Every year during National Foster month, the president issues an annual proclamation praising the contributions of the child welfare professionals, and foster parents looking after the 400,000 children who are in the US foster care system.
No doubt some of these adults are pretty awesome, but for me, the real heroes are the brave young people who pack up their whole world in a trash bag to go and live with people who are in most cases, complete strangers.
They are placed in foster families, institutions or group homes. More than a quarter of all foster care placements are in kinship placements, where a child is placed with relatives.
I had the privilege of working with children in foster care for over three years. I was involved with a committee consisting of children in foster care and former foster youth transitioning out the system. These incredibly insightful and astute young people, were advocates for foster care rights and reform.
I heard how their voices were often given the least value or weight when important decisions about their life were being made, and how frequently their input was entirely bypassed. They spoke of feeling like extraneous cogs in a big wheel that went on around them. Some hid the fact they were in foster care for as long as they could from their peers, because people treated them differently once they knew they were "foster kids."
Despite all the academic and professional training I had, I learned the most about children in foster care through those young people
Here are eight things I learned that young people in foster care really want you to know.
1. "We come from diverse family backgrounds."
Over half the children in care are minorities. Although a disproportionate amount come from impoverished families, many have middle class backgrounds.
Some of these young people who come from well-respected communities and suffer abuse from their parents, are made to feel like their struggles are not as "important" as those children who come from less well-off families.
Every 47 seconds, a child in the US suffers from neglect or abuse, and it cuts across every social and racial barrier. No community is immune or free from this social ill.
2. “Our parents aren't perfect, but they're ours.”
Sure, there are some unashamedly monstrous parents who abuse and intentionally inflict harm upon their children in unimaginable ways. However, many more are simply broken adults.
They are poorly equipped to take care of themselves, let alone their children. They are individuals battling demons of mental ill health, drug and alcohol addiction. Very often, they were struggling to break free from the cycle of abusive relationships or the lingering effects of their own traumatic childhoods.
The thing you need to remember is that to you they may just look like a screwed up, terrible excuse for a parent; but to those kids, that person means the world. Despite the anger that a lot of them felt, they didn't stop loving their parents.
3. "The adults messed up, we didn't.”
I've lost count of the times teachers and parents of other kids formed fears or prejudices of a child, predicated on a perennial assumption that they had done something pretty terrible to wind up in care.
Around 75 percent of children come into care due to parental neglect These young people often carry around a whole lot of guilt at the failure to hide the signs of their neglect from the authorities or not being able to make their primary caregiver "better." The last thing they need is for other people to add to this, by assuming they're in care as a result of their own actions.
4. “We have dreams and ambitions”.
The negative impact frequent school moves has on their education is rarely factored in to decisions about placement changes. It comes as no surprise that only half of all foster care children fail to graduate from high school, and only 3 percent will graduate from college.
Most states do not provide job training, counseling or any type of continuing support for foster care kids when they turn 18. A lot of child welfare professionals and foster carers are satisfied if they simply show up to classes and make their curfew.
They are failed by a lukewarm system with low expectations that doesn't even believe in itself. Some of the most bright and talented young people will not fulfill their potential, because no one cared enough to push them to do better.
What's crazy is that we take these children from parents who we deem incompetent. Then when young people age out the system, we expect them to either fall back on those same parents for support and guidance.
It's time we stop labeling and limiting our youth, and started uplifting and supporting them instead. Most loving parent's don't withdraw all support from their children the minute they reach 18, so why do we do that to the ones in care?
5. "The system isn't working for us."
The whole legitimacy of the system is rooted in the belief that the alternative, letting them carry on in unhealthy families, would be cruel.
We have this idea that by removing children from their inept parents, we are rescuing them. In some cases, that's totally correct. 450 children are killed by their parents each year, and the number of these tragedies would most likely be higher if it weren't for the foster care system. So we can all sleep easy knowing that we are always doing the right thing by removing these children, right?
Well yeah, except one huge problem: Children who have been in foster report significantly worse mental health, employment, housing and education outcomes than those who suffered a similar level of neglect or abuse that remained within the family home.
The broken foster care system is traumatizing to our children, who are 12 times more likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs than children not in care. While the scrutiny is directed at the natural parents, a research by the Casey Family found one in three children in their study had been abused while in foster care, and the system has long been criticized as a pipeline to human trafficking and incarceration.
6. "Sometimes we just have regular kid problems."
As huge of a deal as being in foster care is, it doesn't eclipse who they are. Being in foster care doesn't mean they get a pass on the everyday issues that bother other children. They will still have exam anxiety, fights with friends, broken hearts and first crushes, insecurities and weaknesses, good days and bad days,and of course, puberty.
And yeah, will be moments when being foster care will affect the their relationships and everyday handling of normal life but you know what? Sometimes, it's not all about being a foster kid.
7. "Adoption does not equal goals.”
Foster care is often viewed as the wilderness that some unlucky children are destined to trail through until they reach the promised land of Adoption. Only one-fifth will go on to be adopted, while over half will return to their homes. That's sad, right?
This may be come as surprise to you, but not every young person wants to be adopted. Many live with the hope of being reunified with their family, and if that is not possible, they desire a long term stay with their foster family.
I once attended a party held by an effervescent trio of siblings and their foster mother to celebrate when the state agreed they could remain with her indefinitely.
They were old enough to remember their real parents, and the thought of having to start again with another family, changing their last names, calling another adult mom or dad, was less than appealing. Stability with one loving and secure foster care family was often valued by young people, as much, if not more than adoption.
Too many children are languishing in foster care, but they don't need to be. They can thrive in foster care. For all the glaring faults of the system, I have witnessed remarkable transformations in children who were placed with caring and compassionate competent foster families. Where family reunification is simply not possible, foster care can work.
We need to stop seeing foster care as the red headed stepchild of the child welfare system, and realize the importance role that long term foster placement can play in enriching, rebuilding and bettering the lives of children in crisis.
8. "We're not 'just' foster kids."
Perhaps this is the most important thing they need you to know. Foster kids aren't actually “foster kids.” They are young people who happen to have experienced foster care. What they are not, is a monolith with uniform feelings or responses on every issue. The experience of being in foster care will undoubtedly leave an indelible imprint on their lives, but the way in which every young person's journey and future will be shaped by it will vary.
Their case notes only provide a snapshot of their lives and background. It will never tell the whole story. The largeness of who they are, cannot be contained within those files.
At the beginning, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges that faced them, and underwhelmed by the tepidity of the system.
However, I was inspired by their resilience, fortitude and tenacity amidst constant changes and upheavals and their immense capacity to adapt to new situations. They are all uniquely sentient, nuanced and complex young people with their special set of quirks and habits, weaknesses and strengths, gifts and talents and fears and aspirations.
Each and every single young person in foster care is a courageous individual with something to say.
Listen to them.