Although child-welfare experts say that taking kids away from parents often does more harm than good — even in cases of neglect or abuse — San Francisco apparently puts kids in foster care more than almost any other California county once poverty is accounted for.
Not only that, but San Francisco repeatedly places the same children in foster care, suffering the highest rate of foster care recidivism of any large county in the state.
According to data compiled by UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research and analyzed by advocacy group National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, more than a fifth of the children that San Francisco places in foster care and then reunites with their families wind up back in foster care again.
Placing a child in foster care is traumatic to children, even if they’re being taken away from an unstable situation, because the child is being taken away from everyone they know and love, said study author Richard Wexler. In some cases, that is unavoidable, but such instances are rare, he said.
“For a young enough child, it can be the equivalent of a kidnapping, because you can’t explain to a 2- or 3-year-old that you’re taking them away for their own good,” Wexler said. “Foster care is an extremely toxic intervention and it has to be used sparingly and in small doses. San Francisco keeps prescribing megadoses.”
San Francisco has struggled for years to reduce the number of children it places in foster care. And The City’s social workers and courts have made some advances in this regard — about a 17 percent reduction over the last decade.
Human Services Agency chief Trent Rhorer acknowledged that the county still suffers from a high rate of foster care recidivism. But he does not put much credence in the new study.
“There are reasons behind all these numbers, but to compare counties is stupid because every county is different,” he said.
Rhorer attributed San Francisco’s high rate of recidivism to being “more flexible and progressive in terms of letting parents reunite with their kids.”
Superior Court Judge Ellen Chaitin, who presided over dependency cases in San Francisco for three years, said the numbers “flew in the face” of her experience in the court.
“Based on my experience, everyone does their best to keep children out of foster care if there are any other reasonable alternatives,” Chaitin said.
But advocates for foster care youth in The City said they were not particularly surprised by the statistic. Rachel Antrobus from Transitional Age Youth San Francisco said that while she agrees the courts try to avoid placing children in foster care, she has witnessed cases where not all other options have been explored, or where misunderstandings or racial prejudices lead to an inappropriate placement.
“I don’t think we place children in foster care haphazardly, but I definitely think there’s going to be biases in the system,” she said.