by Naomi Schaefer Riley

There are 123,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted according to the latest U.S. government statistics.  The length of time that kids are spending in state custody is growing – from and average of 12.2 months in 2006 to 14.3 months in 2017.  Thirteen percent of children in foster care have been in the system for more than three years.  In the richest (and arguably the most generous) nation on earth, the question is:  Why?

For Eric Bjorklund the answer is obvious. “These kids are the train wrecks of child welfare” he says.  Mr. Bjorklund runs Utah Youth Village, a therapeutic foster care program that include several group homes as well as 40 foster homes serving about 75 children.  He says the behavior he sees among some foster kids is almost “animalistic.”

Many adoptive families are reasonably wary about taking in older children and those with significant behavioral problems.  These children have experienced trauma at the hands of their biological families and then multiple “disrupted” placements in different foster homes.  They are angry and depressed and have problems connecting with adults.  Some lack even basic hygiene skills.  But Mr. Bjorklund sees it as his mission to help these children “become adoptable.”  Between 2016 and 2018, at least 19 children have left Utah Youth Villages to be adopted into other families, and 21 more were placed with relatives.

To prepare kids to live in families again, Utah Youth Villages uses a behavioral intervention program called the Teaching Family Model.  The model involves positive feedback and age-appropriate motivation systems – behavior charts and small toys for younger kids, and elaborate point system and privileges for older ones.  Developed by researchers in Kansas in the late 1960s, Teaching Family is one of the few effective and evidence-based foster-care intervention models.

At first, the model can seem stilted.  During a visit to a foster home here, I watched foster parent Darbie Pace periodically interrupt all conversation and whatever she was doing to give feedback on “skills” – like following instructions and greeting others appropriately – to the five foster siblings in her care.  Family teachers begin their interactions with a positive reinforcement.  The 10-year-old girl in Ms. Pace’s care smiles as she tells me about the things she gets to do as a reward, like baking cookies.  The 3-year-ol is working on not jumping into the arms of every adult he meets and instead telling them his name and shaking their hands.

“The Teaching Family Model teaches adults how to become loving and kind to children who no one else loves and thinks deserves kindness.”  Mr. Bjorklund explains.  Utah Youth Villages runs several group homes where as many as six children or eight teenagers live with a family.  The mother and father are full-time trained caregivers paid by Utah Youth Villages.  They demonstrate for the young people behaviors and interactions that might take place in traditional families.  They have dinner together every night, share chores and hold family meetings.

About a third of the Villages funding for foster kids comes from its for-profit arm, which offers the Family Teaching Model for emotionally disturbed kids whose parents can afford to pay for behavioral treatment.  It says something about the models’ efficacy that parents would choose it in the free market.

A lot of foster care, Ms. Pace observes, is “just babysitting” – supervising, “a kid watching TV” – rather than helping the children grow.  The Teaching Family Model gives parents a script for their interactions and a way to measure progress.  At a time when options for many foster kids have been exhausted – and the opioid epidemic is leading to an increase the number of kids in care – the model should be adopted more widely.

To be sure, it takes restraint on the parents’ part.  When situations escalate, teachers can’t simply send children to their rooms.  They can give children negative consequences – a loss of privileges like watching television – but it is always in an empathetic tone: “You must be very frustrated to have broken that vase.  How do you think you could express that frustration differently next time?”  The parents sometimes sound like kindergarten teachers.

“The key is to not take it personally,” says Charity Hotton, who supervises the recruitment of foster parents.  Only about 5% of parents actually make it through the process because, she says, a lot of applicants believe “that if you just love a child enough, everything will be OK.”  But they are bound for disappointment.  The kids also have to learn how to control their anger and function in a family.

Ms. Hotton adopted her daughter, Kolony, when Kolony was 13.  After bouncing around among different family members for more that a decade, Kolony spent two years in one of Utah Youth Villages’ group homes and another year in a foster home.  Kolony says she changed a lot during her time in the group home because of the “structure” and “routine” there.  The parents spent a lot of one-on-one time with her.  “I learned my feelings were OK, that I was not a bad person for being angry,” Kolony says.  But she also knows how to control those feelings.  Now a bubbly high-school senior with a part-time job at a local bakery, she plans to go on a mission for the Mormon Church and then on to college (where she’s planning to ply rugby).

Joking with her father and brother in the kitchen one afternoon while eating leftovers, Kolony seems like she was meant to be part of this family.  But it took a lot of work to get here.

From the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal March 10, 2019.

Ms. Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum