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How Lawyers Are Changing the Lives of Foster Kids—and Creating a Model for Change

For some children, foster care is a life-saving experience. But of the half-a-million-plus children in the U.S. who are in foster care, too many are failed by the system: sent far from their homes and siblings, made to endure horrific abuse and neglect, moved through dozens of homes and institutions. For kids who are never adopted, and end up aging out of the system at 18, the statistics are grim—more below, but nearly a third have no home—and a reminder that this is not an isolated issue, but one that has catastrophic society-wide effects.

Our children in the foster care system are too often left voiceless. But in this seemingly bleak space, an organization called Children’s Rights is giving them a voice, and making a real difference—in pretty interesting fashion. In a nutshell, the organization and its team of lawyers tackle system-wide breakdowns that affect children around the country, by forcing states to be held accountable for protecting the legal rights (per the constitution, federal, and state law) of children in foster care. Their landmark class action victories against states and related top officials have resulted in court orders for meaningful child welfare reform in more than a dozen states. And once a case is won (or settled before court), Children’s Rights remains in the picture to ensure that mandates are met and that kids are made safer—whether it’s a matter of increasing funding, reducing the number of kids assigned to caseworkers, creating a smarter and kinder placement system, and so on. In a world in which it often feels like all we’re doing is putting Band-Aids on problems, Children’s Rights is bringing about tangible, structural change that addresses the very roots of this injustice. Below, we ask Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights, to share the organization’s clever model for change, and to tell us what we can do to contribute.

A Q&A with Sandy Santana

Q

How are children placed into the foster care system? How is a particular home or institution selected for a child?

A

When children are removed from abusive or neglectful situations, they should be kept from further harm and be given safe, loving homes. But too often, because of a lack of foster homes, kids are placed wherever beds are available and not according to their needs. Too many are put in dangerous shelters and overcrowded institutions, sent many miles from home, separated from their siblings, shuffled between multiple homes, and made to suffer even more abuse and neglect in the very system meant to protect them.

Q

What are the major issues in the foster care system today, and how are children affected by these systemic breakdowns?

A

While each child welfare system has its own unique challenges, we see many with similar problems. Too often, caseworkers are charged with protecting an overwhelming number of children, which means kids don’t get the attention and care they need, and abuse and neglect get overlooked. Children also suffer because of troubling issues like the shortage of family foster homes, poor mental health care, and a dearth of services to prepare them for life on their own after state care.

Q

And what’s the scope of issue—how many kids in this country are in foster care and what statistics do they face when they age out?

A

Roughly 650,000 young people spend time in foster care every year. Tragically, about 22,000 age out annually without being adopted or safely reunified with relatives. And this leads to devastating effects. Lacking support or life skills, at least 31 percent end up homeless or couch surfing, while as many as 64 percent of males and 32 percent of females spend time in jail. And just about four percent earn a four-year college degree by age 26.

Q

How does Children’s Rights decide which issues to tackle, and what cases to take on?

A

Children’s Rights seeks to reform child welfare systems that do not improve over time, even when the evidence is clear that kids continue to be harmed. When the failings of foster care agencies are the target of numerous reports, hearings, and blue ribbon commissions, and still nothing compels them to change, then litigation can be the last and best option to make them safer for kids.

Q

What’s a typical case look like for Children’s Rights?

A

Since each system is different, there is no such thing as a typical case for Children’s Rights. I can tell you about our most recent landmark victory on behalf of 12,000 children in Texas: The state gives caseworkers 12 to 18 months to either reunify children with their birth families or find them adoptive homes before they enter permanent foster care, a status unique to Texas. Once there, the attention paid to their cases drastically diminishes, and far too many literally grow up in state care, shuffled between a variety of poorly-supervised foster homes and institutions. Along with our co-counsel, we fought hard on behalf of these kids. As a result, a federal judge ruled that Texas must make targeted changes to its foster care system. In her decision, she stated, Texas ignored years of reports “outlining problems and recommending solutions… Children have been shuttled throughout a system where rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm.”

Q

Can you share some success stories?

A

We have seen progress in all of the systems where we have been involved, but I’ll highlight Tennessee. Its child welfare system was once beset with dangerous, systemic problems, but has undergone a drastic turnaround since we started advocating for reform. While some workers once had crushing caseloads of 50 or more children, by 2015 at least 98 percent were responsible for 20 or fewer kids. In 2015 the state was able to place 75 percent of sibling groups together in care, up from less than 35 percent in 2002. Tennessee also has improved medical and mental health screening for kids, eliminated the use of inappropriate shelters, and is reunifying more children with their relatives or placing them with loving adoptive families.

Q

For most states, is improving the foster care system a matter of funding, or are there usually other barriers or structural issues?

A

First, it is crucial to fund early intervention services to help keep families intact and prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. Of course, states must also ensure they have adequate resources for those who must go into care. Still, a number of states have robust child welfare budgets, but their systems are set up in a way that doesn’t ensure children receive the attention and protection they desperately need. And money is sometimes misspent and not funneled to the areas that can truly make life better for kids.

Q

Has the law proven to be the only tool powerful enough to force states to make positive changes? What are other possible solutions?

A

Sometimes grassroots advocacy can compel leaders to make fixes to improve foster care for kids. Sadly, a child death or other tragedy can be a catalyst for change. But in many cases, harnessing the power of the courts proves to be the most effective tool to instill lasting reform. Using the law allows us to hold states accountable for meeting specific, court-enforceable benchmarks to ensure more kids are safe and have permanent families. That means that while elected leaders come and go, a state’s effort to fix its child welfare system must remain.

Q

Are there examples of ideal foster care systems that can be replicated? Or specific programs (i.e. early childhood education or college-prep) that can make a real difference for kids in foster care?

A

Many foster care systems where we have intervened are doing extremely important things. For example, Connecticut has drastically cut the number of young kids living in institutions, metropolitan Atlanta has upped visits between kids and their caseworkers, and Tennessee has increased adoptions. That being said, it is vital for states to provide effective supports—like mental health and substance abuse services—to families to prevent kids from entering the system in the first place. When it is safe, being with their families of origin is the best option for young people.

Q

What kind of help (legal, financial, or otherwise) can people offer Children’s Rights?

A

It takes tremendous resources to effect change and improve the lives of tens of thousands of vulnerable kids. So Children’s Rights always welcomes financial contributions, and is extremely grateful to those who help us make the greatest possible impact. And because we join forces with legal firms and other nonprofits throughout the country, we are continually looking to partner with like-minded people and organizations.

Q

And are there other ways we can support children currently in foster care and those who are aging out of it?

A

We encourage people to help us raise awareness about the challenges kids face in foster care. Children’s Rights runs a campaign annually to amplify the voices of those who have been impacted by state care. You can read their first-person accounts at fosteringthefuture.com, then share them with friends and family to shine a light on their journeys. You can help us ensure children get the protection, care, and support they deserve. To learn more about Children’s Rights and what we do, visit our website.

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