Over 400,000 U.S. children were in the foster care system in 2019, and the number of children and youth in foster care is higher today than it has been in nearly a decade. Tragically, some government leaders and researchers fear that the current pandemic could lead to heightened child abuse and increase the number of children in need of foster care. This increased demand may introduce additional stress into a system already in need of reform.

Fortunately, many Americans are willing to help care for foster children. As noted in a recent report by the Joint Economic Committee, which I chair, roughly a quarter of Americans say they have considered becoming foster parents. Far more Americans are looking to adopt than there are children in need of adoptive homes, and the number of children adopted with special needs has increased substantially over time.

There are additional reasons for optimism in Utah, as Utah ranks high on many factors related to adoption and foster care. The median length of stay in the foster care system for children in Utah — 13 months — is one of the lowest in the country, and 80% of children in Utah’s foster care system who are in need of adoption are adopted within two years, a rate that far outpaces all other states. Reentry into foster care is also fairly uncommon in Utah, though the state ranks above average on the number of children who leave the system at age 18 without a permanent home.

Still, in Utah and many other states there is room for improvement, and changes can be made to ensure that barriers that currently get in the way of connecting foster children with families are addressed. Reforming these barriers is critical so that America’s children are able to find a loving and permanent home.

Improve the system’s support of foster parents

While many Americans have considered foster parenting, fewer than 10% of those who begin the process of becoming foster parents become licensed, and one-half to two-thirds of foster parents leave the system within a year of becoming licensed. Many potential and licensed foster parents report that a lack of responsiveness and support from the foster care system is the reason they have disengaged.

States spend very little of their foster care budget (which is a mix of state and federal dollars) on recruiting and retaining foster parents. They more often spend money on administrative costs that have little to do with children’s outcomes or the quality of service they provide. Part of the reason for the misplaced focus may be that states are required to meet a litany of benchmarks set by the federal government. These benchmarks could be simplified to focus more on outcomes that matter most, such as recruiting and maintaining a skilled cadre of foster parents.

Also, some states, including Utah, have seemingly unnecessary requirements for foster homes and foster parents that make it harder for families to welcome a child into their home. For example, Maryland doesn’t allow foster children to sleep in a bunk bed and doesn’t allow window coverings in the home to have cords. Wyoming prohibits children of any age to share a bedroom with a child of the opposite sex. Several states require fire extinguishers to be on every floor of the home. Virginia requires foster parents to have a bachelor’s degree in child development or a related field, or to have a high school education plus a year of experience caring for children the same age as the child(ren) the parents will foster. Utah requires foster parents to hold quarterly fire drills with children and then report back to the state.

Safety standards are important, but some appear to be simply red tape rather than guardrails. States should examine their standards and determine which requirements are important for protecting children and which ones should be eliminated.

Reduce lag time

Another barrier to connecting foster children with stable homes is a system that keeps children languishing in foster care, either because of failure to rehabilitate parents in a timely manner or because of adoption-related bias. The field of social work often sees adoption of the child as something that shouldn’t happen. But adoption is sometimes exactly what is needed; leaving children languishing in foster care can be damaging, especially for infants who are in the crucial stage of developing attachment to a caregiver.

While federal and state laws place limits on how long a child can spend in the foster care system, states often bypass the time limit, frequently without providing a reason. States should focus on reducing lag in the system, particularly when it comes to young children. For example, Arizona requires that drug-abused infants be in a permanent placement within one year of entering the foster care system, which is a more expeditious timeline than many states set.

Protect the religious liberty of foster care and adoption providers

Several faith-based foster care and adoption providers have been threatened or compelled to stop providing services due to their religiously-held beliefs about marriage. Not only does this violate their First Amendment rights, but it reduces the number of organizations available to help children in need of good homes.

Throughout the nation’s history, faith-based organizations have played a crucial role in serving foster children, and they continue to do so today. For example, in Arkansas, one faith-based organization, The Call, is responsible for recruiting half of the state’s foster families. And researchers find that foster parents recruited through faith-based groups continue their service for a significantly longer period of time than other foster parents.

The First Amendment Defense Act, which I introduced in 2018, prohibits the federal government from discriminating against individuals or organizations because of their religious or moral beliefs about the definition of marriage. This federal bill would help protect faith based organizations that serve foster children, and states should similarly see that their laws protect the religious liberty of their citizens and organizations that provide critical services to children in need.

Support infant adoption

Children under the age of one year are the largest group of children to enter foster care each year. It is likely that some parents whose infants end up in foster care were not in a position to parent from the start. Some families would be better served if their child had been placed for adoption at birth rather than being removed shortly thereafter due to parental abuse or neglect. Infants that are removed due to parental abuse or neglect often spend critical months in foster care before they find a permanent placement.

Unfortunately, many expectant mothers with an unwanted pregnancy have incorrect or negative views about adoption, such as believing there are not enough families willing to adopt or that it is not right to place a child for adoption. Increasing people’s understanding that adoption can be a loving option, that there are many families willing to provide homes, and that open adoptions are common today may increase the number of children who stay out of the foster care system altogether.

Children in foster care are among the nation’s most vulnerable. Given the number of Americans who are open to welcoming children into their homes, there is a clear solution to helping these children. However, breaking down barriers in the foster care system is vital to connecting more children in need with parents who can give them stable, loving homes.

Op-ed originally published by Deseret News