departments are starting to adapt some of these predictive platforms as well. Now your last essay for the magazine, which appeared in the summer issue, it was a terrific piece called “Wanted: More (and Better) Foster Parents” and looked at a different aspect of the foster care situation.

In that piece, you pointed out that according to national estimates, about half of all foster parents decide to quit after or during their first year of being foster parents. Talk a little bit about that and what the very interesting nonprofit you profiled in that piece is doing to address that.

Naomi S. Riley: So I think the experience of foster parents as I've talked to them across the country has been one of great frustration. And often they will say to me, the foster parents say to me, "It's not the kids, it's the adults." I mean certainly these kids are very challenging.

They have come from places of real trauma, of physical, emotional abuse, neglect. They don't know how to relate to other people. But these parents know that getting into it, what they don't realize is how much of their life they will be spending, dealing with caseworkers, dealing with the family court system. And other issue I've written about for City Journal and how frustrating this is. I mean I sometimes ask people, they ask me, I am not a foster parent, but because I've written so much about it, people will ask me, "Do you think I should do foster parenting?"

And I will say to them half jokingly, "How many hours a week would you be prepared to spend at the DMV?" Because that is what it is like only, children's lives are at stake here. I will say that the other thing that foster parents have experienced and this is a little bit of the piece I wrote for you is lack of support and Project 1.27, which was founded about 15 years ago in Colorado is actually a program.

It's a faith based program, but it's essentially meant to help churches, mostly large evangelical churches, recruit, train and support foster families. So the first revelation that this nonprofit and others like it have had is that the state is not doing a very good job of recruiting foster parents. You could put up a picture of a kid on the nightly news, but frankly that's not going to encourage a lot of people to sign up.

If you go into a pulpit and you say these are the seven kids in your zip code tonight who need a bed, that actually has much more of an effect on people's consciences. The second thing that they did is they decided they were going to do their own training. So the state gave them basic requirements for what foster parents need to know and they've incorporated that curriculum into a more faith-based context.

They still include all of the information about everything from CPR to understanding what trauma is. But they add more to it, add more context and often make it happen in more convenient places and times than the state was willing to do.

The final thing that I think is probably the most important part is that, Project 1.27 and some other organizations have put in place this support network and they have said to families, "If you want to sign up to do foster parenting, you actually have to come to us with four or five other people, other adults, couples, families who are willing to help you in this process."

That means that they will be willing to babysit the kid if you need, a night off, they will be willing to help carpool with this child. They will be willing to help you build furniture if you're taking in foster kids and you don't happen to have that. They will be making meals and they will be praying for you frankly because that level of support is so important to getting people to continue this.

Brian Anderson: Child Welfare Services, as you noted earlier, is typically handled by state and local government, but the Trump administration did make a mark I think in child welfare policy this year by rescinding the Obama era regulation that banned federal funding for religiously based providers. Like this group that you're describing in Colorado. Can you talk a little bit about that approach that the Trump administration has taken and whether that promises to do some good.

Naomi S. Riley: So Project 1.27 wasn't in immediate danger of losing its funding because they're not a placement agency, which is to say they don't actually take the foster child children and put them into homes. But I think the longterm plan, obviously on the part of, folks who really want foster care to be a social engineering project, was really to take away any faith-based agency from broadly doing this work.

That being said, I think the Trump administration did strike a blow here. Both symbolic but also practical in saying that we need to make sure that there is as much support as possible for these children and as many agencies as possible that are doing this training and placement regardless of their religious identity.

And I have to say what has annoyed me so much about this debate is I think that looking back on the debate that this country had over gay marriage a few years ago, you can find some very good examples where people said gay marriage is so important because we gay couples should be able to adopt.

The question was even posed, "Do you feel that is so important that we stick to only heterosexual marriage? That you'd rather see a child languish in foster care then get placed with a gay couple" And I think a lot of conservatives frankly answered that question, said, "No, I think this child should be in a loving home even if I don't happen to agree with this particular arrangement."

Now when the shoe is on the other foot and conservatives are saying, "Look, we want to make sure that as many options are available as possible." Now the other side is saying, "Wait, if you don't adhere to my orthodoxy, which is at all families that the Catholic church or evangelical faith based organizations must place a child with any family out there regardless of the family structure. Then we would like to shut you down." And that to me is again placing the interest of the adult over the interest of the children.

Brian Anderson: Very important point Naomi. Now don't forget to check out Naomi Riley's work at City Journal on child welfare, foster care related issues. You can find it on our website. We'll link to her author page in the description. You can follow Naomi on Twitter. At Naomi S Riley. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, of course, at City Journal. Remember, you can email us If you have any questions or suggestions. And always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Naomi for joining us.

Naomi S. Riley:  Thank you.

Photo: Milan Marjanovic/iStock

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