Mitchell Chapman: Foster care improvement starts with public
PITTSFIELD — I'm an alumnus of the foster care system. And it's time we make foster care a political issue the general public cares about, because that's the only way it will improve.
Foster care, like any social service, is a necessary system, and it provides kids who might have no known parental figures or who might be unsafe in their birth homes with needed food, shelter, guidance and support, while working in conjunction with other agencies to make sure that these kids have proper health insurance and basic amenities. In some cases, foster kids even qualify for special aid to go to college.
But being a foster kid comes with many stipulations, including but not limited to the possibility of facing substandard living conditions, as well as being statistically more likely to commit suicide, to live in poverty, be homeless, and go to prison, and it's not hard to imagine why. Kids in foster care often have no lifeline and don't have permanent parental figures while in the system. According to the Kinship House, kids in the foster care system move from home to home an average of four to six times, though they can move more than 15 times, in most cases for reasons outside of the foster kid's control.
When you're a child in the foster care system, there is no permanency. While foster kids today have increased access to social media, if your home and the people in it changes consistently, it's almost impossible to make friends and to form meaningful relationships. You can't set up a support network. You're sabotaged during some of your most critical developmental years, and the consequences of not having consistent direction or support during this time can affect you for the rest of your life.
MANY BECOME HOMELESS
ABC News reported in 2006 that 30 percent of the homeless in America and some 25 percent of those in prison were once in foster care. That is insane, especially considering that 800,000 kids were served by the foster care system that year, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Recent reports suggest that these statistics may have grown, as Foster Focus magazine claims that in 2016, 50 percent of the national homeless population was once in foster care, and Juvenile Law Center reported in 2018 that one quarter of all foster care alumni will "become involved with the criminal justice system" within two years of leaving foster care.
However, the outlook for foster care is not entirely bleak. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, 23 percent of all foster kids in the U.S. were adopted in 2016, which is a huge increase from the 13.1 percent that were adopted in 2012. In addition, 51 percent of all fosters kids in 2016 were reunited with their parents, 8 percent were emancipated, 10 percent went to live with a guardian, 7 percent went to live with another relative and 2 percent had "other outcomes."
Congress also passed groundbreaking legislation last year in the form of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which will drastically reduce the number of kids in foster care as it reduces the system's front door by providing at-risk homes with preventative resources. But foster kids continue to face disproportionate challenges that the rest of the U.S. population should take note of, because conditions will only get better for foster kids if the majority of Americans — and the politicians they elect — make their care a priority.
From experience, I know that the foster care system is such that you might not come into contact with it or really know what it does unless you work within the system as a profession, have been in the system either as a foster kid or parents, or know someone that has. Its issues are not ones that general population cares about or might even be aware of, and that is reflective in how weak the foster child lobby is in Congress. As The Intercept puts it: "The political problem for foster children is a structural one. It would be hard to think of a group with less lobbying power in Washington, D.C."
There's a reason why the Family First Prevention Services Act had to be sneaked into a larger bill that prevented the government to shut down to get passed, and this public neglect of the foster care system has real consequences, especially when for-profit entities like the MENTOR Network get involved.
MENTOR is the largest for-profit foster care company in the U.S. and has been accused of making its social workers carry higher caseloads than recommended and boasts substandard living facilities in states like Texas, but most notably has a child mortality rate 42 percent higher than the national average, according to a Senate Finance Committee probe that was prompted by a BuzzFeed investigation. The majority of those deaths were also not investigated internally by MENTOR, prompting the depressing Intercept headline "Children are dying at alarming rates in foster care; and nobody is bothering to investigate."
And all this is an issue because giant companies like MENTOR have a lot of lobbying power in Congress prompted by a steady stream of investors — people who are actively looking to make money off of foster kids rather than give them the best quality of care — while foster kids have none of that.
These issues stem from the fact that the public has always turned a blind eye to the foster care system, which I understand. Foster care is a messy thing to talk about, and it makes people uncomfortable.
But nothing will change unless the general public is willing to have those necessary but hard conversations, and to take the issues these kids face seriously. A law like the Family First Prevention Services Act only comes once in a blue moon, and more bills like it won't come unless the public demands it.
Foster care is a system that we all pay for and as such, are partially responsible for. The failings of the foster care system are not only the failings of our government, but also the failings of the taxpayers that have failed to demand that the government do better.
We can do better. We must do better.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer and copy editor and a freelance writer.
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