TED Talk Urges End of Foster Care

A provocative new TED Talk calls for an end to foster care as we know it.  Molly McGrath Tierny argues, “It’s not that government is doing it badly.  It’s that foster care is a bad idea.”

Tierny’s argument is powerful, especially coming from someone with her resume.  Her leadership in the Maryland foster system helped produce the kind of statistical outputs that many people would laud as true success.  Yet looking back, she considers the ultimate results a failure in what matters most.

I’d encourage anyone concerned with the foster system and the families it touches to watch the video and grapple with its arguments.  Ultimately, I believe it pounds home some vital insights…while also missing some equally important truths in the process.


Tierny is certainly right about this: the statistical future facing children raised in the foster system is sheer tragedy.  By their mid-20s, less than half are employed.  More than 60 percent of males have been incarcerated as adults, versus 9 percent of men overall.  With women, 68 percent are on food stamps, compared to 7 percent overall.  Can anyone call that “success”?


These statistics don’t prove that foster care doesn’t work.  Many would argue that the system does “work” in significantly reducing the abuse and severe neglect of children.  What we can say unequivocally is this: “The current foster system doesn’t bring even a fraction of the restoration that we’d yearn to see in the lives of children who come from deeply broken homes.”


Government systems can’t replace families.  Study after study shows this fact:  children tend to thrive in permanent and loving families…and shrivel without them.  Certainly, caring foster parents, mentors and even highly-nurturing residential care facilities can do tremendous good for children.  But there’s simply no substitute for a family.


If government makes a poor parent, we shouldn’t be quick to assume that it will have great success as a “grandparent” either — teaching parents good parenting or otherwise trying to make up for the very deep, painful and complex factors that cause parents to abuse or neglect their children in the first place.  Both public and private efforts to educate and support struggling parents are indeed vital—and many, such as Safe Families—are making a big difference.  But even if every penny spent now on foster care were diverted to such programs, the protection of children by the foster system would still often be necessary.


The foster system needs reform.  Despite the many dedicated individuals serving within foster care, the system has deep flaws.  Children, birth parents, foster parents, and social workers all deserve better than they’re currently getting.


The simple truth is that when engaging any deep human need, no solution will be without serious flaws.  That reminds of the need for frequent course correction and ongoing reform…but also prepares us with the knowledge that success will always be partial at best.

Thankfully, we have every reason to continue to serve despite knowing that even real victories will be tinged by disappointment.  Attempts to enable family reunification will fail.  Child protection systems will miss blatant child abuse.  Long-term mentoring and fostering relationships will seem to produce little fruit.

Yet in all this, we are still called to serve.  We are to love as we have first been loved.  It is that – not the promise of success – that enables us to continue to give ourselves to a hurting world alongside imperfect people amidst deeply flawed systems.