A new national survey of the people involved in the child welfare system paints a dismal picture of the state of foster care, a scenario that many respondents noted was amplified but not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The overwhelming consensus is that the child welfare system is failing the children and youth it is responsible for raising,” according to Voice of the Foster Care Community, which canvassed thousands of people involved in the system every day. The organizer of the project, iFoster, intends to establish the survey as an annual read on the foster care system to be released each May, and has already begun collection for year two.
The 68-page survey is broken out into austere sections for each of the three groups — current and former foster youth between age 16 and 24, caregivers and parents, and members of the workforce. It asks respondents about their own personal circumstances, to rate the quality and availability of supports such as legal help or financial support, and includes some open-ended questions such as: “If you were in control of the child welfare system, what would be the first thing you would invest time, money, and resources in?”
The text answers to such questions were arranged thematically using inductive coding, done by transition-age youth working with iFoster, to determine common themes and views. Those themes are presented alongside the quantitative data in the survey report, and a searchable annotation of the text comments is available as well.
The report identifies several themes that emerge from the survey, including the view that structural inequities drive child welfare involvement; providing stable permanency and teaching youth self-sufficiency are not enough of a priority; and that the system suffers from a rampant scarcity of resources.
While those are hardly unheard-of critiques of the foster care system, Voice of the Foster Care Community is the first attempt to develop an annual view of the system directly from those who live in or have children in it, and from frontline workers and caregivers.
“My perspective, just mine, is that the overriding theme which all the others derive from is that child well-being is not the focus,” said iFoster CEO Serita Cox, of the first year results. “Issues with permanency, disproportionality, self-sufficiency, scarcity, to me those are outcomes of not putting well-being first.”
One survey question asked respondents to identify the most pressing needs of foster youth for the Biden administration. The top answer selected by youth was free mental health and therapy; both caregivers and workers most frequently selected ensuring that youth in the system get all of the services they are eligible for.
At least one survey finding around education supports indicates that connecting youth to what they are owed is indeed an issue. When asked about Chafee Education and Training Vouchers — a federal fund that provides substantial aid to current and former foster youth pursuing higher education — 63% of current and 42% of former foster youth reported that they either did not know about the vouchers or were not aware they were eligible for them.
iFoster is a Truckee, Calif.-based nonprofit that connects foster youth to resources and opportunities around the country. The survey was emailed to 22,485 caregivers, 8,581 youth and 2,283 workers/advocates, with a response rate of 7.2%.
The survey was designed and prepared by the Community Advocacy Research and Evaluation Consulting Group and by Jeremy Goldbach, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a veteran researcher in the fields of LGBTQ and adolescent mental health.
The survey was born of a more targeted, “Tell It to Biden” email engagement from iFoster soliciting input on what the current administration should know about foster care. After that quickly yielded an unexpectedly high number of responses, Cox said, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation provided support to build it out into an annual survey.
Cox said the plan going forward is to build out a state-by-state dashboard on foster youth well-being, and augment the survey results with focus groups.
“If people really feel like they need to have a voice, then we have to let them have a voice,” she said.
Foster youth, caregivers and workers interested in participating in the Voice of Foster Care Year 2 Survey can click here to access it.
The Hilton Foundation is a financial supporter of Fostering Media Connections. The foundation played no role in our decision to publish this article, per our editorial independence policy.