The foster care system goes largely unnoticed in this country, and to the extent that they think about it, most Americans believe it does an acceptable job. But there's also substantial worry about the system -- and broad support for improving it, even at significant cost.
Watch ABC News' and "Primetime's" special series on foster care, "A Call to Action: Saving Our Children," beginning Thursday, June 1.
State foster care programs provide temporary shelter for about half a million children who've been removed from their homes for lack of adequate care. Overall, 53 percent in this ABC News/Time magazine poll say the system runs well -- but a mere 8 percent say it runs very well. And nearly half, 47 percent, believe their state system is not doing enough to identify at-risk children.
Only about a quarter of Americans say they pay much attention to foster care issues. Those who do follow the subject are 11 points more apt to rate the system negatively than those who are least likely to follow it, and 20 points more likely to say their state is doing too little to identify at-risk children; they're also more supportive of some improvements in the foster care system.
One fundamental reform -- hiring more caseworkers -- gets overwhelming support: Three-quarters of Americans favor hiring more child welfare workers to reduce their caseloads from the current average of 30 children per caseworker to a recommended 20, even if doing so costs tens of millions of dollars.
That view, moreover, commands bipartisan majorities: Eighty-two percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans support hiring more caseworkers, as do both 83 percent of those who identified themselves as liberal and 72 percent of those labeling themselves conservative.
Even more popular are financial incentives, including tax breaks, to families who adopt older children out of foster care: Eighty-three percent of Americans support that approach, again including sizable majorities across political and ideological lines.
Among other steps, six in 10 also think foster care per diems should be extended to families until foster children reach 21 (support typically ends at age 18). And religious leadership may help: More than six in 10 say religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt foster children.
Outreach to prospective foster parents might also help. Perhaps surprisingly, about a quarter of Americans say they'd seriously consider becoming foster parents or adopting a foster child -- a huge group of individuals, and vastly more than the number actually needed, if only some of them were motivated to act.
Young adults, and people who already have kids at home, are much better prospects -- 40 percent of those under 35 say they'd seriously consider it, compared with just 4 percent of those 65 and over. And 31 percent of nonwhites would consider fostering a child, compared with 19 percent of whites.
Age of People Who Would Seriously Consider Foster Parenting
|18-34 years old||40%|
|35-44 years old||27%|
|45-54 years old||14%|
|55-64 years old||10%|
|65+ years old||4%|
There's a widespread belief that children in the foster care system carry behavioral baggage. More than six in 10 Americans believe these children are more likely than others to exhibit behavioral problems. Fewer, but still significant numbers, see other problems: percent believe foster kids are more likely to have learning difficulties, and 47 percent believe they're more likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol.
Whites are more likely than nonwhites to believe foster care children have these problems, but overall, these assessments don't seem to affect Americans' willingness to become foster parents. Those who believe these children are more likely than others to have behavioral problems are just as likely as those who say there's no difference to consider becoming a foster parent.
One of the complexities in foster care policy is the underlying goal for the children: Reunification with rehabilitated parents or permanent placements with other care givers. Americans divide on this core question -- 50 percent say reunification should be the primary objective, while 44 percent say it's to find a permanent alternative.
In fact, the goals differ case by case. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 48 percent of foster care cases are targeted for reunification, 20 percent for adoption, 8 percent for placement with a relative or guardian, 8 percent for foster care and 6 percent for emancipation. Ten percent are undetermined.
The two in 10 children in foster care classified as having adoption as a goal means there's a significant need for prospective parents. And, there's a growing national debate about gay and lesbian adoption.
At least 16 states are considering new laws this year that ban gay adoption (Florida, Mississippi and Utah already have bans in place). In this poll, Americans divide right down the middle on the issue: Forty-nine percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, 48 percent are opposed. Support has grown over the years from, for example, 14 percent in 1977 and 35 percent in 1998.
Women are far more supportive than men of gay adoption, 56 percent to 42 percent, and there's a large partisan divide on the issue, with more than half of Democrats and Independents in favor but more than six in 10 Republicans opposed.
Support for gay adoption is highest in the more liberal Northeast, 63 percent, and lowest in the more conservative South, 41 percent. Part of the divide is religious: percent of those with no professed religion support gay adoption, compared with only 24 percent of evangelical white Protestants.
There's also a generational gap on the issue: Fifty-five percent of those under age 45 favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, compared with 43 percent of those 45 and older.
METHODOLOGY This ABC News/Time magazine poll was conducted by telephone May 10-14, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
To see the complete results of this poll, click here.
For other ABC News polls, click here.