In our post-Roe world, anti-abortion and pro-choice individuals alike have filled social media with calls to adopt and foster “unwanted” children in our foster care system. This narrative reflects a grave misunderstanding of the child welfare system that impedes the progress needed to shift our focus from saving children to saving families.
Children in foster care are rarely if ever “unwanted,” and it is insulting to refer to them as such. Most children enter foster care not because of abandonment, but because a state (or county) child welfare agency determines through an investigation that the parents cannot provide safe care. Indeed, two-thirds of children enter care due to neglect, while less than 1% are relinquished.
Neglect often reflects larger, structural issues such as poverty, neighborhood disadvantage, and oversurveillance of families (particularly among poorer communities and communities of color). These, in turn, are linked to other issues families may face such as parental substance use, mental health or domestic violence. If we look at which children enter foster care and how they enter, we see a picture of multigenerational cycles of structural poverty and systemic discrimination, not the “unwanted orphan” portrayed by some. Their families are facing barriers maintained by policies the same politicians celebrating Roe’s reversal have kept in place for decades, such as a lack of health care, lack of parental leave, lack of subsidized child care, and systemic racism that offers few true opportunities to get out of multigenerational cycles of poverty.
Simply put, the child welfare system desperately needs to decrease the number of children in foster care. This decrease will not come from providing children substitute, artificial families. It will come from supporting each child’s actual family.
Unfortunately, the most common response to “fixing” foster care is to find more foster parents who might adopt. Traditionally, this means the public agency begs faith-based communities to encourage its members to foster and adopt. In many cases, these efforts have yielded wonderful foster and adoptive parents. In the worst cases, it has spread a white savior mentality that leads fundamentalist Christian families into fostering and adopting children whose diversity they do not honor or respect and who expect children to be grateful that they have been saved.
Most licensed foster parents are white, married couples despite the disproportionate numbers of Black children in the foster care system. Diversity doesn’t start and end with race, either. One emerging issue is that 1 in 3 adolescents in foster care identify as LGBTQ+, and a growing body of research suggests that they experience discrimination in the homes of people who are supposed to help them heal. In other words, these foster children are not getting the support they need.
We need funding and volunteer resources to shift focus so that they are helping parents. In all but the most dire situations where children cannot safely return home, families should stay together rather than experience forced separation. We do not need more traditional foster parents who get licensed to be able to foster-to-adopt a healthy infant, nor do we need more foster parents who want to save children. We need more foster parents who are willing to foster a child and be a support to the child’s family. Right now, this isn’t happening because our system creates an adversarial relationship between parents who care for the same child.
Instead of discussions about unwanted children, we need to focus on supporting families so that there are pathways for all parents to provide stability and nurturing environments for their children. In some areas, getting mental health services and substance use services is next to impossible. Child care is a mess for parents and child care providers. Domestic violence agencies have struggled to keep staffing and services going through COVID-19.
Our private and public services need help. We need to focus our pro-choice and pro-child narrative on getting services to families rather than expanding a child welfare system that should not even exist in a healthy society.
Monica Faulkner is a research associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
Catherine LaBrenz is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Arlington.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.