At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, there were just shy of half a million children in foster care in the United States. While the long-term effects of the outbreak have yet to take shape, we can feel certain that economic and health impacts will drive up the number of vulnerable children. In fact, the increase could be dramatic – making it even more urgent that we acknowledge that foster care is not the right answer in every situation.

Pre- and post-pandemic, reducing kids in foster care is in the best interest of children, who do better when they grow up in permanent families; and of states, which are struggling under the weight of their caseloads. Success will require that we shorten the length of time any child spends in foster care and, equally important, that we avoid children coming into foster care at all by keeping them safe at home with their own families.

This point of view usually leads to some heated debate. One camp will quickly voice: we cannot reduce the number of children in foster care by leaving children in harm’s way. The other offers this: we cannot keep taking children into foster care without having tried other interventions that might keep them safe at home. Regrettably, the debate often dissolves without bringing about any real change.

To move from debate to action, we must unpack these apparent polarities. Like most polarities, both are true.

First, on the matter of keeping children safe. It is a demographic fact that horrifying things happen to children. These are the shocking, enraging cases we read about in the paper. One such case is too many. These children need protection.

Second, on the matter of keeping children in their homes. It is a consistent statistic that 80 percent of the children in foster care enter the system after a report of neglect. Generally speaking, it is very difficult for us to tell the difference between poverty and neglect. In many such cases, far less invasive interventions – childcare subsidies and parenting resources, to name two – might solve the problem.

To get child welfare right, we cannot end our thinking with loyalty to only one of these polarities. Doing so either puts too many children in foster care who might have been served safely at home or leaves children at home to their peril.

The answer is simple: we have to do both to solve the problem.

Children who suffer abuse, severe neglect and sex abuse have a home in foster care. These systems should continue to move swiftly to identify these children and protect them from harm.

Children whose families are showing signs of vulnerabilities ask something different of us. They ask us to think carefully through a way of discerning which supports they need to remain intact – and how those supports would likely resolve any concerns about the children’s well-being.

In the coming weeks and months, the impact of COVID-19 will lead to an exponential increase in the number of families at risk – and that phenomenon does not have to lead to a corresponding increase in the number of children placed in foster care.

In short, it has never been more critical that we get the right children into foster care and keep the wrong children out. In the context of Families First and CWIS, this represents the future of child welfare, and in the face of COVID-19, we must embrace the future NOW.

Read more about what child welfare agencies can do in response to COVID-19. Let’s continue the conversation. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

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