How do we compare? Looking at foster care systems around the world.

By Joseph Barron

As researchers and students at the Child and Family Research Institute, we make it a priority to understand the systems that lead to higher quality of life for foster youth who find themselves in a system that is often referred to as broken. In the spirit of the approaching Independence Day and in the hopes of moving our country forward, we thought it useful to examine where the American foster care system could expand in perspective, by considering and learning from other systems around the world.

North American State of Affairs

American foster care system photo
Service personnel view the American foster care system as broken. How have other parts of the world tried to repair it?

Taking a look at America’s neighbor to the north, Canada’s foster system differs from ours and faces unique challenges to caring for children in need. Of concern is the lack of national data showing the current number of children in the Canadian foster care system; indeed, with the task of data collection left to each individual province, no clear picture emerges of where foster care is on a national scale. Further, due to the lack of accountability on what methodology to use when collecting data, it becomes difficult to measure how one province is progressing compared to another. Similar to the United States, Canada relies on a “child safety” approach, meaning that when an agency identifies a child as at-risk, they are quickly pulled out of the home and into the system. Unfortunately, there are more children than the system can provide quality out-of-home care for, causing some children to be housed in hotel rooms—an expensive endeavor. So, the question remains: are there any other foster care systems around the world that are attempting novel ways to approach foster care?

The Australian foster care model attempts to intervene at the family level, rather than solely at individual.

Foster Care Policy in Australia
In contrast with America’s “child safety” approach, the Australian system of foster care has a process that explores how the family in question can benefit from direct family support services rather than immediately taking the child out of the home. Although there are a few exceptions to this procedure—when referrals concern child maltreatment—over the past years there has been a focus on helping parents understand how best to cope with their parental responsibilities, working within a framework of early intervention services. Considering the burden and burn-out experienced by social workers striving desperately to provide relief to a damaged system, is there a way to implement an early therapy/parent education approach that effectively works to remediate many of the problems in a home setting?


A New Delhi foster youth home is changing gender norms about work.

Empowerment at a New Delhi school
While in America children in the foster care system are placed in the care of foster parents, homes for orphans in other parts of the world have developed a novel way of providing support. Rather than wait for a whole system to mobilize and address the issue, the Sai Kripa Home (translation: “God’s kindness and grace”) encourages the older, more responsible foster daughters to care for their younger foster siblings. In this role, the adolescents are taught responsibility, taking the initiative to bathe, clothe, and educate their younger peers. At the same time, the foster youth are encouraged to prioritize their own education, adhering to a strict curfew where their careers are prioritized. Although boys and girls are separated into different houses, they are also bound through the tradition of Rakhi (“the bond of protection”) in which a girl ties a thread of colors on a ‘brother’s’ wrist, who in turn allies himself to protect her should the need arise. The model provides educational service in three forms: general, special education, as well as non-formal education for children who live in poverty. According to author and clinical psychology director Dr. Kalyani Gopal, the Sai Krippa Home is truly a “brilliant and effective family model” where young men and women enter their careers ready to change restricting perspectives on women in the work place. Although this program has previously struggled with funding, I wonder how the American foster care system could learn from this model, and work to shift the mentality of foster children from that of victim, to agent of change.

As Americans interested in the welfare of foster children, it is important for us to value diversity all around the world; indeed, our capacity to respect and understand the methods of other cultures is a strength with the potential to progress us forward. Given the current state of the foster care system, it may be useful to look beyond our borders and understand how others around the world are caring for foster youth. Through a universal appreciation, we can be primed to learn from other approaches, and start to examine our own. At CFRI we will continue to find ways to create innovative systems so that youth in foster care can find a stable sense of control, as well as strength and that they may come to experience a system that has their freedoms and liberties in mind.