02 April 2009

Jason -- a Good Example of Failures of Foster Care System

The last time I heard from Jason he was living on the streets and was in trouble. He called me collect from a payphone in the rain a couple years ago. He must have been 26 or 27. I simultaneously listened to his tales of woe and racked my brain for some quick solutions. His roommate had kicked him out of his apartment… he just learned that his mother tested positive for HIV… his probation officer was looking for him… his girlfriend in South Carolina wouldn’t return his phone calls.

Like most calls from Jason, it ended in a fit of rage when I told him that I wouldn’t send him money.

I expect I’ll be getting another similar call from him before too long.

If you are looking for a living, breathing example of how our society fails its children sometimes, Jason is as good as any.

Jason had the misfortune of being born to two profoundly mentally ill parents and living in a home where an older brother sexually assaulted him from time to time. The Department of Social Services got involved when his school attendance became increasingly sporadic in second grade. He entered the foster care system at age nine and never returned home. I met him shortly thereafter and worked with him in a variety of settings for the next few years.

Once when Jason was about 16, I dug through his file in an attempt to determine how many foster homes he had lived. The topic came up because I was astonished to learn from him that he could remember very few details of the places and people of his childhood.

“There was the lady that had the cats,” he said. “I stayed there for a few months.” He couldn’t remember her name or what part of town she lived in or what school he attended at the time or whether he spent Christmas with her.

He had no idea how many foster homes he had lived. I counted 16, but knew there were several more that were lost in the shuffle. The ones where he stayed only a night or two in between runaways or hospitalizations and others that just simply hadn’t been recorded for whatever reason. The number is close to 30, I imagine.

Jason was a good kid. He had a silly grin and an innocence about him that endeared him to most. But he pushed people away when he sensed them getting too close and had a bad habit of destroying property when he was angry. I was on the receiving end of way too many phone calls from exasperated foster parents saying that they were giving up.

At age 18, the system released Jason from its care and he was left to fend for himself. He was, and still is, woefully unprepared to make it in the adult world.

I would like to write that Jason’s case is unusual. It isn’t. For scores of children throughout the US, the very system designed to protect and care for its most vulnerable children isn’t working.

On any given day in the US there are over a half-million children in foster care. Most will eventually be reunited with their parents or placed with relatives. Many others will be adopted by their foster parents. Still, there exists a group of children who are growing up in foster care with no sense of roots or belonging and with no place to go once they turn 18.

Each year approximately 20,000 of these foster children turn 18 and are released from the child protection system. Findings from a recent study on the fate of foster children were dismal: 12-18 months after they left foster care, just half were employed, one-fifth of the girls had given birth, more than one-quarter of the boys had been incarcerated, and more than a quarter of the males had been beaten or otherwise seriously injured to the point of requiring emergency room care.

Other studies indicate that as many as 30-40% of children aging out of foster care will be homeless at some point in their adult lives and that 40-60% of residents at homeless shelters across the country were in foster care as children.

Aged-out foster kids lag far behind their peers when it comes to high school graduation rates and less than 3 percent of former emancipated foster youth over age 25 have earned a college degree (compared to nearly 30 percent in the general population).

Truth of the matter is that a hugely disproportionate number of newly emancipated foster youth will end up incarcerated, institutionalized, homeless, dead.

For many of these children, adoption would provide them with the stability they need to heal and grow. Every child deserves a "forever" family. One that won't go away when he turns 18 or won't give up on him when the going gets tough. Someone to snatch him up and say to him, "I'm just not going to let you fail, you're too valuable."

Even though foster parents play a valuable role in every community and most do a great job, by nature, foster care is a temporary solution. Too often, foster children get bounced from foster home to foster home and live out a childhood fraught with chaos, disruption and despair. Foster homes are often over-crowded and slots are in such demand, the state is more than ready to place another child in the home once one turns 18 and the funding is cut off.

We should demand better. To me, if the State is going to be so bold as to remove a child from his or her birth family because they're incapable of parenting (which it must), then it has a moral obligation to provide the highest level of care for that child in all areas: education, mental health and medical care, vocational training, etc. And permanency planning.

That doesn't always happen. "Minimal standards" has become an acceptable benchmark. But for this population, whose odds for success are so steep to begin with, and for whom the state is acting in loco parentis, we have to do better.

It's not for lack of effort. At the local level, social service administrators and case workers do the best they can and they all want what's best for the children on their case loads. But, they lack resources and funding. The system is overwhelmed.

We need sweeping reform in child welfare, starting with the Title IV-E system, an outdated model which determines the funding states receive for foster care, which is in need of a complete overhaul.

The Pew Charitable Trust has been studying the foster care system for years and has developed a comprehensive set of recommendations for reform that would go a long way toward solving the problem.

You can learn more about these recommendations at http://www.childrenarewaiting.org/.

We certainly need more parents willing to adopt "special needs" children out of foster care -- older kids (not babies) as well as kids with physical, mental, behavioral and educational disabilities and large sibling groups who need to stay together. Up for the challenge? Contact your local Department of Social Services.

And adopting parents need high quality support services from committed adoption agencies willing to work with them for as long as support is needed (not just until the child turns 18). More families would be willing to take on the challenge if they could count on such support.

I think about Jason a lot. And wonder exactly how his life would have been different if he could have been adopted when it first became evident that he couldn’t return to his birth parents. Back then everyone just thought he was too old and had too many problems to be adopted. That’s a tragedy. And one we should never repeat.

What I've learned about kids like Jason is that, just beneath their sometimes abrasive exterior, they're just a scared little boys and girls whose wants and needs are the same as any child’s: mostly someone in their lives who they can count on. Forever. Don’t you think we owe them that much?

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