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One in eight NC foster children living without a family

RALEIGH—After falling for several years, the number of children living in foster care experienced an uptick nationally and in North Carolina, according to a new report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report calls for improved efforts to ensure that children are placed in quality family settings when they enter the child welfare system.

Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success, emphasizes the importance of children growing up within an environment of safe, nurturing relationships with caregivers in order to best promote their cognitive, physical, emotional and social development.

“Children do best when they live in stable, nurturing homes,” said Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child, a statewide group that works to improve child well-being. “Ideally, we want every child to be able to live safely with his or her family of origin. When that is not possible and children enter foster care, we want to ensure that family settings such as kinship care and family foster care are prioritized and available, and that these families have the training, support and coaching they need to help abused and neglected children heal from the trauma they have experienced.”

The percentage of foster children placed in family settings is on the rise nationally and in North Carolina. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 87 percent of North Carolina children in foster care were in family placements, up from 74 percent in 2004.

“North Carolina ranks among the top third of states for the use of family placements, and we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made in this area over time,” says Hughes.

Research shows that close, supportive relationships and healthy attachments to responsible adults promote the healthy development and well-being of children and youth. Children in foster care who have been placed in group care are less likely to have robust, nurturing attachments that buffer against the effects of stressors like child maltreatment and are fundamental to healthy brain development. As a result, these children experience poorer physical, educational and emotional outcomes as they age—effects that persist into adulthood.

Caring for children who have experienced trauma can be challenging as many have significant social, emotional and behavioral issues.

“Kinship and foster families can provide the stability and nurturing children in foster care need, but it is not easy.  As a state, we must ensure that these families have specialized training and coaching so that they can best provide trauma-informed care for foster children.  These children have unique social and emotional needs that must be addressed by caregivers if we want them to be able to succeed in school, in their communities and in their adult lives,” Hughes said.

Federal law requires that children should be cared for in their own homes whenever it is possible to do so safely, or in new, permanent homes when it is not.

Children are often placed in group settings when relatives cannot be located or are unable to assume care for a child who has been removed from their homes, when there is a shortage of qualified foster care families, when case workers need to place large sibling groups, or if the child has acute needs that require interventions that can best be provided in an institutional setting.

Hughes notes residential placements are a vital option for children who need treatment to later flourish in family settings. But this should only be only used as a temporary treatment. For the remainder of children in care, Hughes cautions that group placements should be used with the ultimate goal of helping children reunite with their biological families, or permanent placement with kinship or adoptive family, not long-term residential care.

General Assembly Poised to Take Action on Related Issues

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering several proposals that could increase the pool of available foster families, further normalize family placement environments for children already in care and improve outcomes for children in foster care as they transition to adulthood.

The Foster Care Family Act (S423/H407) would open the door for children in foster care to participate in normal, age-appropriate activities like spending the night at a friend’s house, playing a sport and getting a driver’s license. The bill would also allow DHHS to pursue a Medicaid waiver and would provide liability insurance for foster parents.

Hughes believes this bill is a useful first step toward addressing challenges that discourage some qualified households from serving as foster families.

Fostering Success (H424) would extend the age of foster care through 19 for youth who are finishing high school or completing a program leading to an equivalent diploma, pursing post-secondary or vocational training while currently employed, or suffering from a medical condition.

“In our own families we want our children to finish high school and begin their transition to college or career before they start to think about leaving home,” said Hughes. “Children in the foster care system, who must navigate the stress of transitioning to adulthood while also coping with the trauma of previous abuse or neglect, deserve the same opportunities for supportive families as they move into the next phase of their lives.”

The Foster Care Family Act is expected to make it to the Governor’s desk later this month. Fostering Success is currently in the House appropriations committee.

The report offers the following recommendations to improve policy and practice:

  1. Expand the service array to ensure children remain in families. Whenever possible, children should remain at home with their parents or a caring relative. Communities that provide a wide range of services have more options that enable children to remain safely in families.
  2. Recruit, strengthen and retain more relative and foster families. Public and private agencies should do more to find families for children and to make sure those families have the support they need to help children thrive.
  3. Keep residential treatment short, with family in focus. Residential treatment should meet children’s acute needs in a customized, short-term way that equips young people to live in a family and to maintain family connections throughout treatment.
  4. Support decision making that ensures least restrictive placements. Substantial justification should be required by child welfare systems and by the courts before young people are sent to group placements

Every Kid Needs a Family is available online at www.aecf.org.

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