In honor of National Foster Care Month, get to know a former foster child now studying for her doctorate to help kids in the Child Welfare System.
National Foster Care Month was first established by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Since the creation of National Foster Care Month, it has been designated as a time to acknowledge the hard work of the individuals, organizations and communities pulling together to improve the lives of America’s most vulnerable children.
Those unfamiliar with the foster care system or the Child Welfare System as a whole might associate it with unfit parents and poor outcomes. However, while it’s true that the foster care system has a way to go in terms of ensuring the safety and stability of young people, there are successful outcomes to applaud too. Below is an overview of the Child Welfare System, which at times may seem downright depressing, if truth be told. But then you will find some of the bright spots in the foster care realm and how foster youth exhibit resilience, including one woman, once a foster child at 15, who is now studying for her PhD.
About the Child Welfare System
The Child Welfare System is the overarching name for the systems that address issues of child protection and safety in the United States. These systems include the foster care system, Child Protective Services, juvenile and family courts and other child-welfare-related services that include family preservation, family reunification, adoption and guardianship, to name a few. The purpose of the Child Welfare System is to promote the health, safety and well-being of youth in their care, and at any given time, they are responsible for more than 400,000 young people.
A child may be placed in the foster care system after a verified claim of child maltreatment, defined by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 as “serious harm (neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse or neglect) caused to children by parents or primary caregivers, such as extended family members or babysitters.” Children are placed in foster care because they’re deemed to be, for the time being, unsafe in their own homes. A child can be placed with a relative in an arrangement known as kinship care, or in foster care with certified foster parents.
However, out-of-home placements are not always a safer alternative. Media outlets often highlight tragic cases of child abuse and neglect that end in the child’s death. From Oklahoma to New Mexico to California, stories abound of young people dying in homes that were supposed to protect them.
Young People in the System
Young people in foster care come from various racial backgrounds, though the majority (roughly 47%) are non-Hispanic white youth, followed by Black youth (21%) and Hispanic youth (20%). The average age that children enter foster care has slowly gotten younger since 2011 and is now around 7.2 years. The main reason children enter the foster care system (60-75% of all cases) is due to neglect, broadly defined as the “failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.” Though physical and sexual abuse receive a lot of media attention, they are present in only roughly 15% and 6% of cases, respectively. Possibly tied to the opioid epidemic, parental substance use as a reason for a child’s removal from the home has increased by 50% since 2009.
What the Future Holds
Research shows that young people in foster care experience a number of poor health and social outcomes compared to their peers. Sadly, research shows that nearly 90% of youth entering the foster care system have physical health issues, and just over half report emotional and behavioral health concerns. Many people who “age out” of the foster care system, meaning they didn’t obtain a permanent placement setting before reaching adulthood, end up homeless. They are less likely to finish high school or attend college, more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and less likely to earn a living wage.
What’s worse is that there are more than 4,000 young people in the Child Welfare System who are classified as missing. Though they represent a small percentage (1%) of the children in the system, they may be some of the most vulnerable. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the 25,000 runaways that were reported to their organization in 2017, one in seven were suspected to be victims of child sex trafficking, and nearly 90% were in the care of social services before they went missing.
Taking to the Hill for Change
National Foster Care Month is about highlighting the work of individuals who are working to improve the lives of kids in the Child Welfare System. Fortunately, politicians are working to create change from the top down. Every May the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth hosts children and teens from across the country. The young people shadow their representatives for a day and offer their perspectives on what’s working and what’s not in the foster care system, helping shape future policy initiatives.
If you don’t have experiences, either as a caregiver, employee or young person involved in these systems, or if you’re only exposed to negative news stories, it may be difficult to see the resilience in foster children. I can’t think of a better way to emphasize the resilience of these young people than by sharing the story of Angel.*
I had the pleasure of speaking with Angel, now in her early 30s, who was involved in multiple arms of the Child Welfare System (foster care and the juvenile justice system) in her teenage years. Angel graciously shared about her experiences in foster care and how they shaped who she is today.
From Foster Care to PhD
By the time Angel was a junior in high school, she’d spent time in treatment centers, juvenile detention and, due to behavioral concerns, with a foster family nearly three hours away from her hometown. Her first few weeks in the home were rocky, to say the least. Frustrated, Angel did what she did best at that time: she rebelled. She was suspended from high school for smoking and ran away from home. It wasn’t until Angel grew closer to her foster siblings and heard what they’d been through that she realized how much control she had over her own life. She says she remembers thinking, “I get to decide what my future holds. I get to make those decisions.”
After six months in her foster home, Angel returned to her hometown and completed high school. She gave back to other kids in similar situations, serving as a transport worker taking kids from treatment to foster homes while earning a bachelor’s in both criminal justice and sociology. She’s since completed two master’s degrees, one in criminal justice and one in social work. She said, “I always told my parents I was doing research for the future. How could I know how to help other kids if I didn’t know what juvie was like?”
Today Angel is pursuing a PhD in social work and plans to become a foster parent one day. Though she made mistakes during her time in foster care, her foster parents never gave up on her. That encouragement and persistence stuck with her. If there’s one thing she wants readers to take away from her experience, it’s that more kind people should be foster parents.
*Name changed for privacy.