Skip to main content.

Revealing the hidden side of foster care

Revealing the hidden side of foster care

Picture of Roxanna Asgarian
(Photo by Nic McPhee/via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by Nic McPhee/via Flickr/Creative Commons)

America’s child welfare system is a complex web of city, county and state agencies tasked with investigating abuse and neglect, and, if children are deemed unsafe, placing them outside of their homes temporarily or permanently. Sometimes children will reunite with their parents; other times, they’ll go on to be adopted by family members or non-relatives. In many other cases, they’ll be placed long-term in foster homes, group homes or, for kids with behavioral or other issues, in residential treatment centers.

I’ve been reporting on child welfare for four years, and I’ve focused on what happens to children once they enter the system. But only recently I came to see that the child welfare system as we know it — which, on Sept. 30 2018, involved 437,283 children — is just the visible side of the iceberg. Down below the water, in a scope that’s still murky, lies the “shadow” side, which some experts guess involves potentially just as many children.

Around the country, child welfare systems employ "voluntary safety plans,” in which they ask parents to send their kids to a relative before they initiate a case. That means the custody of these children changes, but no court case is filed, no judge weighs in, and no lawyers are assigned to the parents. Some jurisdictions, including Texas, have said they use these plans only during the investigatory phase, when they are unsure if the children are safe. But since no case is filed, it's tough to know for sure how long kids stay in these arrangements. Because no case is on file, these types of removals aren’t counted as removals in the data collected by states and counties. This means no one knows how many children’s placements have been changed this way — or, in many cases, what happens to the children in their new homes.

Some parental lawyers argue that if Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies investigate families and finds conditions they deem unsafe but that may not rise to the level of actionable in court, they employ this tactic. One Texas lawyer told me he had a client who came to him after her kids were living for two and a half years with a family member, and she wanted them back. Because these voluntary safety plans are made outside a courtroom, they don't trigger the federal timelines for resolution of a case. They also don't provide kinship payments to the families for taking care of kids, which are a substantial source of support. Many places don't require services for parents (or pay for them) in order to get their kids back. This might be one of the reasons the practice is so widespread — it costs CPS a lot less than taking a kid into care.

It's a legal limbo for the families, though. Many parental lawyers say it robs parents of their due process, and instead of being voluntary, the practice is coercive. Crucially, advocates worry that the specific language of the Family First Prevention Services Act, the recent federal legislation that has opened avenues for funding more prevention services, might be used to codify and expand the use of “hidden” foster care without putting any regulations around its use or even requiring states to disclose data on how widely they use these plans.

“We cannot quantify with precision the total number of children in hidden foster care or what happens to them,” wrote a working group in a letter requesting the federal Children’s Bureau require data on the practice. “Studies suggest that the total number of children brought into hidden foster care each year is roughly on par with the total number of children removed and placed into the formal foster care system — in other words, hundreds of thousands of children each year.”

My project aims to explore exactly how widespread this practice is, and, using narrative examples, what issues can arise from its use. I hope that by outlining the issue and telling stories of the families living under these circumstances, we can get a far more accurate picture of the reach the child welfare system has on American families.


The nation’s overdose epidemic has entered a devastating new phase. Drugs laced with fentanyl and even more poisonous synthetics have flooded the streets, as the crisis spreads well beyond the rural, largely white communities that initially drew attention. The death rate is escalating twice as fast among Black people than among white people. This webinar will give journalists deep insights, fresh story ideas and practical tips for covering an epidemic that killed more than 107,000 people in the U.S. last year. Sign-up here!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon