Beyond 'Instant Family': Considering the Larger Problems With Foster Care in the U.S. (Guest Column)

Instant Family - H - 2018

While the new film casts a needed light on foster care, Jay Paul Deratany, attorney and advocate for foster kids, argues there is a need for more stories about the tragic side of the foster care system.

Families happen in all kinds of ways — even instantly. So we are reminded of that by Instant Family, an affecting new film that traces the foster parenthood journey of a nearly middle-aged couple who take into their home three siblings — with a wounded and classically rebellious teenager among them. Instant Family’s instant parents are alternately uplifted and overwhelmed by their new responsibilities. However, fundamental decency, humor and emergent love win the day.

We must be grateful for any film casting light on the troubling plight of foster kids and the saving grace of caring adults. But we also need to recognize that the foster care picture has far darker shades — places where decency and love rarely intercede. The children and families in these places demand our notice too.

Today, more than 440,000 children live in foster care in the U.S., the majority of them being members of minority groups (a fact that Instant Family, to its credit, does not gloss over). Committed social service workers and loving parents are present throughout the foster care system. However, neglect and abuse, sometimes horrifying, stalk the system as well — a reality that I encounter daily in my litigation work and advocacy on behalf of the most at-risk foster kids.

Some of the worst abuses have occurred in the "for-profit" foster care industry — private sector companies that procure contracts to manage foster placements from state and local governments. Too many of these companies have effectively "monetized" foster care — and operate under powerful incentives to sacrifice care for profit.

In 2017, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee denounced the sector, concluding that "children who are under the legal authority of their state, yet receive services from private for-profit agencies, have been abused, neglected and denied services." The committee cited one company "whose primary mission was to 'fill beds' in order to increase company profits ... Children were placed in homes with individuals who had been convicted of kidnapping and other serious crimes, with parents who had substance abuse problems ... Some children were ... even beaten to death."

These horrors are not abstractions to me. Currently, I am litigating three cases where children were murdered in their foster homes. A corrupt system’s pressure to "fill beds" often puts entire families at risk, including the most well-intentioned. My professional focus on foster care began with a couple whose three biological children — ages four, five and seven — were repeatedly raped by a 14-year-old foster child welcomed into their family after a private placement caseworker lied about the child’s history of physical and sexual aggression against other children.

Across the entire system, there is another, even more pervasive manifestation of neglect: Abject failure to adequately prepare youth for life after "aging out" of foster care once they turn 18.

Instability at home and school, along with ill-treated physical and psychological ailments, make it near-inevitable that most foster kids will not develop the academic and social "grounding" so critical to safe and secure adult lives. The fallout of such neglect is evident: Only half graduate high school and fewer than three percent go on to earn a college degree. Instead, more than half end up homeless, incarcerated or on welfare within two years of aging out of care.

It’s a lasting tragedy, as if foster children have simply been consigned to the margins of our national life, deemed unworthy of our collective concern.

The U.S. has 2,200 separate foster care jurisdictions, with each state administering its own system and the federal government providing oversight and funding. Yet, enforcement of standards and law is shockingly lax.

There is much we can do. We need to better recognize and support good foster parents, and better protect their families via strengthened laws regarding the timely disclosure of a foster child’s circumstances before placement. We need to ensure that foster kids in school have access to the support and attention they need to make the most of their classroom time. We need to make sure that all foster kids have access to expert legal representation. We need to press our public officials to make better foster care a policy priority — and invest in early-intervention services that prevent kids from entering the system in the first place.

A film like Instant Family can help provoke change even while shining a fundamentally cheerful light on foster kids and parents. That being said, we also need to hear more foster care stories of all kinds — especially those compelling us to look deeply into the corners of the system where kids are most vulnerable. It’s way past time for us to become more fierce advocates for children that are still denied their fundamental right to safe, supportive and love-filled childhoods — and lead those kids to families that, even if "instant," can thrive and endure.

Jay Paul Deratany is a Chicago-based attorney and founder of The Deratany Firm. His screenplay for the upcoming film Foster Boy is based on his personal experiences litigating on behalf of foster children and families.