Broken families take a lot of healing. That’s because familial support is a person’s greatest resource in life.
We gain support in many ways across our lifespan: friendships, relationships, family, and within our communities. If we are fortunate, we gain the best of all of these. The notion of family can be likened to a rich tapestry with one golden thread woven throughout: human connection.
Humans connect in many ways, one being through social interactions with safe and welcoming friends and family. If a person is deprived of this basic need for connection, their mental, physical, and emotional health suffers. The psychosocial impact of broken families is mostly attributed to neglect, drug abuse, and an inability to cope.
Over the course of completing my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I have witnessed the suffering of literally hundreds of people. In each of these instances, they described feelings of being unloved, alone, and misunderstood. When I think about the added layer of a person who has been within the foster care system, my heart hurts.
As of fiscal year 2021, the last year for which data is available, there are approximately 391,000 children living in the U.S. foster care system. Almost 46,000 of these children live in Texas—although it should be noted that the number of Texas children removed into foster care has decreased significantly since 2021.
Although the stated priority of every state’s child welfare system is to reunite children with their families as quickly as possible, the system is flawed. A growing recognition of the traumatic impact of family separation underscores the immediate need for fundamental change as it is becoming increasingly clear that current child welfare practice has failed to act in the best interest of our most vulnerable children and their families.
Personally, I believe that all children deserve the safety, stability, and security of a loving family—and that family, except in the most exceptional cases, should be the child’s natural family.
More than half of all children in the foster care system belong to historically vulnerable groups, and were removed from their family homes due to neglect, which is often tied to poverty. Despite the system’s efforts to provide “adequate” care to children in the foster care system, many continue to experience instability, abuse, neglect, and improper placements until they age out of the system. The psychological impact of these adversities on youth and the families that support them is immeasurable. Over half of foster youth report debilitating levels of anxiety, depression, and a history of adverse childhood experiences. As a mental health professional, these facts are staggering to say the least when long-term psychosociospiritual impact is taken into account.
Transforming our nation’s child welfare system requires a new form strategy that prioritizes the voices of impacted children and their families. It is only by recognizing and addressing the harms the system has inflicted on generations of families that we can begin to chart a new course. I believe there are a set of concrete steps that must be taken to begin to remedy the flaws of the current system.
First, we must redefine the terms “neglect” and “adequate care” to recognize that poverty, while not ideal, is not synonymous with “danger” and should never be used as justification for separating a child from his or her family.
We must also shift the culture of child welfare practice to prioritize family preservation through the use of voluntary, community-driven services that families feel safe accessing without the threat of system involvement. This requires the expansion of community resources that should include tele-mental health support, in-home early childhood education resources, substance use treatment, workforce development, and financial literacy training.
Finally, we must reform the child welfare bureaucracy itself and shrink its footprint. The old, outdated model of a centralized, government-run child welfare agency tasked with intervening in the lives of families and removing children from supposedly “unsafe” environments must be replaced by a community-centric system of family support. This is not to say that it will not sometimes be necessary to remove a child from an abusive home and place them in foster care. Rather, it recognizes that limited resources and energy are best spent on strengthening, not separating, families.
As a mental health professional, I firmly believe that increased social awareness of the experiences of foster youth and their families combined with a cultural shift toward prioritizing mental health and wellness will create a secure foundation for repairing the foster care system. Our youth need to be seen and heard by a caring support system that champions their growth, development, and success through observable change.