You Know About Foster Care, Maybe Not Its 'Shadow' System

ProPublica, 'New York Times Magazine' explore abuses in these informal custody arrangements
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 4, 2021 8:00 AM CST
You Know About Foster Care, Maybe Not Its 'Shadow' System

An estimated 250,000 children enter the formal foster care system each year, a process involving the family court system, mandated check-ins by caseworkers, government funding, etc. But as ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine explain in a joint project, about the same number of children enter what's come to be known as the "hidden" or "shadow" foster care system. It's a more informal arrangement, largely unregulated, and one that has become increasingly used over the last decade by overburdened social service agencies across the country. Here is how Lizzie Presser, author of the article, describes it:

  • "Rather than bringing the results of an investigation before a judge, caseworkers persuade parents to send their children to live with someone they know, often by threatening a foster placement if they refuse. Parents, unsure whether caseworkers have the evidence to remove their children in a court proceeding, choose the option that, at first glance, appears to give them more control."

As that explanation suggests, this "hidden" system is rife with problems, and often results in a permanent severing of children from their parents. The families who take in the children receive no funding—one teen featured in the story was forced to pay rent—or receive formal vetting, and the children's welfare is not monitored by caseworkers. In some states, parents unfamiliar with the system are pressured to transfer custody in probate court. "If these were criminal procedures, and you said we don’t really have enough evidence to sustain a conviction, but we’re going to handle this injustice ourselves, people would be horrified," says Mark Testa, an expert at the University of North Carolina. "If you can’t convince a court that someone is guilty, you shouldn’t resort to vigilante justice." (Read the full story, which details individual case histories.)

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