- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 1999

What could be more traumatic than living with a dead body for five weeks? For 9-year-old Travis Butler, the answer is: being placed in foster care.
When Travis Butler’s mother died of apparently natural causes in their home on Nov. 3, he laid a coat and some notebook paper over her. He then carried on with what, to the outside world, appeared to be his normal routine. He went to school, fixed meals, shopped for groceries and provided a parent signature on school documents.
One can only begin to imagine the loss and abject fear little Travis felt during those 34 days and nights until his mother’s death was discovered. His every move was dictated by dread of becoming part of a system that even a child can see is badly broken.
Travis is too young to have read the stacks of government documents and research findings on foster care’s failure to protect children. We are still unsure what he knew about the system or how he had learned about it, but Travis was right in his assessment of foster care as a dangerous place.
If this sounds like something from a movie, it is. A few years ago French director Jacques Fansten made “Cross My Heart” about a young boy who lives with his mother’s corpse for fear of social workers and orphanages. The young protagonist, Martin, has heard about the perils of the orphanage and assistance publique from television documentaries. Like Travis, Martin does not know who his father is. Like Travis, he carries on as long as possible to avoid child protective services.
Critics loved “Cross My Heart,” but they missed the point. They called it endearing and funny, “a comic essay on the desperate ingenuity of youth.” When a child’s parent dies in front of him, no amount of ingenuity can make up for the loss. The loss is made worse when the very people on whom he should be able to depend for help frighten him.
In the case of Travis Butler, news reports have focused in apparent awe on the youngster’s ability to buy and prepare food and catch the bus to school on his own. In addition to that is the omnipresent mention of the stench of a decaying body. Again, the real story is overlooked.
Travis Butler is a little boy. He is real. His loss is genuine. His fear of foster care, no matter what its genesis, is warranted.
Travis was right to be afraid. The details of America’s $12 billion foster care system are frightening. We know the younger a child is when he enters foster care, the longer he is likely to stay there. We know that foster parent training is in many states woefully inadequate. Claiming that higher standards would turn away potential foster carers, the requirements to be licensed as a foster parent are low; only a few states require foster parents to demonstrate literacy.
Foster care was meant to be temporary and safe. It is neither. One in 10 children sent to foster care will spend more than seven years in the system. This year some 20,000 youngsters will leave the system by reaching the age of majority; they will be left to navigate adulthood virtually on their own. While many foster parents do provide loving, stable homes, they are breaking the government’s rules that admonish foster parents not to bond with their foster children. In other foster homes and group homes, sexual predation is the rule. When a child complains, he is moved to another home; the opening he leaves is filled by another child.
Today more than 50,000 children who are legally free to be adopted are languishing in foster care. At the same time, prospective parents line up to adopt children of all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, and with all types of disabilities. While the children wait, states receive federal dollars based on the number of children in care and the length of time they stay.
Foster care is in dire need of complete overhaul. At the federal level, payments to states should be based on a program’s efficacy rather than a program’s size. Federal leaders should encourage the type of initiatives such as that in Kansas, where private nonprofit providers have markedly improved the delivery of services to foster children and their families. States need to enact a 12-month timeline for foster care, with a permanent placement (either adoption or return to the biological family) at 12 months, and to loosen their territorial grip on free-to-be-adopted children by allowing cross-county and cross-state adoptions.
Perhaps most important, the “special needs” label must be redesigned. It triggers additional federal funding, but does little to inform the American public that these are real, lovable kids, who may have been labeled “special needs” simply because they have formed a bond with their foster parents.
Travis Butler now lives with his maternal grandparents. Meanwhile, more than a half a million children live in America’s broken foster care system.

Conna Craig is president of the Institute for Children, a Boston-based research institute on foster care and adoption.

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