With ALL the problems in our nation’s foster-care system, nothing short of a major overhaul would serve as a lasting solution to this national disgrace. For years, children have been sentenced to navigate the system have been promised refuge from abuse and neglect in their own homes. However, without the state/county agencies being held accountable by no one, foster care remains as inconsistent, abusive neglectful and dysfunctional as many of the homes from which the children were removed from in the first place.
Without cohesion, leadership and accountability, the system continues to fail too many of the 500,000-plus children assigned to it. Once these children age out of the system at eighteen, the state sees the effects that this broken system has on society. It’s like all of a sudden you’re 18 and they expect you to be an adult, but the system doesn’t teach you to be an adult. It’s one thing to be sad about being in the system but still have a roof over your head. It’s another to be sad and homeless and unemployed. That’s what the stats say I will become.
For the 20,000 youth nationwide who emancipate — or “age out” — of the foster- care system every year, nothing is more terrifying than the number 18. It is on this birthday that these youth, many abused and neglected before and after entering the system, are expected to instantly become responsible adults. While many children outside of the system are eager to leave home at this point, their parents often serve as a safety net in times of financial or emotional need.
Most emancipated foster children do not have this luxury. They are moved from house to house, forming few, if any, long-lasting ties to any of the adults they are forced to live with. Then, at eighteen, they are instantly cut off from a system that never prepared them to live on their own.
Former U.S. Rep. Bill Gray, vice chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, aptly observed: “There are a half million human beings who could lose their potential. How many future doctors, how many teachers, how many lawyers, how many public servants are in that group? Because of instability, neglect and abuse at the very beginning of life, because of no permanency and no family, we lose what they could become. That’s a loss you cannot measure.”
There have been enough studies on the plight of foster children in our nation. Study after study has quantified the struggle for young people in the foster-care system. This is not “someone else’s problem.” The 500,000-plus children in foster care and the 20,000 who emancipate each year are OUR collective responsibility!!
The government must act now to begin to fix the broken home that they have built. The moment a child is taken from his or her home and placed in foster care, the law mandate is to either reunify the child with their family, or find him/her a permanent home through adoption. If that foster youth reaches 18 and emancipates from the system without either, the state has failed them.
Each year, the state fails approximately 20,000-plus foster youth, who, once they turn eighteen, are no longer eligible for foster-care services such as housing. During this pivotal time, many of these youth find themselves with no place to live, and no one to turn to.
Here are some statistics we fail to see. Only half of foster youth will graduate from high school. Fewer than 10 percent of foster youth enroll in college and only 2 percent actually graduate. Many foster children go through multiple placements and can attend up to five different schools. Building classrooms won’t help them. They need the guidance and support to ensure that they go to school — and graduate.
More than 25 percent of foster youth will become incarcerated within two years after they leave the system. Building prisons won’t help them.
We say we must invest in critical infrastructure. Foster care is a system whose infrastructure is a disgrace — invest in fixing it and in the children whose lives depend on it.
As responsible parents, we need to make it possible for more children to live safely with their biological families. We should revamp the federal-funding structure to channel resources into programs such as substance-abuse treatment, counseling, training, housing and employment assistance that can keep fragile families from falling apart. These changes are cost neutral; they simply reflect commonsense approaches that would enable us to use existing federal resources more effectively to support children and families in need.
We can also get involved on an individual basis one child at a time by becoming a mentor or tutor, giving foster youth reliable support from someone who holds high expectations for them and encourages them to see a better life for themselves. To mentor or tutor a foster youth not only benefits the recipient, but it is also one of the most rewarding endeavors in life, showing a young person that you care and can be relied upon, even through challenging times. Cost of mentoring or tutoring youth: An hour or two of your time each week.
Employers have the ability to offer foster youth a life-changing opportunity as well. By hiring young people living in foster care and training them for successful careers, employers provide foster youth with a critical start toward a lifetime of self-sufficiency. Cost of offering and promoting jobs or internships for youth in foster care: Insignificant!
Sometimes, tangible items can have tremendous impact on a young life. Foster youth often lack the funds to pay for an after-school computer class, musical instruments or art supplies. Items that most of us would consider basics, such as school backpacks or supplies for a science fair entry, also may be out of reach. Cost of donating to nonprofits benefiting foster youth: A tax-deductible contribution to fit your budget.
Most important of all, for those children who may not be able to remain with or return safely to their birth families, thousands are needed to open their homes and their hearts and become full-time foster or adoptive parents. The lasting commitment that results from creating a new home is one that can be pursued by couples, married or unmarried, single people and partners. Cost of creating a new, loving family by parenting abused and neglected children: Priceless!
Don’t forget these children