Part 3: Family Preservation + Foster Care

Written by: Amanda McGinley and Nick Runyon Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Amanda McGinley and Nick Runyon
Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Did you know that all children have the right to live with a member of their biological family? If this is not safe, then a child has the right to live with a family that safely cares for them. This was a large focus of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of a Child from the Geneva Convention in 1989. The importance of family, paired with studies on institutionalization, adoption, and how being raised in a family impacts children, has affected how our world is trying to care for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Two major movements to care for vulnerable children are family preservation and foster care. These two methods of providing care for children are family focused, and are largely a reaction to the negative sides of adoption and orphanages. Like adoption and orphanages, to fully understand family-based care models, it is important to look at them from all angles. (To learn more about adoption click here, and to learn more about orphanages click here.)

Family preservation is a movement to keep vulnerable children with their family of origin. Family preservation provides parents and families in crisis with services to support and empower them. Through education, health and wellness, employment opportunities, and childcare arrangements, many children are able to be raised in their own homes(1).  Closely tied to family preservation is reunification.  Reunification refers to the process by which a child who was removed from a home or was living in an orphanage is able to return to their family. Often times, the same support that is provided by family preservation efforts, must be in place for reunification to occur successfully.

Early family preservation efforts can be seen at the beginning of the 20th century, when the U.S. gave monetary assistance to struggling parents as an alternative to placing children in orphanages (2).  Additionally, the family preservation movement came in response to unnecessary family breakup, when children were placed outside of their biological families. With developments in the welfare system, the family preservation movement grew.  Today, there are organizations devoted to preserving natural families in crisis and those who have experienced a wrongful termination of parental rights.

One of the biggest advantages of family preservation is that it is beginning to address one of biggest causes of families being separated, poverty. This support allows healthy and loving families to stay together. This means that, the more efforts that are taken to support a family, the less often children will end up in orphanages or being cared for by other families. Additionally, family preservation advocates believe that children receive the best outcome when kept in the care of their biological family and suffer when separated from this core community.

Consider this: If your neighbor lost his job a year after his wife died, and he had three small kids, would you ‘help’ him by taking away his kids, forever? Most likely, the answer to this question would be no.  However, many families, in similar situations, have been forced to be separated from their children as they do not have the support they need to keep their children at home. This is especially true in developing countries, where poverty is more widespread.

Keeping a family together is such a beautiful thing and, like we discussed, it is helping keep children from being orphaned. However, not all homes and not all families are safe for children. Many times children are removed from their home for good reason. Starvation, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal abuse are just a handful of reasons why a child’s home may not be considered safe.

In order for reunification to be done correctly, it requires a lot of work and resources. First, homes must be visited to assess if they are safe and suitable for the care of the child. Additionally, trained professional must be able to determine that abuse will not occur and that the family is willing and able to provide the resources necessary for the child’s care. If it is determined that the child can return to the home, then there must be multiple check-ups to make sure abuse has not reoccurred. All of this gets much more complicated in developing countries. Many times, families live more than a full day’s drive from the nearest city and social workers. Also, the cultures and customs of each country, and sometimes each community, must be carefully considered. Many times, locals with social work training are scarce and assessments are completed by foreigners who have limited knowledge in local custom. This can be detrimental to the child’s well-being.

As you can see, the challenges are many, but in the best interest of the child, we must continue to pursue family preservation and reunification, and ensure that it is done properly. If not, then we are potentially putting children at even more risk.

The next right of a child, after living with someone in their biological family, is for the child to live with a family.

Foster care, also known as out-of-home care, is a temporary service provided by states for children who cannot live with their families. Children in foster care may live with relatives or with unrelated foster parents. Foster care can also refer to placement settings such as group homes, residential care facilities, emergency shelters, and supervised independent living.”

Another form of foster care is kinship care. In kinship care, a vulnerable child is placed in the care of relatives or close family friends.

In 1909, President Roosevelt ordered that children be placed in foster families over orphanages in the United States. From there, foster care grew as an alternative arrangement for children in crisis or without living, biological family. By 1950, the number of children in foster care outnumbered the children in orphanages. The system was privately funded until federal funding was introduced for the first time in the 1960’s. Foster care is now the main form of assistance provided to children in the United States who cannot remain in their own homes because of neglect, abuse, or double orphanhood (3).

Foster care, in its healthiest form, can provide a safe and stable environment for a child to be raised. Foster care is especially important in emergency situations when a child must be immediately removed from an abusive home or a home in crisis. This is a scary experience for a child, but trained foster families can provide love and support until the child can return to their home. If this is not possible, many times foster families will become adoptive parents to their foster child. Additionally, kinship care can provide a much easier transition for children, as they may already have a relationship with this person(s).

Unfortunately, as many of you already know, the foster care system is far from perfect. Children in the system have been abused, neglected, and sometimes endured trauma worse than if they were to stay with their unstable birth family. Additionally, children are often moved around to multiple homes.  Studies show that this kind of movement can be extremely harmful to a child’s mental well-being. The average child in the foster care system will set foot in three different foster homes, while some have seen more than twenty. This can be very damaging to a child’s psychological and social development (4).

Another difficulty the foster care system faces is a lack of families willing to foster or adopt. Currently, there are over 400,000 children in the system with 100,000 ready and waiting to be adopted, yet in 2012 over 23,000 left the system at 18 having never been adopted (5).

These family style approaches of caring for orphaned and vulnerable children have had a positive effect on many children’s lives’ worldwide. This is especially true, when the focus is being placed on caring for a child’s family of origin. But a lack of resources in this style of care can sometimes leave children in a worse situation. Also, some important questions arise.

How long does one work to reunite a child with biological parents? Is it months? Is it years? And what is happening to the child during this period of time? Are they bouncing around the foster care system? Are they living out the most crucial years of their development in an unhealthy orphanage or institution when an adoptive family is readily available? Some studies have even shown that health, emotional and cognitive function, and physical growth of orphans living in families was no better than those in group homes (6).

There are no easy answers to these questions, but the point is that they are important. Children have the right to a family. We must always be working to keep as many families together as possible, as this will be such an integral part of ending the orphan crisis. But we must never let our ideals keep us from doing what is best for a child. Maybe we don’t know yet what is best yet, but we will keep learning and never stop trying.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7