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.


  • Becca

    Public school needs to include in their curriculum what leads up to a child being taken into foster care, the effects short and long term on the child and the statistics of them falling into the same lifestyle. Schools need to teach conception to birth, showing the stages of development of a baby, and teach the psychological trauma long term of living with abortion. Our laws need to include a mandatory ultrasound for the mother, showing her her fetus, before they get abortion, offering the side effects of abortion on her body, the pain it causes the baby, and the mental depression which comes after abortion. Put the dots together and adoption is the best and most beneficial option and our country can stop this cycle of foster care in an impressive way. I’d urge everyone to invite Bethany Christian Services to partner with your local Crisis Pregnancy Center and offer life. We had ten years of psychological trauma to overcome because our adopted daughter experienced so much neglect in her first 2 1/2 years with her teen birthmother. No one new about Reactive Attachment Disorder. Our schools need to teach this in psychology. Mental health determines a persons level of functioning in our society. Let’s get to informing the future parents with ALL of the truth!

    • Mary Hoyt


  • medtary

    This was GREAT! Thanks!

  • http://www.mercyprojects.com Jeff Thompson

    Very interesting! Thank you Jedd and CAFO. Placing enough social workers in our elementary schools to monitor children’s school attendance and work with at-risk family situations is a great idea. These social workers would work out of a school office instead of a County office. Instead of being “reactive” after a crime is committed and removal is required; they become “proactive” and interact with children and families as stressful situations arise very early in children’s lives. This is an idea that can hopefully be developed further.

    • Mary Hoyt


  • Tim

    I’ll briefly state that it’s difficult to listen to the important things she has to say when she kicks it off by misquoting Einstein and commits Einstien’s Folly

    I LOVE the idea of going up stream but it’s a little simplistic to sum up the abuse of foster care as a hammer against untreated asthma.

    • Bruce

      So Einstein did or did not say that thing about turning the other cheek?

  • Bruce

    I appreciated her thoughts on prevention and support that approach… but prevention is not an involuntary “industry” like foster care. At-risk parents and children most often have to voluntarily take part in prevention services, otherwise it begs the question, who determines who gets/needs prevention services? Does the government get to serve any home and determine who is parenting their children correctly or incorrectly under the auspice of a precautionary measure? Prevention needs a stronger focus, but it doesn’t make foster care a bad idea. And, while I’m sure it has happened and does happen in some form, investigators aren’t patrolling neighborhoods snatching up kids to feed the foster care “machine” without some signs of neglect & abuse… if anything we’re not removing enough kids due to the inability to sustain a “machine” demanding that many financial and human resources. Foster care is a good idea… but no one idea is sufficient to cover the complexities involved in child abuse/neglect, home as a state of mind or instilling all around well-being into a child.

  • Danielle

    I appreciate her concern for this very broken system that does not receive nearly enough attention as it needs but deciding this is just a bad system and the replacement is keeping kids in their homes and just fixing them with preventative measures is a bit too rose-colored glasses for me. I too have seen what happens in this homes and what happens in the systems and neither is the best place for a child.

    I like the idea of placing services in a home when we know there is an issue because a young child is missing school but what do we do about kids before they reach school age? Its ok to let them be mistreated and neglected and abused because we don’t know about it yet? What do we do about parents who have had 3, 4, 5, 12 children and continue to mistreat and abuse and neglect each of them? Is there no system to place these kinds in families that actually want them and will treat them with the love, support and respect they deserve? Or yes but we have to wait until they miss school?

    The system needs dramatic reform. I couldn’t agree more but its not a bad idea. Its a good idea poorly executed with too many people still in it that want to keep it bad for some of the very reasons she states; greed, keeping the well-oiled machine moving but also because, let’s be honest, some people are lazy, some people consider their role in child welfare “just a job” and because unlike issues like education, obesity, cancer, autism and other things that most Americans fear will someday impact their kids, foster care isn’t a threat to most Americans and so we don’t talk about it enough, care about it enough or attempt to really get it right.

    I certainly don’t have the answer, but I am happy to get in on the conversation and that is what I pray more people will do after hearing this talk.

  • Mary Hoyt

    Jedd, Thanks so much for this post and all your posts. Summit last year was a powerful experience for me, and I’m sad I can’t go this year. But your well-written and well-linked blog posts keep me connected, and I’m thankful. In this particular post, I’m thankful for your responses to the video and for the comments that give perspective and ideas. We have our first home study visit next week to start offering respite care to foster kids. We are excited but nervous – we only know of one other foster family in our huge Christian community her locally….we are praying for the many, many churches in our area to catch a conviction and vision…

  • Wii Lde

    My Child was taken from me and my Family lost our home due to control freaks with power addictions who just happen to be officers of the law. We still have a Federal action we are taking against them but it has been and will continue to be one heck of a fight and fighting true evil is an extremely exhausting battle and I have nothing but respect for all who stand for what is most important, our Children. Ultimately, they are all that matter. They are our future and all these Laws need to change to ensure the children who truly need protection get it and the ones who need to remain in their homes, stay as well. Child Abuse is a serious issue and should be decided in a criminal court, not a lengthy and expensive civil court either~ and this should be the only acceptable thing. If they really think children need to be removed then they should have to give the accused their due process because loosing property is absolutely nothing to the feeling of having your child ripped from you, Nothing. There is no greater pain on earth. This Government definitely needs to fix their broken almighty dollar driven child protection system. I wanted to share this with you. Although I do not agree with everything said in this video, there is a resounding and obvious need for drastic changes immediately ~ Our Children’s Lives completely depend on it.