Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse

Tyler Cowen asks an interesting question: “Why the low status of opposition to child abuse?” A reader speculates that, on the cultural left, “the highly visible progressive segment that drives wokeness, is culturally powerful, etc.” does not emphasize child abuse and, “while there’s nothing obviously wrong with their attention to sexual and racial discrimination, the energy put into it is disproportionate to the massive social cost of child abuse.” One possible answer to this query is that, as Cowen posits, “virtually everyone is against child abuse, so opposing it doesn’t make anyone significant look worse.” Another reader lists some reasons the political right could be quiet, and he says that “you can’t even think of a solution by reasoning from your political views.” I’d venture another component: detecting child abuse is frequently hard because it occurs inside the home and away from most eyes, plus, once it has been unambiguously detected—what then?

What’s the alternative when the family is abusive, or, more readily and frequently, borderline abusive? Many GWC readers already know that the existing foster family system (FFS) can be characterized in a variety of ways, but “harmonious, well-funded, and functional” are rarely among them. Something like “completely f-ed up” is probably more common, in candid conversation if not publicly.* Most foster “family parents” are in effect small businesses in that they receive monthly payments from the contracting foster family agency (FAA),** which are higher for higher-risk kids. With several high-risk kids in the household, monthly payments can rise into the thousands—the foster kids know this and know they are, in some respects, a commodity. Still, some foster parents are saints (if you are one or know one and you are about to leave a comment, let me say that I know there are great and loving foster families) but most are running a very small enterprise on a tight margin. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, some number of foster families are motivated by the the very unattractive, horrific, and illegal impulses that you might imagine motivate them. To counteract bad actors, one needs a whole massive bureaucratic oversight machine, which is itself expensive, invasive, and onerous—and it discourages the well-meaning people who might otherwise participate. Most of us don’t want our homes randomly invaded by snooping, judging strangers.

We’ve worked for many FFAs over the years, and every FFA has the same publicly stated goal, which is aligned with the mission of county child protective services agencies: to facilitate family reunification, whenever possible. Birth families and/or relatives have to be very bad for the kid(s) to be worse off than they are in foster care, given the well-known shortcomings of the FFS. The honest FFAs will admit as much, again off the record. For family reunification, DHHS even has an RFP on the street, “Quality Improvement Center on Family-Centered Reunification.” It only has one grant available, which means it’s wired, so we’re unlikely to write one of these, though we’ve written other proposals in this genre.

It’s also important to understand that FFAs are themselves thin-margin businesses, which are often organized as nonprofits in only the most nominal of senses. The FFS in most states uses contracts with FFAs that reimburse the FFAs for the actual number and types of kids placed and the length of the placement. It is in effect a reimbursed per-capita arrangement that incentivizes the FFA to keep their census of placements as high as possible to cover fixed costs like staff and endlessly recruiting, training, and monitoring foster families. The many things that can go wrong with this structure are fairly obvious.

I have seen occasional articles like “The Best Thing About Orphanages:”

Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large “institutions” (or orphanages) and half in “community” programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

I don’t have a final answer to this issue, but orphanages have such bad PR in the United States that I doubt they’ll ever be seriously tried. Any politician who seriously proposes trying them is going to be compared to a Dickens villain and will likely be courting career suicide (on the other hand, I never thought we’d see legal marijuana, and here we are). The last major politician to make a pitch for orphanages was Newt Gingrich in 1990s, and that went nowhere (“[Gingrich] dared to suggest that some welfare children would be better off in private orphanages. In making his off-the-cuff comments, he ignited a media and policy firestorm, the general tone of which was best captured by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dubbed the idea ‘unbelievable and absurd'”). Still, given our work with FFAs, I would favor some experimentation in the direction of orphanages, as long as they were re-branded with some clever moniker (“Growth Homes?”). Having a large number of adults watching each other and the kids is probably at least not worse than the current system, although I don’t see orphanages as a panacea. There is no panacea and some problems lack solutions.

All the problems above around foster care enumerated above are only exacerbated by teenagers, who are technically legally “children” but who often have non-childish impulses, are hard to control, and often run away. Even a 13 or 14 year old boy can be six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds or more. Girls present a different set of challenges.

Ideally, most political stances come with a set of solutions, but orphanages have a bad rap, more money would help the current system without alleviating its most pressing problems, and abused kids and FFAs are not large enough interest groups for their votes to be salient to politicians. There are lots of problems that we as a society prefer to sweep under the rug and not think about—it appears, for example, that “Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot.” We could fix a lot of air pollution by depreciating gasoline-powered cars, but most people would prefer to ignore the issue. Animal meat processing factories are another example: if you kick a dog in public, you might be arrested and charged with a crime, but most of us prefer to ignore the horrific things that happen in meat processing factories. Foster care is yet another area in which we hope for the best and don’t want to know too much about what’s really happening.

While I was writing the precursors to this post, I also realized something unusual about grant writing: I don’t know exactly how to describe the vantage point we have, but it’s not a common one: we’re in this purgatory that’s not where most people thinking about social science and government policy reside. We’re in an intellectual and observational place halfway between the on-the-ground implementers and the in-the-tower legislators and academics. We’re not called on to dream up new programs, ideas, problems, or data, like academics and legislators, but we’re also much closer to the problem space, while not being completely mired in immediate day-to-day experience. Because we’re at a higher level of abstraction than most implementers, we can see comparisons that on-the-ground people sometimes miss, while still seeing enough of the ground floor to have a better idea what’s going on than some academic/legislator-types do. Almost no one asks us what we’ve seen and what we can see across organization types—for example, at one point, “We imagined foundations would hire us to help improve RFPs/funding guidelines. We were wrong.” That essay was written in 2015 and since then, zero funders have sought feedback. I’m not sure what to do with this observation, apart from noting that we see some things other people miss.


* We learn many interesting things from clients, most of which we can’t say publicly. Silence is one of our virtues.

** You can tell that we’re dealing with government because of the number of acronyms in play.

One thought on “Foster Family Agencies (FFAs) and why political rhetoric rarely focuses on child abuse”

  1. Jennifer Wells

    This comment is in response to both this post and the previous one. I love, love, love how objective and intelligent your blog posts are. This is one of the few places I can come to and really trust what I’m reading. By that, I don’t mean that the two of you know everything (that’s impossible) but both of you are very knowledgeable, and the honesty is so real and so refreshing.

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