NEW YORK – No single youngster can be the poster child for America's foster care system, with its mix of happy endings and heartache. Yet Tatiana Fowler's smile, as she embraces the woman who adopted her, gives a hint at the groundswell of change that is altering that mix for the better.
Tatiana, 16, and her 15-year-old sister Brittany were adopted earlier this year by a cousin of their mother after four years in foster care. They became part of a dramatic trend in New York City, which has reduced its foster care population from nearly 28,000 in 2002 to under 16,000 this spring.
Thanks to sizable reductions in several other states, it's a coast-to-coast phenomenon — the latest federal data, from 2008, recorded 463,000 children in foster care nationally, down more than 11 percent from 523,000 in 2002.
Each jurisdiction is different, but by reducing stays in foster care, speeding up adoptions and — perhaps most crucially — expanding preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed in the first place, the numbers are coming down.
Many states still are experiencing stable or rising foster care populations. And child-welfare advocates worry that budget cuts may undermine some of the promising new policies.
Overall, however, there's encouragement that New York City and a few other places — notably California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio — have been able to sharply reduce the number of children in foster care.
"We're going to continue to see practices get better," said Anita Light, director of the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators. "In many cases, a child can remain at home and be safe with the proper amount of support."
When removal is deemed necessary, and parental rights are terminated, agencies have been working harder to arrange timely adoptions.
That was the case for Tatiana and Brittany Fowler — whose mother, a repeat drug abuser, proved incapable of keeping the family together.
The sisters initially were placed in foster care with another relative, but conflicts arose. Last year, Karen Simmons, a cousin of the mother, said she and her auto-mechanic husband, Dwayne, would be willing to adopt the girls, adding to a household already abuzz with the Simmons' three teenagers.
The Simmonses — devout Jehovah's Witnesses who'd known Tatiana and Brittany since they were little — live in a modest, three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, on a monthly income of roughly $2,000, including food stamps.
Tatiana is finishing 10th grade at West Bronx Academy for the Future and aspires to be a child-welfare advocate after college so she can help the next generation of foster children. Her foster care experience helped hone a high degree of self-reliance, but she's elated to be adopted.
"I was fortunate somebody stepped up to the plate," she said. "To be a successful person, you need strong support. Now if I have an issue, a problem, I have someone to talk to."
John Mattingly, commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, noted that the city's foster care population has been declining gradually since a peak of nearly 50,000 in the early 1990s following the crack cocaine epidemic.
One stubborn problem, in New York City and some other places, is a slow-moving family court system that sometimes prolongs children's stays in foster care. Mattingly is working with judges to impose a timetable that would cut some nine-month delays to 90 days or less.
But even if the court issues are resolved, proposed budget cuts that could cost New York City 3,000 slots in its preventive-services program are a concern. Mattingly hopes the consequences won't include a new surge of foster care entries.
"All of these models that we've seen as successful are in danger — there's a great risk of going back to the old days," said Jane Golden of the Children's Aid Society, which arranged Tatiana's adoption.
To many experts, Florida's turnaround has been the most remarkable. Its foster care population soared after the high-profile 1998 beating death of a 6-year-old girl by her father, and stayed high through 2006.
Since then, Florida has implemented a wave of policy changes that have reduced its foster care population from about 29,300 in 2006 to 18,700 this year.
The key for Florida, alone among the 50 states, was obtaining a statewide waiver from federal funding rules. This allows federal foster care money to be used for a variety of child welfare initiatives rather than being limited to out-of-home care — enabling the state to support troubled families with economic aid, parenting classes and substance abuse treatment so a child doesn't need to be removed.
George Sheldon, who heads Florida's Department of Children and Families, said a group of youths who'd spent years in foster care had urged him to pursue the changes.
"Almost to a child, they said, 'I would have rather stayed at home and dealt with issues than go into foster care and get passed from home to home and school to school," Sheldon said. "Even if it's a quality foster home, they feel they don't belong there."
Florida also sped up the average time for foster children to be reunified with their families. And in the remaining cases where parental rights are terminated, Florida has intensified efforts to get the children adopted or placed permanently with other relatives.
Though adoptions from foster care in the state reached all-time highs — more than 7,400 in 2008-09 — Sheldon hopes Floridians can do more.
"After the earthquake in Haiti, everybody wanted to adopt a Haitian child," he said. "We're trying to take that passion to help and say there are children in this country, in Florida, who are in need of adoption."
One leader on the front lines is Jim Adams, CEO of Family Support Services of North Florida. The private nonprofit helped cut the number of children in foster care in Jacksonville by 62 percent between 2006 and the end of 2009 — while spending far less money and achieving better outcomes.
"The way the system had been built, you had to isolate the child from the family," said Adams, a 33-year veteran of the field. "Now we try to have family engagement — working with the moms and dads and relatives.
"A lot of kids got put into foster care not because of physical abuse, but because of poverty — no food on the table, utilities cut off," he said. "With the waiver, we've been able to redirect the dollars that went to warehousing kids into funding families and the long-term challenges they've got."
Among the youths aided by Family Support Services is Lauren Lindgren, 18, who's now working for the agency as she prepares for college next fall. She was in foster care from age 2 to 7, when she was adopted, then returned to foster care at 14 after her adoptive parents divorced.
She hopes agencies working with foster children look "to see what's best for the kids, not what's best for everyone else."
"In foster care, it used to be you couldn't even spend the night at your friend's house — they had to get a background check," Lindgren said. "They changed that, so now you can. They're trying to make it seem like we're just kids, rather than foster kids."
In raw numbers, the biggest drop has occurred in California — where the foster care population fell from 90,692 in 2002 to under 65,000 last year, and the average stay in foster care was sharply reduced. Los Angeles County, where a Florida-style funding waiver is in effect, accounts for much of the decrease.
Karen Gunderson, chief of the Child and Youth Permanency Branch at California's Department of Social Services, said the changes reflect a push to get more foster children adopted or placed in the guardianship of relatives.
More recently, there's been an emphasis on so-called "wraparound" services — which develop individualized plans to help families deal with behaviorally troubled children so they don't have to be removed from home.
Georgia, another success story, had about 14,500 children in foster care in 2004, the result of a surge in investigations of suspected abuse. Now the figure is under 8,000.
B.J. Walker, commissioner of Georgia's Department of Human Services, said the key change was a more thorough, flexible approach at the front end, finding ways to support high-risk families without removing the children.
"We had to get our workers to believe this was safe," Walker said. "If you come into the system now, you're truly a child who's experienced abuse and neglect."
Her department, which had been taken to court by a New York-based advocacy group in 2002, says the recurrence of child maltreatment has dropped well below the national average and its average caseload per caseworker has decreased markedly.
Not all states joined the trend — those with rising foster care numbers in 2002-08 include Arizona, Texas, Indiana and Nevada. Steve Meissner, a spokesman for Arizona's Department of Economic Security, noted that his state's population grew during that period, with the influx including many potentially vulnerable children.
"The sad fact is that though there has been real improvement in some states, in much of the country things are as bad as ever," said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which seeks to reduce the number of children unnecessarily placed in foster care.
"To the extent that there has been a real improvement," Wexler added, "it begs the question: What took so long?"
A fundamental problem, in the view of many child-welfare advocates, is the federal funding system — which in effect is a disincentive for states to reduce their foster care populations.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 90 percent of federal child-welfare funds are reserved for supporting children in foster care, with only 10 percent available for front-end prevention and reunification services that can help keep families together.
The child welfare administrators' association, under Anita Light's direction, is proposing to change the law so all states would have more flexibility in how they spend child-welfare funds. Light believes there's bipartisan support for the change, and hopes for congressional approval sometime this year.
Even among those heartened by the drop in foster care populations, there's concern about one negative trend — the number of foster youths aging out of the system without a permanent family has risen from 19,000 in 1999 to a record high of nearly 30,000 in 2008.
Without the safety net of a family, these young adults often face immense challenges in securing decent jobs and housing.
Tatiana Fowler was relatively lucky in getting adopted at 16 — most foster children that old age out of the system without a permanent family.
Among them is Derrick Riggins, now 25, who had five different foster care placements growing up in Orlando, Fla. He now has a master's degree and is eying law school, aspiring to be a children's rights advocate.
Riggins was among the young people sought out by Florida officials to provide firsthand input on child-welfare reforms — and he stressed the importance of keeping more children of out foster care to begin with.
"The first couple of nights you stayed away from your own family is the toughest time," he said. "These are complete strangers you have to stay with. You ask, 'How did I get here? How long do I have to be here?' Questions you don't get answers to."