When will philanthropy focus on child welfare?

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

Soon WRAG will release our annual giving report, Our Region, Our Giving.* When you see the data, you will note that giving in education tops the lists of areas in which the local philanthropic community invested in 2017. No surprise there. Health and education have jockeyed back and forth for the top two categories for many years. This year 80% of the respondents reported giving in the area of “children, youth and families.”

When WRAG members describe their “children, youth and families” giving, we typically hear about summer and out-of-school time programs, mentoring, youth employment, efforts to develop youth into contributing members of our community – that kind of work. For me, there is always a significant area of need missing: child welfare.

Between college and grad school, I worked for the Richmond Department of Welfare, first determining eligibility for food stamps (a story for another time, perhaps) and then as a foster care caseworker. At the time, the Department only required a college degree. Mine was in sociology, but it could just as well have been in math or in geology. I had no training in interpersonal relations, child development, familial patterns, or anything that would truly prepare me to serve the 30 children on my caseload, their biological parents, and their foster parents. I was also not much older than these kids, being barely out of my teen years myself. So, no academic education, no professional training, and no real life experiences, but I was expected to provide quality care, to determine when reunification was appropriate (how would I know?), and to ensure that the foster home environment was meeting these children’s needs.

Today, the qualifications for social workers and caseworkers in child welfare are far more rigorous, calling for knowledge of principles and practices of social work, basic knowledge of child welfare, knowledge of related psychiatric and psychological practices, and an array of skill sets that would suggest a much-heightened ability to meet the needs of the children. That is good. But even with these skills, we are still seeing outcomes that I find disturbing. According to multiple sources, both academic and government, there are currently close to 450,000 children in foster care in the U.S. The number has increased every year since 2012, some say due to the opioid epidemic.

There is good news for some kids in foster care. They return to their biological families after their situations have stabilized, or they are adopted. But for those who age out of foster care (at 18 or 21, depending on the state), the outcomes aren’t as positive. According to the Chapin Hall Center on Children at the University of Chicago, within one year of aging out of foster care, 24 percent are homeless and 50 percent are in prison within two years. An ABC News story from a few years ago noted that 25 percent of the then-imprisoned population had been in foster care. And, think about it, when was the last time that you heard the term “foster care,” read an article about it, or had it brought up in a professional setting?

Children in foster care are essentially invisible to many in the philanthropic world. There are, of course, exceptions, but largely philanthropy does not focus on meeting the needs of these young people, nor do they investigate the systems that serve them, or focus on their outcomes once they leave the system. At the most important stages of their development, for these children who have experienced some type of trauma, we are blind to them and their needs. Our eyes only open once they become homeless, unemployed, or are in prison.

A few years ago, WRAG started talking about a topic that was invisible to many – race and equity. Child welfare is another such topic, invisible, but fully undergirded by the systemic realities of race and racism. Fifty-six percent of children in foster care in the US are either children of color or children whose race or ethnicity is unknown. That basic statistic only opens the door. What are the cultural or systemic issues that have led to their entrance into the system or led to the conditions encountered  by their families? Who decides what circumstances lead to foster care? Who decides how adoption is promoted and who is allowed to adopt what children? Like every system and structure in our country, race is a factor. Child welfare is just another one of those systems. Who will elevate that conversation?

The Giving Report will be available on November 6th at WRAG’s Annual Meeting.