The past few years have produced a number of proposals for dealing with the vexing problem of foster care: more and better trained caseworkers, closer screening of foster families, improved psychiatric assistance and even the re-introduction of orphanages.
The state of Washington is trying another way -- prevention -- and by almost every measure it is working. The Washington program, called "Homebuilders," operates on the assumption that it is nearly always best for children to grow up in their own homes. Thus its focus is on teaching dysfunctional families to handle their own problems.
It is an intensive approach. Unlike the typical foster-care approach, in which a single case worker may have responsibility for 100 or more families for years on end, Homebuilders assigns as many as three specially trained family therapists for four to six weeks to only two families. Moreover, they are on call 24 hours a day.
Jill Kinney, who started the program with her husband, David Haapala, says the purpose is not to turn chaotic families into perfect ones but merely to restore family functioning to a level at which family members can live together in safety.
Homebuilder staffers work with families right in their homes, often seeing a single family several times a week -- even daily, if they think the children are in danger -- listening, teaching, coaching, skill-building.
Kinney says providing help in the family's natural environment is vital: both to get a feel of what stresses are at work and to devise workable approaches for relieving them. As she puts it, "We stay long enough to hear the whole story and leave before it's changed."
It's important to note that nearly all of the Homebuilder families, usually court-referred, are just a step away from losing their children. Thus, saving families also saves serious money. For although the approach seems expensive, it costs only a fraction of what it would cost to place the children in foster care or group homes or psychiatric hospitals, which, in any case, would leave the family pathology unchanged.
It also avoids a frequently overlooked Catch-22 of foster care: a welfare mother who loses her children to foster care has her welfare check reduced to the point where she could lose her apartment. Even if she gets her life straightened out, she can't get the children back until she has a place for them to live, and she can't afford a place to live until she gets the children back.
If Homebuilders is as sensible, effective and replicable as Kinney insists it is, why isn't it being tried elsewhere? As it turns out, it is, in at least 30 cities, under names like "Families First," "Home Ties," "Family Ties" and "Home Options."
"The design, principles and basic strategies are the important thing," says Kinney (34004 9th Ave. South, Suite 8, Federal Way, Washington, 98003-6737). "The four- to- six-week time frame is not important. What is important is the belief that substantial changes in families can occur rapidly. The two-family caseload is not important. What is important is that workers should have the time it takes to help families reach their goals and keep their children safe in the process."
What may be more important still is that strengthening families not only solves the crisis that brought the families to the attention of the authorities but helps them to avoid future crises. Everybody -- including the taxpayers -- wins.
Well, almost everybody. It still isn't clear what the Homebuilders approach could do in a place like New York City, where more than 40,000 children are in foster care, or in cases where the basic problem is drug abuse or homelessness.
Still it makes sense to recognize that most of the social problems that claim our attention result from the dysfunction of the natural child-rearing, problem-solving institutions: families and communities. Treating the symptoms, whether child abuse or lawlessness, leaves the fundamental problems unchanged. Get families and communities working again, and many of the problems will solve themselves.