When “Sesame Street” adds a character and a story line to its fabled neighborhood, people notice. In May, the show’s creators introduced Karli, a Muppet in foster care, and this month they revealed the reason for her situation: Her mom struggles with substance abuse.
In supplemental “Sesame Street in the Community” videos available online, Elmo’s dad explains to him that “Karli’s mother has a disease called addiction. Addiction makes people feel like they need a grown-up drink called alcohol or another kind of drug to feel OK. That can make a person act strange in ways they can’t control.” Elmo and Karli, a green plush 6 ½-year-old with yellow ostrich feather pigtails, talk about “grown-up problems” and how sharing can help if you’re sad or scared.
Karli’s separation from her mom might seem too harsh for the “Sesame Street” audience, but because the videos are available online only, parents and caregivers can decide if kids should see them.
In fact, the programming does us all a favor with its honest depiction of what fractures families. Substance abuse is the primary reason for the foster care crisis in this country. And “Sesame Street’s” spotlight on it could help redirect our cities and states toward a better approach to confronting it.
Last year, a record 440,000 children were in foster care in the U.S. “Neglect” is the most common reason for removing kids from their families, but it is a very vague category. And too many people assume that neglect means poverty.
As a columnist for the Arizona Republic wrote: “[The Department of Child Safety] removes the most kids from high poverty ZIP codes. That’s no coincidence.” A caseworker who was featured in the HBO documentary “Foster,” about child welfare in Los Angeles County, told Rise Magazine, “This is not a child safety crisis. It’s a poverty crisis, a racism crisis.” The New York Times ran an article called “Live in a Poor Neighborhood? Better Be a Perfect Parent.”
And yet the data doesn’t line up. Child poverty has reached historic lows in recent years in the U.S., while the number of children removed from their families is growing. On the other hand, government figures clearly show that counties with high rates of drug overdose deaths and hospitalizations also have high rates of severe child welfare cases. At a recent conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, federal and state officials estimated that more than 80% of the nation’s foster care cases involved substance abuse.
Unfortunately, specific data linking child welfare cause and effect are inconsistent and somewhat contradictory. Why is it, for instance, that California reports to the federal government its removals due to substance abuse at slightly more than 10% for kids over the age of 1, while in Colorado that number is close to 70%? Or why is Louisiana listing substance abuse as a factor in 8% of cases for kids under the age of 1 when Kentucky lists it in half of its cases?
Even within single states the numbers look fishy. In 2010, Arizona listed parental substance abuse in 34% of its child welfare cases, but in 2013 it was only 6%. It seems unlikely that the shift would be that abrupt. And what the heck is going on in New Hampshire, which has a drug overdose death rate that’s 70% higher than the national average but reports drugs as a contributing factor in only about 2% of its foster care cases?
In fact, the “threshold” for reporting drug use as a factor in foster care varies significantly state by state. Some require a formal diagnosis, some rely on investigator suspicion. Some states allow investigators to pick multiple factors; others ask workers to limit it to one.
Without a consistent standard — and therefore better data — it’s hard to move public policy toward a real fix for the surge in foster care cases. A general improvement in “safety net” services won’t keep children from neglect and abuse if the true cause is parental drug use. If kids are in homes where the heat isn’t on during the winter, or where the refrigerator is empty, or if they are sent to school inappropriately dressed (all triggers for child welfare agencies to intervene), is it because their family is poor or because drug problems stop parents from doing basic things to care for their children?
In the “Sesame Street” videos, we find out that Karli’s mother is getting treatment, and foster care is demystified. Elmo and the rest of the neighborhood’s adults, kids and Muppets help Karli cope with what she calls her “big feelings.” The story line is designed to help build resilience in kids and families, but it can also point child welfare agencies toward a more accurate and specific analysis of their mounting crisis.
If we want to see a decline in the numbers of kids removed from their families and placed in foster care, it pays to follow time-honored “Sesame Street” lessons: Be honest and learn to count.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying child welfare issues. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.