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Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in an afternoon conference on the topic of foster care trends and needs in the United States and in my home state of West Virginia. As I listened to the presentations from state officials, academics, and foster parents I was struck by the complexity and importance of the foster care and foster adoption system in our country.  The experience also made me think of military families and their contributions to meeting foster care and child welfare needs in our nation.

Military families are among those who volunteer to provide safe homes and care to foster children. Recent media coverage, in such outlets as Woman’s Day and help to highlight the caring role that military families provide.

One big takeaway from such coverage and stories is that military families are especially adept at providing foster care because of their own experiences in moving and adjusting to new places and living arrangements.

However, there are also lingering perceptions that military family placements may not be feasible due to transient nature of military life.  There is no doubt that the permanent change of station (PCS) process and the patchwork of state child welfare systems and regulations can create challenge and complications. But as we explore below, much is being done to counter these perceptions and to clear away obstacles for military families to serve as foster parents and to adopt children in foster care.

In 2016, there were approximately 438,000 children in foster care.  This represents a steady increase in foster care placements in recent years. There is always a need for foster care parents. Recently, there have been renewed concerns about the capacity of state child welfare systems to adequately serve foster care children.  The number of children in need of foster placement regularly outstrips the availability of foster parents.

Across the United States, each state operates its own child welfare system which include foster care programs.  These programs are aimed at ensuring the safety of children who may have to be removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or risk caused by unstable home environments.

State efforts are supported by various federal laws and regulations aimed at providing funding and facilitating interstate cooperation in child placement and services.  These policies, which include the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children and the Interstate Compact on Adoption and Medical Assistance, are especially relevant to military families seeking to foster or adopt children.

Many foster kids may have special health care needs.  Unstable home environments can contribute to the development of health problems and inhibit access to regular and coordinated care.  Various experts, professional organizations, and authorities often characterize children in foster care as a “special needs” population due to the high incidence of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) as well as chronic health conditions, poor oral health, behavioral health conditions, and trauma that led to their placements.

Fortunately, through law and regulation, both states and the federal government have extended health coverage and services to foster children through the Medicaid program underTitle IV-E of the Social Security Act.  As we have discussed in previous OneOp webinars and blogs, the Medicaid program is a joint state and federal program that serves low income families and many of those with disabilities or special needs.

There are many helpful resources that highlight the status and programs for foster children and their healthcare needs.  Among the most helpful are those provided by the U.S. Children’s Bureau.

Ideally, foster care provides safe harbor for children with the ultimate goal of reunification with parents or guardians in mind.  However this goal may not always be achieved.  According to federal statistics, in 2016, approximately 26 percent of all foster care children were anticipated to find family stability through adoption.  Many of these adoptions take place with families that are fostering children.

Recognizing the valuable role that military families can play in foster care and adoption, but also acknowledging some of the challenges that exist, federal agencies, as well as such groups as the National Military Family Association and the Adoption Exchange Association, have developed helpful resource materials.

AdoptUSKids is a federal and non-profit collaborative that is a clearing house of information and guidance in foster care and adoption effort. They have produced a comprehensive guide, entitled “Wherever My Family Is: That’s Home” to assist military families, child welfare professionals, and military support personnel in the foster care to adoption process.

Their guide provides valuable insight on navigating the foster care and adoption process.  It offers stories about military families that have adopted foster children.  It highlights the various state and federal resources that can help to facilitate the process, and gives special attention to relevant military and DoD regulations and resources.

Most importantly, the guide emphasizes the need to build community capacity through networks of understanding and cooperation between civilian child welfare agencies and military resources, such as family service centers found at military installations.  In sum, the message comes across loud and clear that military families are often uniquely situated to lend support to a pressing community and national caregiving need.