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A Childs Journey Through The Foster Care System

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The paper and diagram below describe the typical progression a child makes through a state welfare system. Each figure in the diagram below links to a specific decision point described in the paper, which begins immediately after the diagram.

This chart provides a model, which highlights typical decision points on a child's journey through the current foster care system. Although the format is based on federal and common state law and practice, nevertheless it is only a model. Laws vary across states, as does the capacity and practices of child welfare agencies and courts to manage their caseloads.

This paper describes the typical progression a child makes through a state's child welfare system. Each state's child welfare agency is responsible for ensuring the safety and well being of children. Child welfare systems have several chief components:

* Foster care - full-time substitute care for children removed from their parents or guardians and for whom the state has responsibility. Foster care provides food and housing to meet the physical needs of children who are removed from their homes.

* Child protective services (CPS) - generally a division within the child welfare agency that administers a more narrow set of services, such as receiving and responding to child abuse and neglect allegations and providing initial services to stabilize a family.

* Juvenile and family courts - courts with specific jurisdiction over child maltreatment and child protection cases including foster care and adoption cases. In jurisdictions without a designated family court, general trial courts hear child welfare cases along with other civil and criminal matters.

* Other child welfare services - in combination with the above, these services address the complex family problems associated with child abuse and neglect. They include family preservation, family reunification, adoption, guardianship, and independent living.

* "While 542,000 children were in foster care on September 30, 2001, 805,000 spent some time in care over the course of that year."1

* "Children in care in 2001 had been in foster care for an average of 33 months. More than 17 percent (91,217) of the children had been in care for 5 or more years."1

Once a child is known to the child welfare agency, he and his family become subject to a series of decisions made by judges, caseworkers, legal representatives, and others, all of whom have an important role to play. A child may encounter dozens of other new adults including foster parents, counselors, and doctors.

"Most children (60%) enter foster care when removed from their homes by a child protective agency because of abuse and/or neglect. Others (17%) enter care because of the absence of their parents, resulting from illness, death, disability, or other problems. Some children enter care because of delinquent behavior (10%) or because they have committed a juvenile status offense (5%), such as running away or truancy. Roughly 5 percent of children enter care because of a disability."2 For many, it represents their only access to disability services, for example, mental health care for a child with severe emotional disturbance. In these rare instances, in states that allow such placements, a child is placed in foster care voluntarily at the request of his parents.

Foster care is intended to provide a safe temporary home to a child until he can be reunited safely with his parent(s) or adopted. "However, being removed from home and placed in foster care is traumatic for a child, and the period of time he may spend in care can be filled with uncertainty and change."2

A child in foster care is affected by a myriad of decisions established by federal and state laws designed to help him. At each decision point, action or inaction can profoundly influence the child's current circumstances and future prospects. The discussion that follows highlights typical decision points on a child's journey through foster care. Although the format is based on federal and common state law and practice, nevertheless it is only a model. Laws vary across states, as does the capacity and practices of child welfare agencies and courts to manage their caseloads. These factors can and often do create delays that complicate a child's journey through the child welfare system and often extend his time there.

DECISION POINT - Abuse or neglect is reported and the CPS agency responds.

"The child's journey through foster care usually begins when a mandated reporter3 or concerned citizen makes a report of abuse or neglect to a state agency". For example, a doctor delivers a baby who has drugs in his system; a neighbor notices bruises on a child; a toddler is found abandoned in a public place; or a teacher notices a student who is unclean, unfed or severely ill.

* Child abuse and neglect, or maltreatment, are defined in both federal and state law. Federal law provides a foundation for states by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. "The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse and neglect, at a minimum, as "any recent act or failure on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm" to a person under age 18."4 States can and do expand on or clarify definitions in a variety of ways that are particular to local needs. Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that in 2001, CPS agencies received nearly three million referrals of maltreatment involving five million children. Approximately 903,000 of these cases were substantiated after investigation."5

The following types of abuse and neglect occurred (some in combination with others):

Type of Abuse Percentage

Neglect 59.2%

Physical Abuse 18.6%

Sexual Abuse 9.6%

Emotional/Psychological maltreatment 6.8%

Other (abandonment, congenital drug addiction) 19.5%5

The ages of the victims ranged as follows:

Age Percentage

Birth

...

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