I had a friend in high school that experienced that negative effects of the foster care system firsthand. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, when he was actually around. Her mother was unemployed, addicted to drugs, and would disappear for extended periods of time. At age 11, my friend was the primary caretaker of herself and her three younger siblings. Her family could never make rent payments on time and there was never enough food in the house to feed the mouths of each child.
At age 14, her mother was deemed an “unfit parent” and received a notice that they would be evicted from their home.
Over the course of the week that followed, various social service agencies stepped in to “handle” the situation. They separated my friend, her sister and her two brothers across various foster homes in New York, the majority of which were group homes not conducive to raising toddlers and elementary-age kids. Two years after these inciting incidents occurred my friend recounted these heartbreaking stories to me. She described the separation anxiety and fear that she faced daily, because she could not regularly contact her siblings, and was worried about their safety.
This one case exemplifies aspects of the failing system. It is crazy to see how quickly social services respond to situations like these, without considering too carefully how it would affect those involved. The foster care system is broken, and not enough is being done to fix it. Children are crippled with mental illnesses from both the neglect to their physical welfare as well as the traumatizing experiences they have faced. Foster parents are poorly equipped with the skills to take on such a task, regardless of the training they undergo. The government is failing to provide sufficient funds to social service agencies to take care of these approximately 400,000 youth each year. Universities conducting research and organizations advocating for foster youth have publicly recognized these issues, yet the system is still an unsuitable mandate for children with unfit biological parents.
So what must be done?
In 1999, the federal government passed the Foster Care Independence Act – a bill that grants $140 million annually to youths being aged out of the system, for services like healthcare, education and employment preparation. While in theory this seems to solve the issue of homelessness and lack of healthcare for former foster children, age 18-21, it only provides a limited amount of money to each individual. About 10% of youths, or about 40,000 children, under fostered supervision are aged out each year. Divided up equally, this governmental stipend amounts to only about $3,500 per eligible person, per year. This money is supposed to be used for the aforementioned services, but it hardly pays for enough of anything. In a Los Angeles study, 30-40% of aged-out foster youths interviewed reported to researchers they spent their first night emancipated from the system on the streets. These numbers are unacceptable – if they had the financial stability to live on their own, the percentage of initial homelessness would not be so large.
The focus on older youths is critical to at least give them the opportunity for future success, despite their unstable upbringing. However, this puts younger foster children at a disadvantage. If there already isn’t “enough money to go around,” then mitigating the problems as they arise rather than later in life, once they’ve been compounded upon further struggles, should be the focus. The government should increase the dollar amount they provide to social service agencies so, at the bare minimum, basic physiological needs of every child are met. The additional money can also be used for more in-depth home studies and successful training programs.
More problems lie in the fact that most agencies are looking to rule prospective foster parents in, rather than rule them out. This means that – while interviews, background checks and home studies are being conducted – the foster agencies are desperate for anyone who shows an interest in becoming certified, thus doing so quickly without adequate knowledge of who they are really dealing with. Once certified, parents must participate in training programs to better prepare them to nurture the children with whom they will come into contact. The results of a study done at the University of Georgia concluded that there is no correlation that the training curriculum improves an adult’s ability to parent. It does, however, enhance their perceived self-efficacy, leading to the notion that parenting foster children is “not too difficult.” It is due to reasons like these that abusive, neglectful and overall incompetent foster parents slip through the cracks, further damaging both the children and the system as a whole.
Where is the government with its trillion dollars of discretionary spending? In 2015, the United States Government spent just over 598 billion dollars on our military – which is four times as much as the next largest militant country. Only 6 percent of the $1.11 trillion the government spent in 2015 was on healthcare. Logically speaking, we could cut our military spending in half and still have both the largest military, and a significant additional percentage of Americans covered by health insurance.
Are PTSD-stricken foster children not a good enough reason to either increase or reallocate government outlays? Are the high percentages of homeless individuals crippled by substance abuse not reason enough to grant more money to social services agencies? Do foster children not deserve as much of an opportunity to succeed because they were born into a family that could not take care of them?
When considering the welfare of United States citizens, foster children can no longer be overlooked. If we, as a country, will not fight on behalf of these disadvantaged children, then who will? Their biological parents certainly won’t. We must stop dismissing foster care as a lost cause, as something that can never be mended. There is no “quick fix” to the problems the system is faced with, but with the right support we can make strides to a safer, more nurturing environment for the children.