Although many American systems are damaged, one that is often overlooked is the foster care system. Foster care, according to the National Adoption Center, is “a temporary arrangement in which adults provide for the care of a child or children whose birth parent is unable to care for them. Foster care is not where juvenile delinquents go. It is where children go when their parents cannot, for a variety of reasons, care for them.” Foster care is either informal or arranged through a social service agency or court. The goals of the foster care system are reunification with the birth family or adoption by the foster family, but this does not always happen.
Children in foster care experience many hardships. Some will be separated from their siblings, others will bounce between multiple foster homes, and many will be subject to abuse from foster parents and siblings or people in their new areas. The goals of foster care are often not reached, as kids will not be reunited with their family or placed into adoptive homes but rather are tossed from foster home to foster home. According to Children’s Rights, on any given day, approximately 428,000 children are in foster care in America. On average, children remain in state care for about two years, and six percent remain there for five years or more. In 2015, over 670,000 kids spent time in foster care, more than 62,000 children, whose parents’ rights had been terminated, were waiting to be adopted (the average waiting time is two years), and over 20,000 young adults aged out of the foster care system without a permanent family. Those who leave the system without finding a lasting home are more likely to experience unemployment, homeless, and be incarcerated as an adult.
On Foster Focus, foster care alumni reached out to social workers with descriptions of what social work was like for them in hopes to impact the system. Here are some accounts:
“Reaching out for help by telling someone about the abuse at home, getting taken away and having your family blame you for breaking your family apart. Foster care feels like YOU are being punished for the abuse and neglect your parents caused you. That’s foster care.” — Sara I. Gamez
“People ask me all the time, ‘what’s foster care like?’ Remember when you were a kid at the mall with your parents? You get distracted by a toy and lose sight of them. Remember that feeling of panic? How the faces around you were strange and scary? That’s foster care.” — Chris Chmielewski
“Foster care feels like being thrown out with the trash. Dumped. Unwanted. Unloved. Ugly. Dirty. Unworthy of the air in your lungs. As though you’re taking up space meant for a person better than you. That’s foster care.” — Rhonda Sciortino
“Being in foster care is like having an asthma attack. You’re gasping for air! Even though you need help, you just can’t be sure who you can trust. You have to decide whether to accept support from others and breathe calmly so that you may live, or to let go slowly and ‘die a lonely death’ because your fear of trusting another person is bigger than life itself. That’s foster care.” — Pamela Campbell
“It’s kind of like going to a thrift store, all the unwanted clothes and shoe placed in a trash bag. Then left to be sorted and put on the shelves for display. Like someone trying you on for size then getting rid of you when you no longer ‘fit’ their needs. That’s foster care.” —Nikki Thompson
“While attending a foster care fundraiser a man said to me, ‘I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without my parents.’ I responded, ‘I don’t know what life would be like with parents!’ That’s foster care.” —Dr. Vivian Dorsett
Foster care can be a big struggle for many. So how can we fix the broken system? Social Work Today gave five strategies for change (see link for more details).
- Strengthen Families of Origin
- Support Case Workers
- Educate the Public
- Help Children Deal with Unresolved Grief and Loss
- Guide Children in Building Connections
We need to be aware of the foster care system and work to make this place somewhere all children feel accepted, loved, and safe.