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Feature Articles

Stay in Foster Care
Less Emphasis on Reunification
By Jamie Schwandt, Ed.D.

In my recently published book, “Succeeding as a Foster Child: A Roadmap to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Success,” I wrote about the impressive opportunities that the foster care system provides. Yes, you read that correctly; I used opportunity and foster care in the same sentence. As I discuss in my book, being a foster child is an opportunity for a better life — a life of countless possibilities and abundant resources that may only be accessible to a child because of foster care. Even though a primary focus of the foster care system is reunification with parents, this idealized conclusion may not be in the best interest of the child based on three powerful assessments. First and foremost, there was an obvious reason the child was removed from his or her home, and that dangerous situation may not have changed. Second, because of the foster care system, the child now has a significant amount of resources and advantages at his or her disposal. Lastly, the child has a chance to thrive and develop in a foster family, a chance that simply may not be available if the child returned to the biological family.

Let us start with two example questions. 1) Will a drug addict, who lacked care or concern for his or her children before they were placed in foster care, change his or her ways? 2) Will an abusive parent change his or her ways once a child is removed from the home and placed in foster care? History tells us these parents will not change. Our criminal justice system is overwhelmed with repeat offenders. This pattern is also present in child welfare cases. A majority of these parents will continue to make poor decisions which compromise the care and development of their children. We may want these parents to change and give their children a better life, but the truth is, most of them won’t.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the purpose of the foster care program is to prevent maltreatment and abuse of children in distressed families by providing a temporary home and a foster care family until the children can safely return to their home or a permanent home is found. One of the top priorities of the foster care system is reunification with the family. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services needs to assess the long-term implications of reunification as this may not always be in the best interest of the child. Ironically, this well-intentioned directive — to return a child to his or her home — may be as damaging to a child as the very situation from which the child was first rescued.

To help illustrate this point, let us examine a study I conducted in 2013, “Exiting Foster Care: A Case Study of Former Foster Children Enrolled in Higher Education in Kansas.” For the study, I interviewed 15 college students who aged out of the foster care system in Kansas. The purpose of the study was to explore what aspects of the foster care system contributed to their success. Essentially, I wanted to answer the questions, “What did the system do right?” and “How can this be repeated?” Ten themes were identified from the study, but the most alarming theme was that these former, and now successful, foster children adamantly opposed reintegration with their biological families. If there was a legitimate reason for removing a child from his or her family, why then would it make sense to reintegrate the child into the same home that was once deemed unsafe?

One of the participants in my study was abused both physically and emotionally by her parents. She was placed in foster care only to be brought back to her parents. Five different times she went back and forth between her parents and foster families. She made a comment that her mother did not know how to take care of her and her sibling. It appears foster care administrators assumed that her mother would somehow figure out how to raise a child when she continued to demonstrate otherwise. Sadly, so much emphasis was placed on reunification that the biological family unit took precedence over a child’s well-being.

Instead of focusing efforts on reunification, why not examine the best way to help a foster child succeed? Staying with a foster family or being adopted gives a foster child that chance at success that he or she might not have with a biological family. My book details the vast resources that foster children have at their disposal, including the opportunity to receive education benefits for college, life skills training, support services and so much more. Foster children receive money for college and can graduate debt free. Researchers from CNN conducted a study in 2013 that found the average student loan debt to be $29,400; in contrast, foster children are eligible to receive tuition fee waivers and the Education and Training Voucher, which has the potential to completely fund a foster child’s education. Even improvements in academic grades can be attributed to the benefits of foster care.

In my 2013 study, participants informed me that their grades significantly improved after being placed into foster care. One participant informed me that she would not have graduated from high school had she not been placed into the foster care system. They were able to focus on improving their lives rather than being frightened or concerned about returning home after school. This is Maslow’s hierarchy in its truest form; when basic needs are met, personal growth becomes a real possibility.

In addition to educational advantages, federal law requires that a foster child is provided a personalized transition plan prior to leaving foster care. What benefits, mentorship or transition plan would a child receive from the biological family, particularly a “distressed” family from which the child had to be removed? Participants in my study identified that they would not have attended college had it not been for the foster care system. They received benefits and mentorship that they clearly would not have had access to had they been reunified with their family. As a result, these students are well on their way to becoming self-sufficient, tax-paying adults instead of tax consumers.

Foster care also offers a child opportunities to thrive within a foster family — opportunities that almost certainly cannot be matched by reunification. One of the themes in my 2013 research was the following: participants would not be where they are today if they would not have been placed in foster care. One participant speculated that she would be dead or drug-addicted and living on the streets had she not been placed in foster care. Another participant remained in foster care even as his older brothers were reintegrated with his biological family. His older brothers have made numerous poor life decisions and lack the ambition to do any better. When asked where he would be if he would not have remained in foster care, he simply stated that he would be in the same situation as his older brothers — making poor choices and facing continual legal trouble. He is now a college graduate and is looking forward to his future. The foster care system enabled these foster children to be successful, and being removed from their families was instrumental in their journey to becoming a success story.

Additionally, removing children from the home and placing them with a foster family allows them to break the cycle of failure that plagues so many families. Children in abusive families are more likely to be abusive themselves; the same goes for children in families where drugs and alcohol are prevalent. By simply being placed in foster care, a child can finally have some semblance of a normal life. They no longer have to worry about being abused by their parents or concerned about where they will get their next meal. These children can now focus on improving themselves and maturing into productive, independent adults.

This idea of moving away from focusing on reunification may be unorthodox or even controversial, but the primary goal of the foster care system should be to create a self-sufficient adult, not to return a child to a home of questionable safety. Creating self-sufficient adults means these foster children have a chance to break the familial cycle of failure and reach their full potential. If we want these children to have access to the future they deserve, then we need to be willing to develop more effective policies. Reunification doesn’t always make the most sense.

Every single child deserves the opportunity for success. Oftentimes it can only be found within the loving and nurturing arms of a foster family. We owe it to foster children to place them where they have the greatest safety and the most opportunity, not where they have the closest DNA match. Let me close with this scenario. A 3-year-old child is removed from abusive, drug-using biological parents and is placed in a loving foster home with foster parents who are open to adoption. Is reintegration into the biological family in the child’s best interest? Or would the child’s greatest chance for a normal childhood and eventual self-sufficiency come from the foster/adoptive home? I’m certain we both know the answer to these questions. 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jamie Schwandt, Ed.D., is a former foster child who understands how to succeed in life. Schwandt had a difficult childhood and overcame significant obstacles to get where he is today. He was born in a small town in Kansas where his parents abused drugs and alcohol. Both parents battled depression while suffering from other mental health issues. His father committed suicide when Schwandt was 18 years old. As a child, Schwandt witnessed many dangerous and poor decisions made by his parents. His mother suffered from severe drug addiction and alcoholism. He watched his mother use drugs in their home and was often left to take care of her and his younger brother. He has vivid memories of seeing needles in the bathroom, witnessing domestic violence, and preventing his mother from multiple suicide attempts. In May 2013, Schwandt completed a doctor of education degree from Kansas State University. Schwandt is a United States Army Captain and served in the Middle East during Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. His new book, “Succeeding as a Foster Child” can be found at http://bit.ly/schwandt.

Feature Article Archive

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Becoming Foster Parents

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Thank You, Foster Parents!

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