Foster Care: 1980 vs. 2019

(Originally published November 2019)

During a recent search for information regarding the DSHS Bureau of Children's Services prior to the creation of the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in the mid-1980's, I came across a foster care needs assessment issued by the (then) DSHS Office of Research, Analysis and Information Services in 1981. The author of the report was Judy Olmstead. This report summarizes a survey of 598 children and youth in Washington State's foster care system in 1980. At that time there were almost 3,000 children in foster care, about 2,500 who were the responsibility of the public child welfare agency (referred to in the report as CSO) and almost 500 in VA (Voluntary Agency) care.  Washington State's population in 1980 was 4.236 million compared to about 7.5 million in 2018.  DCYF currently has slightly more than 9,000 children in foster care, the lowest foster care population in recent years. For most of the past decade, the state's foster care population has been close to 10,000 on any one day, give or take a few hundred children. 


The DSHS needs assessment offers a fascinating comparison of how the state's foster care system, and the characteristics of children and youth in foster care, has changed (or changed very little), improved or perhaps deteriorated during the past 40 years.  In 1980, Washington State had 4800 licensed foster homes for 3000 foster children. CSO caseworkers surveyed in the DSHS needs assessment believed that there was a foster home shortage due to the lack of enough homes for adolescents and special needs children.  Washington currently has about 5200 licensed foster homes with a population that has grown by 3 million in 40 years, and with a foster care population 3-3.3 times larger than in 1980. 


There have been some major changes in the state's foster care population.  In 1980, half of foster children and youth were 13-17 years old. Many of these adolescents had been in foster care for many years. The average length of stay of the most recent foster care episode, i.e., initial placement to completion of permanent plan, was 2.7 years for CSO supervised foster youth. The average length of stay in children's most recent foster home was 2.3 years in the CSO sample.  Many foster children and youth grew up in and were emancipated from foster care.  One-fifth of foster children in the sample were legally free and may not have visited or had other contact with their parents for several years. Many of the parents of these children were reported to live out of state.  CSO caseworkers had little or no contact with many of the children in long term foster placements. One-fifth of children in the CSO sample had never been visited by a caseworker despite an agency policy requiring caseworkers to visit foster children on their caseload at least once every 90 days, and with an average length of stay of 2.7 years in the most recent foster episode.  


Some caseworkers stated on the survey that adolescents were too old to be adopted.  Reunification with a birth parent was the documented permanent planning goal for only 20% of foster children; adoption was the permanent planning goal for 29% of the sample. The needs assessment suggests that caseworkers were oriented toward reunification for the first 12-18 months of children's placements, and then began to think about another permanent plan. Long-term foster care was an acceptable permanent plan, and many foster children did, indeed, grow up in foster homes, often in stable placements. Caseworkers had more positive attitudes toward foster care than is (often) true today. More than 90% of caseworkers stated on the survey that the foster placement of the child on their caseload was meeting the child's needs. The foster parents caring for children in the sample had been foster parents for an average of 6.1 years. Many of these foster parents recommended that licensing standards for prospective foster parents be strengthened i.e., made more rigorous. 


Despite the difference in the average age of children in foster care in 1980 vs. today (half of foster children are 0-5 at entry into care), the characteristics of children in care were much the same.  Almost half (46%) of foster children (as indicated by a standardized assessment tool) had mental health challenges. Caseworkers estimated that about a third of foster children required mental health services. One-third of children 5 and younger had developmental delays. Foster youths’ poor academic performance was a major theme of the DSHS report.  Over one-fifth of school age foster youth met criteria for special education. 19% of foster parents received a special rate due to behavioral or emotional problems of the foster child in their home. Foster youth had considerable medical and dental problems, and even though foster children received medical coverage, more than one-fifth of foster parents reported paying for uncompensated medical or dental needs of the child in their care during the past 12 months. 


Foster care was not organized around child protection in the same ways it is today. Less than half (46%) of foster children were placed in care due to abuse or neglect. "Parental rejection of the child" was one of the four major reasons for foster placement. Amazingly, 18% of foster children entered care (at least in part) due to "hyperactivity".  Children's physical disabilities were often the main reason a child was placed in foster care. Parental problems that led to foster care were not much different in 1980, except that alcoholism was mentioned more often than use of illegal, dangerous drugs. Most parents of foster children were poor; both CSO and VA caseworkers mentioned the need for more housing and other poverty related services for low income families.  


Voluntary placement agreements were used in about one-fifth of placements in 1980. Caseworkers stated that about half of parents with a child in foster care were willing to accept services. Parents’ "refusal to accept services" was one main reason caseworkers gave for permanent plans other than reunification with a birth parent.   


Almost one-third (32%) of children in foster care in 1980 were racial/ethnic minorities; 8% of children in foster care were African American children vs. 2.3% of the state's population; 7% of children in foster care were Native American vs. 1.3% of the state's population. It seems that there has been little, if any, change in racial distribution of children in Washington's foster care system over 40 years. 


The needs assessment gives the impression that a foster care caseload of 30 children was considered reasonable in 1980, though to be fair, the study does not explicitly state this view. However, almost one in ten (9%) CSO caseworkers had 60 or more children on their caseload in 1980. Currently, 12-15 children in foster care or trial home visits is a widely accepted workload standard while many CWFS caseworkers in Washington have caseloads of (at least) 20-30 children.   


The 1981 study estimated that CSO caseworkers could invest about 1.1 hour per child per week (4.4 hours per month) including services and contacts with the child or foster parents.  A 2007 workload study in this state’s child welfare system indicated that 10 hours per month per child was required to meet existing policy requirements, which have only increased during the past 12 years. Numerous workload studies have found that caseworkers have about 120 hours per month to work on cases, with about 50-55 hours taken up with meetings, training, annual leave and sick leave.  Foster parents stated that CSO caseworkers prioritized services to children who had been recently placed in foster care, and to "putting out fires;" otherwise CSO caseworkers rarely had contact with foster children or with foster parents, at least according to foster parents. The first and most deeply felt recommendation of foster parents regarding system improvement was that caseworkers spend more time with children and their foster parents. VA caseworkers, on the other hand, had average caseloads about half the size of CSO caseloads in 1980, and appear to have done a better job of supporting foster parents. 


CSO caseworkers wanted more administrative assistance within the public agency to help them manage overwhelming workloads, for example help with filing of case material, typing court reports and setting up transportation arrangements for parent-child visitation.  Public agency caseworkers had an average of 3 court hearings per month, a much heavier legal burden than for VA caseworkers. 


One of the surprising and encouraging findings of the 1980 needs assessment was the positive opinion of mental health services behaviorally troubled children had received. Caseworkers and foster parents identified 11% of foster children who had an unmet need for mental health services. Other foster children were receiving adequate mental health services in the opinion of caseworkers and foster parents. Only 3% of foster children were receiving a psychotropic medication in 1980 compared to an average of 30% nationally in recent years.      


The needs assessment creates a strong impression that, 40 years ago, foster parents were financially exploited in a systematic way by the state of Washington. Foster parents were distressed by inadequate clothing allowances provided to foster children, by uncompensated medical expenses and by children's damage to property that child welfare offices were unable to reimburse. Both caseworkers and foster parents were acutely aware of working in an underfunded, understaffed system. VA foster parents wanted to be recognized as professionals, especially when they were experienced in caring for troubled children. Good ideas don't go away; they just resurface every decade or so. 


Foster parents in 1980 felt as disrespected and ignored by caseworkers as many foster parents do today. Foster parents were often not informed of the full story regarding children's disabilities and mental health problems; and were often not kept up to date regarding case developments, according to the foster parents in the sample.  Many foster parents rarely saw or had contact with CSO caseworkers unless there was a placement crisis. Foster parents were frequently not paid on schedule; and had to engage in hassles with the public agency to be paid inadequate foster care reimbursement.  For their part, caseworkers recommended that foster parents have more and better training, especially regarding children's behavior problems. The irritation and dis-satisfaction between foster parents and public agency caseworkers that has made foster home recruitment so difficult for decades was in full flower 40 years ago!  Resource deficits and staffing shortages left foster parents feeling financially exploited and unsupported by the public agency, especially when they were caring for behaviorally children and youth, and their lack of participation in and influence on case planning often led to intense resentment, as these conditions do today.      


The conclusion of the needs survey reads as follows: "The recommendations by caseworkers and foster parents have a common theme:  the need to commit more resources in personnel, training, and money to the foster care agency.  What would happen if these recommendations were put effectively into practice?"   This was an excellent question in 1980, and it's an equally pertinent question today.   


Reflections on 40 years of foster care reforms


The largest most dramatic improvement in child welfare during the past 40 years has been the commitment to permanent planning, a change that had begun even before the passage in 1980 of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. The 1981 needs assessment comments that CSO caseworkers were much more likely to list adoption as a permanent planning goal than they were in the mid-1970’s. In 1980, there was a growing realization among child welfare staff that long term foster care did not serve the interest of most foster children and youth of whatever age, and that it was incumbent on child welfare agencies to find adoptive homes for children who could not be reunified with a birth parent whenever possible.  The passage of permanent planning legislation came just in time to cope with the huge influx of infants and other young children in the mid-1980’s resulting from a substance abuse epidemic.  Today’s foster care population is much younger on average than the foster care population in 1980.


In 1980, child protection was a large important program but not all encompassing as it is today. More than half of children in foster care in 1980 were placed in care for reasons other than child abuse or neglect, often due to children’s physical disabilities or behavior problems and/or parental rejection of the child. It was common in 1980 for legally free children to grow up in foster care after losing all contact with birth parents. Foster care had a more positive reputation both inside and outside the public agency than it does today.


The state’s foster care system was grossly underfunded in 1980. Foster parents were financially exploited on a routine basis, a situation that required decades of political and legal struggle by foster parent advocacy groups to change for the better. Policymakers in this state have always been reluctant to adequately fund the foster care system, much less professionalize a percentage of foster parents.  The state’s child welfare agency has had severe and chronic workload problems under both Republican and Democratic governors regardless of the identity of key policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there has never been enough public pressure to adequately fund child protection and child welfare in Washington.  Despite periodic protestations to the contrary, policymakers have not been willing make necessary investments in child welfare absent strong and persistent public pressure to do so. The idea of some advocates and stakeholders that an insiders’ game of access to the Governor and key legislators can bring about much needed reforms has been repeatedly proven to be false.


One important lesson from an historical perspective: A child welfare reform agenda that does not begin with adequate staffing will never create an effective child welfare system. There is no good way to finesse or work around chronic and severe staff shortages in public child welfare agencies.  


©Dee Wilson 


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