May 30, 2006 -- Each week, nearly 60,000 children in the United States are reported as abused or neglected, with nearly 900,000 confirmed abuse victims in 2004. About 520,000 of those children end up in foster care each year -- double the number 25 years ago. Approximately 800,000 children every year come in contact with the foster care system.
Watch ABC News' and "Primetime's" special series on foster care, "A Call to Action: Saving Our Children," beginning Thursday, June 1.
Despite more than a decade of intended reform, the nation's foster care system is still overcrowded and rife with problems. But taxpayers are spending $22 billion a year -- or $40,000 a child -- on foster care programs.
The highest ranking federal official in charge of foster care, Wade Horn of the Department of Health and Human Services, is a former child psychologist who says the foster care system is a giant mess and should just be blown up. He's most critical of the way foster care gets funded by the federal government -- $5 billion that goes mostly, he says, to keeping kids in foster care.
There are no provisions for treatment, prevention, family support, or aging out -- just for supporting things as they are. He wants to rethink foster care on a national level.
Foster Care Statistics:
On September 30, 2004, 518,000 children were in the U.S. foster care system. Most children are placed in foster care temporarily due to parental abuse or neglect.
A record 304,000 children entered the system in 2004, according to one study. Much of the rise was due to methamphetamine use. Experts estimate that 80 to 90 percent of foster care placements can be traced to substance abuse.
About 40,000 infants are placed in foster care every year.
126,000 children are currently available for adoption.
On average, children stay in the system for almost three years (31 months) before either being reunited with their families or adopted. Almost 20 percent wait five years or more. Children have on average three different foster care placements. Frequent moves in and out of the homes of strangers can be profoundly unsettling for children, and it is not uncommon to hear of children who have been in 20 or 30 different homes. Many have been separated not only from their parents, but from their siblings.
More than 20,000 children each year never leave the system -- they remain in foster care until they "age out."
Thirty percent of the homeless in America and some 25 percent of those in prison were once in foster care.
44 percent (or about 241,000 children) have reunification with their birth families as their case goal.
48 percent were in foster family homes (non-relative), 24 percent were in relative foster homes, 18 percent were in group homes or institutions, 4 percent were in pre-adoptive homes, and 6 percent were in other placement types.
The average age of a foster child is 10. Half are 10 or under.
40 percent of foster children are white; 34 are black; 18 percent are Hispanic.
Case workers burn out and leave the profession in very high numbers. The annual turnover rate in the child welfare workforce is more than 20 percent.
The recommended number of cases for a social worker is 17. In some states, the number is three or four times that number.
Glimmers of Hope
Despite ambitious and expensive public and privately funded pilot programs in communities around the country, and despite the heroic efforts of think tanks, community organizations, foster and adoptive parents, mentors and some members of the religious community, there is no national approach or policy regarding child welfare in this country.
As the public policy pendulum swings back and forth between family preservation (keeping children with their biological parents) and protecting children by placing them in foster care -- most experts now agree that the best thing to do is try to leave them at home if at all possible and provide good services to help the family cope.
If that's not possible, the next best solution is to have family members or nearby foster parents take the kids in, and at the same time provide a group of professionals (a therapist, a pediatrician, a social worker, a tutor) to help the kids and the adults. This is called "wraparound services" and has been working well in pilot programs in this country and in others, like England. This is designed to prevent a child from falling through the cracks, which happens all too often when one over-burdened social worker is the only one responsible for the safety of a child.
To compound the problem, not nearly enough is being done for children leaving the system when they become adults, who often receive a small check ($600 in Florida) and a pat on the back. How many parents of well-adjusted typical children send their kids out into the world with hardly any support when they turn 18?
Using the extraordinary resources of ABC News, we can make a difference -- putting foster care and child welfare on the policy map, and starting an open discussion of where the system is going and what needs to be done. This is a critical national issue, because these children will be costing us billions of dollars more down the line. They are the future, and they are our children. Yet most people think of foster kids as some one else's children, and someone else's problem.
But there is reason for hope, too. Across the country, we found heroes, individuals and institutions offering services, ideas, hope. There are dozens of foundations and organizations a mouse click away, in every community in this country, offering innovative solutions and a few practical things that all of us can do to help the children who need it most.
A few obvious solutions: lighten social workers' case loads to the recommended number, under 20; compensate foster parents more fairly and in return demand they keep children, even when they act out; offer services to children aging out of the system; help teach young parents skills they need to care for their children; place foster children near their parents, or with extended family whenever possible; smooth the way for loving foster parents to adopt; make foster care a national priority.
Consider this a call to action, a chance to do something to help save a life before it is too late. For more information on how you can help, Click Here.