Mitchell Chapman: Five impossible dreams for foster care

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PITTSFIELD — I've written about foster care twice before in this paper, the first column of which covered the general public's role in improving foster care and the second one addressed the necessity of dreamers for inspiring progress, in hopes that they would inspire a community dialogue and bring attention to the woes of the foster care system and get people in the mindset that we can change it for the better. ("Foster care improvement starts with public," May 15.) ("Improved foster care requires dreamers," August 28.") It's time that we discuss what better looks like.

Foster kids face a disproportionately higher risk of suffering from abuse and neglect than the rest of the U.S. population, and are more likely to commit suicide, be homeless and go to prison, and former foster kids account for nearly a third of the national homeless and prison populations. Many of those outcomes can be traced to the lifelong trauma and behavioral issues those kids acquired either while in foster care or before they were in the system.

But it doesn't have to be like this, especially if we, as a society, are willing to pursue creative solutions to reform foster care. In my last column, I called for dreamers to think up impossible dreams for foster care. Here are five of mine.

1. Universal extended foster care

The most at risk foster youths are those that age out of the system at 18 and have nowhere to go. Massachusetts offers extended foster care for people ages 18-22, but not all states do, and it usually requires that these kids sign themselves into the system, which they must qualify for. In Massachusetts, you have to work 80 hours a month, have a debilitating medical condition, participate in a work or citizenship program, enroll in a secondary education program or a program leading to a GED; attend college or go to a trade school).

My vision for Universal Extended Foster Care would require that foster kids would automatically remain in the system from ages 18 to 21 in all 50 states, and they would be treated in the same way we treat 16 and 17 year old foster kids, with all the benefits and support they receive. I would eliminate the requirements for extended foster care that can be used as a means to kick kids out of the system if they stumble in life. It would be a system in which you'd have to sign yourself out of it and prove that you can support yourself in order to do so.

CAN'T OVERLOAD, UNDERFUND

2. National ratios that are sensible

One common complaint nationwide is that of overloaded state foster care systems that stretch social workers and foster parents thin in the service of keeping budgets tight. This leads to the worst outcomes of the foster care system. So let's make a system we can't overload and underfund.

This can be achieved through sensible foster parent-foster kid and social worker-foster kid ratios, which most states have policies for, but some are inadequate and are all too easily overridden.

We need a mandate at the federal level establishing a standard for these ratios that states must follow by adequately funding their foster care systems, effectively ending our current patchwork of standards. Bottom line: States need to be paying their fair share to make sure foster kids have safe homes that will raise them into successful adults.

3. Full-time foster parents

Foster parents take care of at risk youths that require their full attention, but they often have to work full- and part-time jobs because their stipend isn't enough to make ends meet.

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We need a national threshold, backed by a federal mandate requiring state governments to pay foster parents enough to make caring for their foster kids their full-time job after they meet certain criteria, such as the number of kids they take in, and the severity of the trauma those kids face.

Full-time foster parents have had some success throughout the country, and while one should never foster solely for money, we need to be paying our foster parents enough to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and the kids they take care of.

4. Free mental health care

The trauma foster kids face can be lifelong, often a result of being separated from their parents, their experiences as foster kids, or from their time beforehand. When they age out of the system, it can be incredibly difficult for them to find the quality mental health care they need to function as successful adults.

I would see the government offer free mental health care for former foster kids, at least until age 25. This can go a long way toward improving their outcomes.

KIDS OVER PROFITS

5. Stamp out group homes and for-profit companies

I've talked about MENTOR previously, which is the nation's largest foster care company, whose foster kids faced a 42 percent higher mortality rate than the rest of the country, and whose deaths were not properly investigated by MENTOR. While it is possible to do good work under a for-profit model, they create evils too great to justify their existence. We should not allow foster care companies to choose profits over children, and we can achieve this by banning the use of for-profit foster care companies like MENTOR.

Group homes fall into this same mentality, as they are the most expensive and least caring options for foster kids. Group homes are institutional or residential placement arrangements often more similar to incarceration than the treatment facilities they are supposed to be. These are the places kids who have nowhere else to go are put. Group homes have no foster parents, just medical professionals and workers. As such, it's no place to grow up, and while some group homes are helpful for short-term emergency situations, they should be cut out altogether in favor of investing directly in foster parents who have the same level of training and qualifications as the people who work in those homes.

And if we are serious about making the best foster care system in the history of the world, we ought to be looking to make being a foster parent (at least in some circumstances) a legitimate profession complete with the university programs, adequate pay, and comprehensive support networks that would give them all they need to succeed no matter the circumstance.

We already pay billions of dollars for former foster kids to sleep on our streets and go to prison, which is money taxpayers have no hopes of getting back. We need to fund foster care in sensible ways that set up kids for success, and give them a fighting chance as adults even if they age out of the system.

Sure, these might be impossible dreams, but foster care reform will only meander unless we dare to dream big.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer. He is a foster care alumnus.


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