This past year Iowa has seen the tragedy of two foster youth, in separate instances, who were starved to death. This is devastating for many human service workers, in a very direct way. I would like to introduce some national data and observations I have made in working with child welfare in several states over the last decade.
First and foremost, the foster child population continues to grow despite static or reduced funding for programs that support and augment healthy adoption. Second, the ratio tends to hold steady at about 2-1 for children in need of a home. This second point is actually perpetuated by the system in the following ways; generally, social workers are the most consistent caregivers in the life of a foster child. The sheer number of kids who are in need of placement is overwhelming and the resources allocated to those children and families are inadequate. This leaves the state social worker between a rock and a hard place. The lack of funding and understanding at the administrative level, and the application of a mentalist model of behavior, only creates an environment of stress and reactivity across the continuum of care. This, for some of our most vulnerable children. The standard value of “kids are resilient” is misapplied in the context of social services. We see examples of this with children who are system involved who are generally coming from environments in which they did not get the early input that is necessary. We know that good early attachment is necessary for self-control, secure attachment, affiliation and/or empathy. These are foundational elements of a healthy, robust development. Social resilience is grounded in being able to be vulnerable, intimate and attached even under stress. As we understand that these kids never got that kind of early attachment, how then can we expect resilience from them?
The current push for in home care actually complicates the situation in social services and defies the data. Specifically, there are more children in need of placement then there are homes available. The task of cultivating new homes for kids is complicated by the system stress, which is exhausting workers, who are trying to do the best they can with the resources they available to them. One of the results is that too many kids get placed in a high performance home, who understand complex trauma, because of the acute need. This short term resolution actually burns out the high performance homes more quickly over time. These high performance, safe homes, become overwhelmed by too many high needs kids leading to the mistrust of the system, suspicion of workers and providers and eventually the collapse of many of these safer homes as a placement option. Additionally, the friends and families of these high performance homes witness what is happening to their friends, and opt out of the consideration of becoming placement homes themselves. This is a result of being privy to how the existing system works. The result is that the workers have to place more children in fewer and less safe homes, who are not trained in understanding complex trauma. Ultimately the children are not tolerated in these homes which either leads to rejection or abuse in an effort to control behavior. This only deepens the despair, loss, anger and resentment of a child. Most likely these children were already neglected and/or abused as the beginning event. The system is increasingly overwhelmed and reactive because of the number of moves, alleged incidents and interactions with children and adults who are angry, afraid and depressed. This in turn actually trains/conditions the children in care to be more resentful, exploitative and helpless. As a result of this broken system we then blame the children for their behavior, and label and medicate them for things that the adults in charge taught them to do.
Understanding this , it is no wonder that the burnout and transition rates for social services personnel are so high. Many well-meaning people are limited by the projection of their own life experience lenses. This is the lenses that they use in program selection, however, it most often is dramatically different from the reality of the lives of the clients they are serving. We ignore the research that tells us that relationship is the single most predictable factor in the success of intervention. However, we are so overwhelmed as a continuum of care that we can’t provide the most basic necessities for children who are desperately in need of consistency, predictability, fairness and unconditional regard.
The absolute need for understanding self-care and the execution of self-care, is often ignored and not supported in our agencies. These agencies are filled with social service workers that deal all day with intense emotional labor. I find this astonishing, given the expectations for our clients and workers. So many parts of the continuum have retreated into taking care of themselves as opposed to serving the client. Sometimes this happens out of necessity, liability is commonly cited as a reason that some of these rules exist. These are rules that are forced on a population that is already resentful, angry and in need of escape. Unfortunately, this develops a personal mastery of becoming more sophisticated at the exploitation of the system rather than emotional growth that results in prosocial attachment to family, community and society.
This is the system WE have created and the deaths of young innocent children is the result! Immerse yourself for just a moment in what it would be like to live in a home where you were being starved and slowly wasting away and you were being blamed. This is not the behavior of a country that values life, love and the pursuit of happiness. It is a stain on the heart of all Americans, even though you can suppress it, it is still there eating away at everything around you.
High quality homes, respite homes, trauma and development training are absolutely part of the solution, time and again good money spent on the front end has resulted in significant savings on the back end. It is time to pilot a continuum that can follow deep end kids from removal to properly assessed resolution. All of those resources are available to us. It is to our peril to ignore the long term consequences of continuing with our current system.