06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Improving Foster Care to Provide the Opportunities All Children Deserve

It does not garner the kind of attention as a severely battered child or children left alone in a ramshackle apartment. But the results of a long-term study about "the dismal outlook for youths who are thrust into a shaky adulthood from the foster care system," ("Study Finds More Woes Following Foster Care," New York Times, April 7, 2010) raise a critical issue whose antecedents consistently have not been addressed by the child welfare system. It is also an issue to which I have devoted much thought -- and action -- during my almost twenty-five years of work in this field.

A child's foster care placement is supposed to eliminate the risk of harm that was assumed to have existed in the parent's home. But another kind of harm, a harm very likely resulting in long term developmental impairment, has usually been intrinsic to a child's foster placement. This is because of the system's failure to recognize that foster children need access to the very same kind of educational, social, and cultural opportunities that children living with their parents have. These opportunities provide the building blocks with which we in the western world construct our lives. They allow us to find and develop our interests, interests varying in scope and intensity, interests that may evolve over a lifetime, interests through which we learn how and where to focus our efforts toward that esoteric sounding but ever so real concept we tend to think of as the direction our lives take.

The current system descends from nascent child welfare, circa 1960, when "the battered child syndrome" forced the realization that parents can inflict the most serious kinds of injuries on their own children. At the forefront were physicians following the medical model and highly influenced by Freudian methodology. Initially the system dealt mostly with severe physical maltreatment but as the system expanded to encompass various levels of neglect and, often, questionable scenarios indicative of social and family adjustment problems, the focus remained on treatment as the response to almost all these situations.

Almost every abuse and neglect situation came with a mandate that the parents and children attend counseling, regardless of the particulars. One would come across families whose cases had been open many years and, still, they were required to attend weekly counseling sessions. There was usually no attention to the nature of the counseling, the parents' opinions about their participation, the competency of the counselor, nor its outcomes. But once these "services were in place" caseworkers, attorneys, and judges were secure that they had done what was expected of them. Counseling had become pro forma.

But for children living in foster care even the most appropriate counseling can never fill the critical void left by their almost total lack of opportunities to pursue and develop their interests. And given that most foster children do not find school to be a positive experience, out of school opportunities become even more crucial. And yet there was no expectation that these children be provided with the things they needed to develop their aspirations, ideas, interests, abilities and potential -- the things we all need to build our lives. Those things were not on the menu.

As a caseworker I found through my discussions with foster children that many had interests they had never mentioned because they considered the possibility of actually getting the chance to pursue them next to zero. Others were not immediately able to articulate their interests, but when they became familiar with a context within which to think about various interests, they too began to identify areas of interest.

I was successful in connecting some of these children to their desired interest areas, music school, for example. I often faced opposition from administrators and counselors whose mantra was that these children were "not ready" for these things.

In the process of my work on a more extensive and lengthy article on this topic, I recently met with Jerome Kagan, a scientist who is considered one of the greatest and most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century. Kagan, of Harvard University, told me that children are always ready for art and music and that those who say otherwise "do not know what ready means and are using this as an excuse." Another factor is "the current psychiatric hyping of biologically based psychopathologies," in its "faulty premise that most of these children are seriously mentally compromised, when only some are," he said.

Initially Kagan did not agree that the treatment mind-set played a significant role in the system's disregard of foster children's opportunities for interest development, but as we continued to speak he said that my assessment was correct and that, yes, they believe that treatment is the way to go. But, he said, "Even with this wrong theory that they were fed, they could still help kids were they to care about and have faith in these children's ability to improve the quality of their lives."

"A majority of them do not have much expectation of really helping the child," Kagan said, referring to the caseworkers and counselors "who constantly see abused children from insecure homes, sometimes with addicted parents" and "therefore do not start with much optimism." These caseworkers and counselors "are not judged on whether they are successful with the child but are judged if they make no errors and their first and foremost goal is to protect their own dignity." Believing that the probability of these children actually having a life full of joy is so low, the caseworkers and counselors just attend to these children's physical well being and concentrate on making no mistakes. Kagan emphasized that this pattern leads to these children's realization that the caseworkers and counselors do not really care about them and do not have faith in their ability to do better.

But it need not be this way. In 1995, with the strong support of several higher level administrators I created at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and ran, a program that provided high quality opportunities for interest development.

This comprehensive program centered around weekly classes taught by organizations that included DePaul University, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago and Ballet Chicago. When I left Chicago and moved to New York City in 2000 there were a total of 42 classes and approximately 1,000 children were enrolled in The Pathways to Development Program. The program continues, though under a different name, and I have been told that protests and letters by foster parents and others saved the program from being terminated during the recent ongoing Illinois budget crisis.

As the lead attorney on the Illinois ACLU's BH class action lawsuit against IDCFS Ben Wolf represents all foster children in that state. Wolf, who understands the importance of interest development, says that they "have consistently endorsed a focus on interest development" and that Pathways' "effect on our clients was remarkable." He said that "Children not only told us how much they looked forward to [the program's offerings], they often seemed transformed by the opportunity to focus on something interesting and fun. Pathways gave many of them, for the first time in a long time, something to organize their hopes around, something to live for."

With an initial grant from the Child Welfare Fund in 2002, I established The Pathways to Development Program in New York City. Teaching organizations included The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, the New York Hall of Science and the Natural Cookery School. Funding problems led to the cessation of the program after an initial two-year run.

Though the interplay of several factors can contribute to the serious adjustment problems long known to follow large numbers of former foster children into adulthood, systematic opportunities to engage in the pursuit and development of their interests during their time in foster care can significantly increase the probability for satisfying, productive and meaningful lives.