Kids in the child welfare system are among the most vulnerable people in our society. The educational and socio-economic outcomes for foster youth are staggeringly abysmal. According to the Child Welfare League of America:
- There are more than 500,000 in foster care in the U.S., at an average age of 10 years and an average stay of 28 months.
- About 20,000 youth “age out” of foster care each year. Only half of these young people graduate from high school, and only 2 out of 100 will graduate from college. A quarter will become homeless and almost a third will have no health insurance. A third to half will be unemployed.
A number of years ago, I worked in a school for kids who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Nearly all of the young people were very behind academically and had severe emotional and social problems. Apathy and violence coexisted in these kids and could be manifested almost simultaneously. One of the most wrenching things I’ve ever had to do was physically restrain a 6 year old kid because he was a danger to himself and others. It happened regularly that year that I worked at the school, a year in which I saw little, if any, progress in the kids.
More recently, I visited a project at a state university that provides scholarships and other support to young people who were previously in the foster care system. Sitting down with several students, I got to witness living success stories. Wounds and challenges were still evident; eye contact with them was difficult to achieve. However, against all odds – without parents to send money or cookies, without a home to got back to over Christmas break – these young people are making it and have dreams for career and family. It gave me hope that I hadn’t been able to feel during my work at the school.
I just got finished reading a book by someone who is an authority on foster care, in more ways than one. Andrew Bridge’s book, Hope’s Boy, recounts his personal story from growing up in the foster care system in Los Angeles to graduating from Harvard Law School and having a successful career as an attorney and advocate for child welfare reform. Having gotten to know Andrew personally over the last year, I was prepared to be touched by the details of his story. I was less prepared, however, for the exquisite quality of his writing and ability to convey the strength of ties between a mother and her son, no matter the circumstances.
Andrew’s mother suffered from severe mental illness and was unable to care for him, leading him to be in the foster care system from age seven until graduating from high school. The book doesn’t provide any easy answers as to why and how Andrew overcame the odds to become more than just a sad statistic. He didn’t have a particularly supportive foster family, nor was there one mentor who steered him down the right path. In many ways, his is a story of self-reliance, which he attributes largely to his mother. Therapists working with children who have experienced abuse even from their own parents say that no matter the extent of their abuse, these kids always want to go back home.
After many years of faulting on the side of removing kids from their homes at the slightest sign of neglect, child welfare agencies more recently have explicit policies of “family preservation and reunification,” and foster care rolls are on the decline across the country. This is overall a positive trend, as ultimately it is clearly better for kids to be with family than in foster care. However, unless there are sufficient supports – from health and mental health to educational and economic – for these kids and their families, it could be simply another example of shifting the burden of a safety net from society to individuals.
If you are interested in learning more about the facts of foster care and how to improve outcomes for youth, check out website of Casey Family Programs, an operating foundation working to reduce the number of kids in foster care and improve outcomes for those who remain in care.