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America’s Foster Care System

We get inside America’s foster care system to see what it’s doing and not doing, for and to the children there.

In her new book, “To The End of June,” author Cris Beam casts a searing eye on the labyrinth that is the American foster care system.  Her exploration was a daunting task, but Beam had a personal investment – she’s a foster mother and she wanted to make sense of the world she was part of.

It’s a world that manages about 400,000 children a year. That costs nearly 20 billion dollars annually.  “And yet nobody,” she writes, “not the kids, not the foster or biological parents, not the social workers, the administrators, the politicians, the policy experts – thinks the system is working.”

This hour, On Point: confronting America’s foster care system.


Cris Beam, author of “To The End of June: An Intimate Life of American Foster Care.” She teaches creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and Bayview Correctional Facility. (@cbnewyork)

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon: ‘To the End of June’: Stories from foster care – “‘To the End of June’ is part history and overview, part in-depth portraits of foster children and parents. Beam, although never a foster child herself, left her emotionally disturbed mother’s house at the age of 14 and never saw her mom again. Then, at 29, she became a foster parent, taking in a former student, a transgender teenager she now considers her daughter.”

The New York Times: Away From Home - “Among the 400,000 foster children in America, teenagers are the hardest to place with families. Nearly half live in institutions or group homes, and their prospects don’t improve once they “age out” of the system. Nearly one-third of foster boys will go to jail before they reach age 19; foster girls are more than twice as likely to get pregnant as nonfostered teenagers; and many foster kids eventually end up homeless. On the whole, foster children are twice as likely as war veterans to develop post-­traumatic stress disorder.”

Los Angeles Times: L.A. County foster care shortage reaches crisis level – “Los Angeles County’s shortage of foster care beds has reached a crisis point, with state officials threatening to impose fines because too many children are languishing in sometimes chaotic holding rooms during traumatic separations from their families.”

Excerpt: ‘To The End of June’ by Cris Beam

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  • Al_Kidder

    Dear Producer,
    Please go back to the system for podcasts that you were using a few weeks ago. ie Direct from your own page, using soundcloud. Going through iTunes just adds complexity and slows the process down.

    • 1Brett1

      I don’t like Soundcloud.

  • 1Brett1

    Being a foster parent, for some, is a role they relish and honor in the truest spirit of the responsibility; others see it as a money-making proposition where they make sure they maximize their profits while minimizing their labor, so to speak. Many foster parents also take on the role without fully understanding the extent of what their responsibilities will mean. I’ve seen so many foster parents who care little about meeting minimal requirements and border on being negligent, while others just don’t have the skills to rise to the level of what it takes to meet the needs of a troubled foster child, albeit they are well meaning.

    The dedicated foster parents who truly have saved children from being either institutionalized wards of the state, as it were, or have genuinely rescued children from continuing to live in abusive home situations while providing them with a healthy home environment, are rare individuals. It is really a professional role that should be delivered with all of the love and care of a parent in a genuine home setting, which are roles difficult to balance/reconcile with each other.

  • Yar

    On any given night, the local rural public school system of 7500 in k-12 has some 200 homeless kids. For many of these kids, Foster care is not the answer. We need a boarding option for high school students who have unhealthy home environments. A structured group home which provides a safe place for kids to stay while they finish school. 18 is no magic number either, these kids (all kids) need help long past 18.

  • Larry

    My partner and I wanted to become foster parents until we learned that foster children are almost universally put on psychiatric “medications”. The foster parents are required to ensure that these medications are consumed by the child. Knowing the devastating effects of these medications on a developing brain (my partner is a psychiatrist), we knew we could not in good conscience give them to a child, and thus had to opt out of the program. These drugs only add to the problems these children face. The state, rather than ban the use of these drugs in children, mandates it in many cases.

  • MarkVII88

    I think the saddest part about the foster care system is that these kids have to go through it at all. Kids don’t choose when, where, and to whom they’re born but they do pay the price for other peoples’ bad decisions and lack of morals or common sense. That price can include in-utero and post-utero exposure to drugs and chemicals, poverty, poor nutrition, neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and the lack of good role models. The damaging effects of this treatment can (and often does) stay with these kids forever, even if they’re given-up or adopted as infants. Children deserve better than to have to start their life with a host of issues to overcome from day #1. About 25 years ago my wife’s family adopted a 2yo boy who was given up from an unstable mother with drug issues and a series of bad relationships. They gave this boy a stable home, an immense amount of love, time, and were able to provide (monetarily) more opportunities for success than most children get. Despite all their love, time, money, and effort, he could not overcome the deficits he was saddled with from birth. He could not function well in any school despite supports provided (ADHD/Hyperactivity). He turned to drugs. He went to jail. He turned to drugs again. He’s a pathological liar. His credit is nonexistent and his prospects for working anything but minimum wage for the rest of his life are basically nothing. He was damaged from birth, will be damaged till the day he dies, and 25 years-worth of love, opportunity, and positive upbringing couldn’t fix it. It’s so very sad.

  • MarkVII88

    To really improve the foster care system efforts to prevent the need for children to enter it in the first place should be enhanced. What do these efforts look like? How about making birth control and condoms free and accessible to everyone. How about including education about finance and real-world consequences of our choices as part of our public school system. The sad fact is that there are some people who just should not have children because they can’t make responsible choices and because they can’t care for a child fiscally and emotionally. I won’t go so far as to suggest we actively prevent certain people from procreating but can’t we act proactively to encourage people to make better choices instead of waiting till the bad decision has already been made?

  • J__o__h__n

    Does Jane even listen to her guests? The story was about a girl who was taken from her mother and placed with a woman she bonded with. Then she returned to the mother. Then she was placed with someone she didn’t bond with rather than placing her with the first caretaker. Jane asked about conflicting philosophies between keeping the child with a flawed parent v. finding a better caretaker which wasn’t what happened in the story.

  • JanaHod

    On Point did a recent show on being “child-free” in America.

    I wonder if older foster kids might be well-matched with people who have time and resources and love to give, but who have made the decision not to have children themselves?

    Older kids have a different set of needs that could mesh really well with the schedules and resources of adults who don’t want to upheave their lives to take on the care of newborns and younger children.

  • AC

    can you talk about the number of childern with severe mental and physical disabilities? do the women with drug/alcohol addictions that gave birth to them face any repercussions?
    it’s such a daunting commitment…..

  • eat_swim_read

    so says someone with a financial interest in helping the current system perpetuate…
    hardly objective…

  • eat_swim_read

    bio parents are billed for the ‘care’ their kids get from strangers, many of whom are poorly vetted.
    stranger parents are enriched, the social services agency gets federal bonus money and the bio parent is robbed of a child, billed for crappy care and stigmatized.

  • eat_swim_read

    social services agencies are enriched by federal bonus money, which has increased by orders of magnitude in the last 20 years. stranger parents are paid: the bio parents are screwed. many, many parents provide better care than foster ‘strangers.’ CPS is incented to ‘feed’ the system and keep the bonuses coming.
    it’s savagely misdirected. abolish CPS.

  • homebuilding

    Parenting standards of the very young are slipping, and slipping badly. Having had more than a bit of direct experience with CPS/schools/community parental support agencies, I’d offer the idea that a huge majority of foster care cases are preceded by parenting deficits.

    Further, the kids who enter KG with the lowest vocabulary are the most likely to drop out.

    We need to start being honest about the fact that the presence of BOTH biological parents is, most often, a huge plus.

  • TJPhoto40

    I think this is an extremely important topic, and I would like to learn more than I did in this program. But the guest, Cris Beam, is unfortunately a poor interview subject, stumbling constantly to express herself and shifting in mid-sentence, not answering a question like the one about statistics related to this, etc. I’m disappointed in Ms Beam, especially as a Columbia professor, for not being more organized and articulate in describing the foster care system. Despite her obvious passion about this subject, I finally had to stop listening out of frustration with her ineptness in so many answers.

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