Ominous Trends in Foster Care: Can Trauma-Informed Courts Improve Outcomes?

Michael S. PirainoMichael S. Piraino, CEO, National CASA Association

Summary: The CEO of the National CASA Association informs readers of recent increases in foster care placements in conjunction with increased trauma by children entering care and negative outcomes for children and youth. He explains that National CASA is providing trauma-informed advocacy training to volunteers and supports a system-wide approach to improving outcomes.

One of the impressive facts about the CASA/GAL network is the broad-based knowledge our volunteers have about the trends and issues in child welfare. CASA volunteers were among the first to sound the alarm several years ago about the overuse of psychotropic medications for foster youth. This helped lead to increased attention to the issue in the media and from policy makers, although many CASA volunteers and staff have observed that, while there is increased knowledge about the issue, there are still many challenges in reining in the overuse or inappropriate use of these powerful medications.

For several years, CASA volunteers and staff around the country have been concerned about another trend. Despite a general decline in foster care numbers, there were more foster youth in need of volunteer advocates. And the children who had CASA and guardian ad litem advocates were coming from more challenging home situations and so, were more traumatized.

A positive foster care trend over many years turned negative last year, the number of children in foster care nationwide increased in 2013 for the first time in seven years.

There is more to that story. More children entered foster care than left. The number of adoptions out of foster care declined. And most disappointing is the fact that older youth continue to emancipate from foster care in extraordinary numbers—over 23,000 of them last year. The percentage of foster youth leaving the system without a permanent home increased last year and the rate was substantially higher than it was ten years ago. The issues that older youth face in the years immediately after they leave foster care without having a safe, permanent family have been well documented.

There is another issue with the national numbers. Large scale foster care trends can hide state and local differences. And those state and local numbers suggest that foster care outcomes sometimes depend on where a child happens to live. Even prior years’ decreases in the child welfare population were not evenly spread across the country. Half of the reduction in numbers in 2012 happened in just ten counties—just three tenths of one percent of all counties in the US. Another example: for years, we have known that American Indian and Alaska Native youth are dramatically over-represented in some states, a fact that becomes less apparent when looking only at national averages.

We want to see all children in foster care achieve similar positive outcomes regardless of geography, economic circumstances, or such factors as race or ethnicity. There is much work to be done to ensure access to qualified mental health counselors, individually targeted educational plans, access to affordable housing, more effective transition services for youth who will age out of care, and connections to appropriate adults who will stand by the young person and help watch out for their best interests.

At the National CASA Association, we are committed to improving outcomes for children and youth involved in the dependency court system and have implemented advocacy training for our volunteers in trauma-informed care. It is our sincere hope that with proper training and collaboration among all dependency court stakeholders, outcomes will be improved and the current foster care trends reversed.

Author biography:

Michael Piraino has been active in domestic and international child advocacy since 1977, primarily in the areas of child poverty, maltreatment, and foster care. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Allegheny College, a law degree from Cornell Law School, and a master’s degree from Oxford University. While practicing law, he served as a pro bono guardian ad litem for children in foster care and as pro bono counsel for children in juvenile delinquency cases. He taught law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, served as planned giving director, college counsel, and executive assistant to the president at Allegheny College, and as an Associate Research Scientist at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, where he was responsible for developing and implementing a minority fellows program. Immediately before joining National CASA, Mr. Piraino led a 60 organization coalition for preventive services for children. As a result of his service to children, Michael Piraino received the New York Decade of the Child award in 1992, the National Association of Social Workers Westchester Citizen of the Year award in 1994 and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Presidents award in 1998. The Friend of Children Award was jointly presented to him and to all CASA/GAL volunteers by the North American Council on Adoptable Children in 2006. Most recently, Mr. Piraino was selected for inclusion into The Non Profit Times Non Profit Leaders of Power & Influence Top 50 in 2013 and 2014. A frequent speaker at domestic and international symposia on children, Mr. Piraino has served on several local and national boards and committees dealing with ethics, multiculturalism, and accountability for both nonprofit organizations and government agencies. He currently serves as a board member for Independent Sector. Piraino joined the National CASA Association as its Chief Executive Officer in 1994. During his tenure, the CASA movement has grown to include 75,000 volunteers serving 238,000 children annually.


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