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The Damage Done By Foster Care Systems

Children who have been in foster care, especially those who have been subjected to multiple moves, are at a high risk of ending up incarcerated.

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

The United States has a long history of separating children, especially Black, Latinx, and Native children, from their families. In 2016, according to a 2018 report, there were over 400,000 children in foster care, a 10 percent increase from 2012. The majority of children removed by child welfare systems are taken because of alleged neglect, a label that can too easily be applied to parents living in poverty. The removal of children, which is done in the name of protection, too often leads to them being placed in foster care systems where they receive little care, little protection from harm, and little stability. Rather, these systems can inflict enormous damage.

This week, the Kansas City Star published a six-part investigation into the foster care system. Its findings were damning. Among them were that “despite a 40-year-old federal mandate that prioritizes family preservation” most of the $30 billion spent each year on child welfare nationally goes to foster care or adoption systems. Even though more children are removed over neglect than abuse, “more dollars are spent on investigating families than trying to keep them together.”

In 2018, the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts and Lisa Sangoi of the Movement for Family Power wrote for The Appeal about the child welfare system and its punishment of poor families of color. “The child welfare system claims to be a non-adversarial legal system dedicated to ensuring the well-being and safety of children,” they wrote. “This claim obscures the oppressive political role it plays in monitoring, regulating, and punishing poor families and Black, brown, and indigenous families. The mass removal of Black children from their families in some ways parallels the U.S. criminal legal system’s mass removal of Black men and women from their communities.”

Professor Roberts and Sangoi described how “judges and officials use consequences of poverty, such as several siblings sharing a single room or lack of adequate heat, as evidence of child neglect” and how “parenting choices, such as whether to co-sleep with an infant or whether to leave an older child unattended at home, are routinely questioned and held against Black mothers in family court.”

They also noted that “racial disparities exist at every stage of child welfare decision-making.” Black families are “more likely to be reported to the child abuse hotline … investigated for child abuse and neglect … to have cases against them substantiated and to have their children removed from their care.”

Once in foster care, Black children “generally receive inferior services and are kept out of their homes for longer periods of time than their white counterparts.” What has been referred to as the “civil death penalty,” the termination of parental rights, happens to Black parents at higher rates than white parents.

After removal from their families, the Star investigation found, children are bounced from placement to placement, including away from supportive foster parents. “Some kids are moved dozens of times—a few as many as 100 times—over several years.” A lawsuit filed in Kansas last year alleges that children are subjected to shifting placements, causing them profound harm. One 10-year old boy, who had been in foster care for six years, had been moved between placements 70 times. In its defense, the state’s Department for Children and Families said the children had suffered no harm and their “own conduct was a contributing cause of injury.” Yet, children in foster care have post-traumatic stress disorder rates higher than that of Iraq war veterans, reports the Star.

Children who have been in foster care, especially those who have been subjected to multiple moves, are at a high risk of ending up incarcerated. The Kansas City Star reviewed surveys completed by nearly 6,000 incarcerated people across the country. It found that a quarter of the respondents had been in foster care. In the women’s prison in Kansas, nearly 40 percent of the respondents had been in foster care. “We think foster care ought to be a protective factor for children and it’s not—foster care is a risk factor,” said Sean O’Brien, a defense attorney who has represented many former foster children. “They take the kid in and then almost every adult beyond that point that touches this kid, they’re like, ‘What is the matter with you?’ They treat them like little criminals.” Foster children are more likely to be sent to prison than to go to college.

The story of Dontay Davis, told by Roxanna Asgarian in the Washington Post last week, exemplifies the tragedies so common in the experiences of children in foster care. Yet Dontay’s story might never have been told but for his proximity to a more unusual tragedy—that of the Hart family. In March 2018, Jennifer Hart drove an SUV filled with her wife and their six adopted children off a cliff. What came to light soon after were allegations of long-standing abuse and malnourishment.

Three of the six children were Dontay Davis’s biological siblings. When the Harts adopted them they declined to adopt Dontay, the oldest at 10 years old. Days after that separation, which would become permanent, he tried to kill himself. He remained in the Texas foster care system for eight more years. Four of those years were in a restrictive “residential treatment center.” For all those years and until his siblings’ death he held on to the hope of being reunited with them. Then at 19, he was in prison. It was while he was in prison that his siblings died, but he did not learn of their deaths until after he was released.

Dontay’s story highlights the cruelties of the child welfare system. As Asgarian writes: “Eight-year-old Dontay Davis acted out violently when the state removed him and his siblings from their home in 2005. In the years that followed, he was set on a path that advocates call the foster care-to-prison pipeline: separated from his brothers and sister, heavily medicated, shuffled between foster homes and shelters, institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and placed for years in a restrictive treatment center. By age 19, Dontay was in a Texas prison serving three years for robbery.”

The removal of children from their families is, Roberts and Sangoi wrote, “one of the most violent acts a government can undertake against its people.” Thousands upon thousands of children are then separated from siblings, subjected to multiple placements, and left with little to no support, on a pathway to homelessness, incarceration, and unaddressed trauma. “Like prison abolitionists,” Roberts and Sangoi continued, “foster care abolitionists recognize this institutionalized disruption of Black families as a key aspect of the expanding carceral state. They therefore seek to dismantle the current foster care system and replace it with a radically different approach centered on the needs, dignity, and equal humanity of families.”