Over the last decade, the United States’ foster care system has experienced a significant shift from public to predominantly private service provision. Gradually outsourcing its responsibility to monitor the care of the country’s most vulnerable, the government has placed children’s lives and futures in the hands of for-profit companies and non-profit organizations. Although privatization was considered the cure-all to a severely and chronically flawed system, the reforms’ payoffs seem highly ambiguous. The privatization effort was supposed to reduce caseloads and enhance efficiency and accountability of child welfare services, while cutting costs. However, the vast private foster industry has become fragmented and opaque, with predominantly local and regional providers collecting hundreds of millions in tax dollars while receiving little scrutiny from the government.
Foster care differs from legal guardianship and adoption in that its placements are intended to function as temporary havens for children who, for a great variety of reasons including abuse and neglect, can no longer remain in the care of their birth parents. As a permanency plan is developed, children may be placed with relatives, non-relative foster families, in therapeutic foster homes, or in some form of congregate care such as institutions or group homes. Privatization of the industry has transferred the task of recruiting, screening, training, and monitoring these foster homes to private institutions; removing the state’s accountability if something goes wrong. The primary objective of these private foster care agencies - whether large-scale for-profit corporations or local non-profit entities - is to increase the number of foster families on their rotas. With every foster placement representing potential revenue, the private organizations’ main aim has become to place children quickly, rather than safely.
Foster caring is incentivised by significant monetary compensation, intended to cover costs but frequently exceeding parents’ foster care expenses. Consequently, the system is prone to exploitation by those in need of some ‘easy’ cash. Unfortunately, this too often means that parents apply to become foster carers for the associated financial inducements, rather than with the welfare of the child in mind. Combined with the private companies’ low incentive to reject applications or terminate placements, potential safety hazards, sketchy personal backgrounds or continuous maltreatment are often overlooked. As a result, foster children may end up in the care of those with chequered histories of abuse, mental illness or criminal track records, often being worse-off than with the birth families they were originally taken from. As the death of two-year-old Alexandria Hill in 2013 devastatingly illustrates, states should pay more attention to the reforms’ serious safety implications, as failures to recognize warning signs will continue to result in tragedy.
With 250,000 children entering the foster system on a yearly basis, and with a serious deficiency of foster parents, the government welcomed privatization with open arms. However, due to the private sector’s reliance on financial gain, the privatization of the child welfare system has led to children being fostered for profit, rather than for their wellbeing. This monetization has led to a worrisome decrease in the quality of care and the child protection system. Before the federal government continues its national privatization endeavour, it should prioritize child welfare and address the ills of the child-for-profit system.
This article was first featured on War, Peace and Development