Foster Care vs. Family Preservation

Foster Care vs Family Preservation

By Richard Wexler


Richard Wexler is Executive Director of National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

This study is published here with the kind consent of the author.




At the heart of the criticism of family preservation is one overriding assumption: If you remove a child from the home, the child will be safe. If you leave a child at home the child is at risk. In fact, there is risk in either direction, but intensive family preservation programs have a better record of safety than foster care.

To understand why, one must first understand one fundamental fact about foster care: It's not safe. Here's how we know:

National data on child abuse fatalities show that a child is more than twice as likely to die of abuse in foster care than in the general population. [1]

A study of reported abuse in Baltimore, found the rate of "substantiated" cases of sexual abuse in foster care more than four times higher than the rate in the general population.[2] Using the same methodology, an Indiana study found three times more physical abuse and twice the rate of sexual abuse in foster homes than in the general population. In group homes there was more than ten times the rate of physical abuse and more than 28 times the rate of sexual abuse as in the general population[2], in part because so many children in the homes abused each other.[3]

Those studies deal only with reported maltreatment. The actual amount of abuse in foster care is likely to be far higher, since agencies have a special incentive not to investigate such reports, since they are, in effect, investigating themselves. (In New York City, for example, where Children's Rights Inc. settled a lawsuit against the child welfare system, they have found that "Abuse or neglect by foster parents is not investigated because [agencies] tolerate behavior from foster parents which would be unacceptable by birth parents."[4]


And a lawyer who represents children in Broward County, Florida, says in a sworn affidavit that over a period of just 18 months he was made personally aware of 50 instances of child-on-child sexual abuse involving more than 100 Broward County foster children. The official number during this same period: Seven - because until what the lawyer called "an epidemic of child-on-child sexual abuse" was exposed, the child abuse hotline didn't accept reports of such abuse.[5]

Studies not limited to official reports produce even more alarming results.

Another Baltimore study, this one examining case records, found abuse in 28 percent of the foster homes studied -- more than one in four.[6]

Even what is said to be a model foster care program, where caseloads are kept low and workers and foster parents get special training, is not immune. When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in their foster homes. Furthermore, this study asked only about abuse in the one foster home the children had been in the longest. A child who had been moved from a foster home precisely because she had been abused there after only a short stay would not even be counted.[7] Officials at the program say they have since lowered the rate of all forms of abuse to "only" 12 percent, but this is based on an in-house survey of the program's own caseworkers, not outside interviews with the children themselves.[8]

This does not mean that all, or even many, foster parents are abusive. The overwhelming majority do the best they can for the children in their care -- like the overwhelming majority of parents, period. But the abusive minority is large enough to cause serious concern. And abuse in foster care does not always mean abuse by foster parents. As happened so often during the Chicago Foster Care Panic for example (see Issue Paper 2), and as the Indiana study shows, it can be caused by foster children abusing each other.

Compare the record of foster care to the record of family preservation.

The original Homebuilders program (See Issue Paper 9) has served 12,000 families since 1982. No child has ever died during a Homebuilders intervention, and only one child has ever died afterwards, more than a decade ago.[9]

Michigan has the nation's largest family preservation program. The program rigorously follows the Homebuilders model (see Issue Paper 9).

Since 1988, the Michigan family preservation program has served 90,000 children. During the first two years, two children died during the intervention. In the decade since, there has not been a single fatality.[10] In contrast, when Illinois effectively abandoned family preservation, there were five child abuse deaths in foster care in just one year.

The other state in the forefront of family preservation efforts in recent years is Alabama.

Alabama is implementing a consent decree (R.C. v. Hornsby) resulting from a federal lawsuit requiring it to reframe its whole approach to child welfare by following family preservation principles.

Learning from the failures of other states which tried to change their systems overnight, the Alabama approach calls for gradual, county-by-county change. But the results already have been dramatic:

In counties adopting a family preservation approach, foster care placements have declined by 33 percent.[11] More important, an independent, court-appointed monitor concluded that children in Alabama are safer now than before the system switched to a family preservation model. The monitor wrote that "the data strongly support the conclusion that children and families are safer in counties that have implemented the R.C. reforms."[12]

Why it works:

There are three primary reasons for the better safety record of family preservation programs that follow the Homebuilders model.

Most of the parents caught in the net of child protective services are not who most people think they are (see Issue Paper 5).

When child welfare systems take family preservation seriously, foster care populations stabilize or decline. Workers have more time to find the children who really do need to be placed in foster care. (See Issue Paper 7)

Family preservation workers see families in many different settings for many hours at a time. Because of that, and because they are usually better trained than child protective workers they are far more likely than conventional child protective workers to know when a family can't be preserved -- and contrary to stereotype, they do place child safety first.

(See Issue Paper 7)


1. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Child Maltreatment 1999 (Washington, DC: U.S. Gov't  Printing Office, 2001) p.viii.

2. Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, Factors Associated With Child Maltreatment by Family Foster Care Providers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University SChool of Hygiene and Public Health, June 30, 1992) charts, pp. 28,30.

3. J William Spencer and Dean D. Kundsen, "Out of Home Maltreatment: An Analysis of Risk in Various Settings for Children," Children And Youth Services Review Vol. 14, pp. 485-492, 1992.

4. Marisol A. v. Giuliani, Complaint, Paragrph 245, p. 75.

5. Affidavit of David S. Bazerman, Esq, Ward v. Feaver, Case# 98-7137, United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, Fort Lauderdale Division, Dec. 16, 1998, p.4.

6. Memorandum and Order of Judge Joseph G. Howard, L.J. v. Massinga, Civil No. JH-84-4409, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, July 27, 1987.

7. David Fanshel, et. al., Foster Children in a Life Course Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 90.

8. How Are The Children Doing? Assessing Youth Outcomes in Family Foster Care. (Seattle: Casey Family Program, 1998).

9. Personal communication from Charlotte Booth, Executive Director, Homebuilders. Even in the one case in which a child died after the intervention, in 1987, Homebuilders had warned that the child was in danger and been ignored.

10. Personal Communication, Susan Kelly, former director of family preservation services, Michigan Department of Social Services.

11. Ivor D. Groves, A Summary Report on Implementation Status of the R.C. v. Petelos Consent Decree (Tallahassee, Fl: Human Systems and Outcomes, Inc., December, 1999) Chart, p.10.

12. Ivor D. Groves, System of Care Implementation: Performance, Outcomes, and Compliance, March, 1996, Executive Summary, p.3.



Child died in foster home


Children are being taken for money


Criminalizing Motherhood


Destroying the Family Swedish style


Do foster and adoptive parents realize what they do?


The Destruction of the Natural Family


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