Seattle's Child

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Changes in Foster Care Challenges: A Conversation with Sharon Osborne

Sharon Osborne has been at the helm of Children's Home Society of Washington, one of the state's oldest and largest child welfare organizations, for the past 25 years. Osborne has been a leading participant in numerous state, national and international efforts focused improving the lives of children.

We asked her about changes in foster care, including a recent report by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, which analyzes policies and programs and publishes studies, reports and books about civic and economic issues. It stated that the needs of kids and families have become more complex over 30 years.

Is this true in Washington state?

It's true in every state. Back in the late 1970s, we knew that parents abusing alcohol was a substantial issue, but there was nowhere near the access to drugs there is today, and that has wreaked havoc in many families. In 1979, perhaps half of families who were reported to (Child Protective Services) were abusing alcohol and some drugs, but today I would say 70 or 80 percent of the children removed from their homes in Washington are removed because of substance abuse by those caring for them.

We are also seeing increasingly severe cases of abuse and neglect. In our state, CPS reports are rated for risk on a scale of one to five, from lowest to highest risk. Over the years, the state has seen a growing number of cases rated in the four or five range.

At the same time we have far more mandated reporters: people required by law to report possible abuse. This was not the case 30 years ago. Anyone in our medical, social service or education systems that suspects abuse now must report it. There are more eyes looking out for our children. The advantage is that we are addressing problems earlier in many cases.

Has the face of childhood crisis changed in 30 years?

Absolutely. Three decades ago we thought of poverty as being the key factor in child abuse and neglect. But the issues of substance abuse and domestic violence are not relegated to the low income. Drug use, recession and other new societal stressors have moved child welfare challenges into a much broader social-economic spectrum.

How has research impacted the work of keeping kids safe?

During the last 30 years we have learned a great deal about parenting. This growing awareness has resulted in a more progressive and systemic approach to child welfare services. Today we work to build on parent and child strengths rather than focusing on a child or parent's deficits. It's a different philosophical starting place – this idea that every child can succeed has seen amazing results. It is a far cry from the idea that the only way to protect children is to remove them from their families. Children who once were placed in alternative homes have a far greater chance today of reunifying with their biological parents.

In 1979, a treatment program would likely have focused on the issues of the inappropriate behavior that 10-year-old Johnny was displaying when he was referred to a provider, with little or no focus on the deprivation in Johnny's school, community and family environment which were at the root of his challenges. In 2009, we understand that without addressing the root issues, a child's chances of moving from crisis to success in school and in society are low.

What have been the biggest child welfare legislation or legal gains in Washington state?

There have been huge strides in public policy benefitting children, chief among them the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of the 1970s, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, and the Strengthening Abuse and Neglect Courts Act of 2000. The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, sponsored by Washington's own Congressional Rep. Jim McDermott, represents the most significant federal reform for abused and neglected children in foster care in more than a decade.

How have the changing needs of children reshaped who addresses child welfare?

The private sector and foundations have really started to take the lead in putting resources toward breaking down the social and economic barriers to success for parents and their children. Public-private partnerships, such as those at Children's Home Society of Washington and The Thrive by Five Program, are good examples of nontraditional entities that are now working together. The village is waking up.

Has information technology helped or hindered your work?

Advances in information technology as well as the more nomadic nature of families today have both helped and made it harder for parents and their children. Despite being "connected" online, parents are finding it harder and harder to create real hands-on networks of support, especially when they have no extended family nearby. Many families today do not know their neighbors next door, much less have a community support network. At the same time, technology has opened up both good and dangerous worlds for children, making them more worldly and independent in some ways and more isolated and vulnerable in others.

You have said you have a lot of hope for the future of children. Given the challenges, where does your hope come from?

I am most hopeful in the resilience and promise of every child. I find great hope in the powerful momentum for change generated by our new partners in the work of caring our children – corporations, small businesses, foundations, the media and others. I also find hope in the fact that in his first directive to Congress, our new president vowed to put our nation's resources toward the root cause of the challenges facing families.