Astudy showing that keeping children at home, even if there are problems, is better than putting them in foster care reinforces the importance of family ties and the need to view foster care as the exception, not the norm, when dealing with troubled families. That's a lesson that Maryland is now trying to apply - and wisely so - after too many years of bad practices.
The recently released study, by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, examined 15,000 cases in Illinois from 1990 to 2002, one of the largest studies of the effects of foster care. The research showed that in cases on the margin, where children could have been kept with their families or placed in foster care, the long-term results were better for those who remained with their families. As they grew older, they had fewer teen births, were less likely to become juvenile delinquents and were more likely to hold jobs as young adults.
Clearly, it is not safe to leave a child with abusive or neglectful parents. And children who are victims of abuse or neglect are traumatized whether they stay in their homes or are removed. But child advocates rightly note the importance of maintaining a child's connections to familiar people and places. And the study ably bolsters the principle that those connections should be severed only when absolutely necessary.
That principle hasn't been followed well in Maryland, where the foster care population has increased from about 4,300 in 1987 to more than 10,000 today. Failure to recruit and retain enough foster care families has meant that too many children wind up in group homes, making it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain meaningful ties to family and neighborhood.
The system is long overdue for reform, and state Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald promises major changes. She is emphasizing the importance of place to the well-being of children. That's why she wants to redirect system resources and work with other departments to provide more services, such as mental health counseling and drug treatment, to help families stay together in their homes and provide safe care for children. She would also increase the number of foster and kinship families in order to keep children who must be separated from their parents in other family homes instead of group homes.
That is certainly the right vision - but more experienced supervisors and better technology will be needed to implement it. Ms. Donald should push for those essential changes sooner rather than later so that she and her department can move as quickly as possible to strengthen rather than weaken the family ties that bind.