By: Annika Olson
“The mother and her newborn child will both be placed in a state-mandated group home,” the judge stated firmly, her eyes scanning the room. I was at a shelter hearing in downtown Tampa, Florida, listening to the case of a 13-year-old girl, currently in foster care, who was pregnant with her first child and who had asked permission to reside with her boyfriend—a 19-year-old convicted felon. The court preceding was tense, the faces of the caseworkers and guardian-at-litem wrought with worry about the outcome of this young woman. When myself and the other students auditing the case left the room, I noticed the caseworker pushing a cart towering with a stack of folders, one for each child or young adult she was assigned to work with.
Throughout the day I continued to see such case managers speak in different court rooms, explaining how their visits to a home had gone and giving detail about a child’s academic, social, or physical progress. There appeared to be an overwhelming amount of work to do and many youth in foster care to help, but not nearly enough people to do so. What is interesting is that the interwoven structures I was seeing was the urban foster care system—a place where child welfare practice focuses much of their money, attention, and policy. With such a high population density and greater access to resources, the urban foster care system accounts for the employment of 80% of all social workers and receives a greater number of grants and funding than their rural counterparts. Child welfare practice in rural communities generally lacks the research, resources, and work force that are seen in urban and major-urban areas.
Today in the United States, there are roughly 415,000 children in foster care and a report done by the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect indicated that children in rural areas faced higher rates of maltreatment than children in urban areas. This was linked to greater poverty, substance abuse, and unemployment seen in sparsely populated regions. Due to the fact that rural communities are often geographically isolated, the entire rural child welfare system varies greatly from that of urban locations. The most predominant problem seen in rural social work is the lack of resources. There may be no in-patient treatment center or psychiatrists for hundreds of miles and few foster homes or other locations to place a child once they are removed from their residence due to abuse or neglect. Since foster parents must be licensed and approved to care for children—which requires background checks, home inspections and various health tests—many potential rural foster families find it unaffordable and unfeasible to take in a child.
The fact is that rural America is in desperate need of foster and adoptive homes as well as a greater presence in federal and state policies regarding child welfare. Nearly all federal laws dealing with child welfare (e.g., Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, Child and Family Services Improvement Act, Keeping Children and Families Safe Act, etc.) do not differentiate between rural and urban children and families. The appropriate outcomes for safety, permanency and well being are the same for rural and urban areas despite the drastically different abilities each has in attaining effective, healthy solutions for a child.
An issue brief by the Child Welfare Information Gateway suggests that child welfare professionals and policymakers should, “use available information about working with rural populations, such as rural evidence-based practices, in conjunction with their own personal knowledge of the families and community” in order to focus social work policy that addresses the specific and unique needs of rural and frontier communities. This could include things like subsidizing the cost of training to become a foster parent, investing in mental health facilities to be utilized by children dealing with trauma, offering higher salaries and incentives to case workers in rural areas, etc. With such a foundation in place and more resources afforded to high-need areas, the children in the child welfare system—the most important part of such a complex structure—could ultimately lead happier, healthier lives.