Imagine being a child, and through no fault of your own, having no choice but to go live with a family of strangers. The only home you’ve ever known—parents, siblings, friends, pets, bedroom, stuff, school—gone in the blink of an eye and no promise of reunification. No timeline or return date. No telling where you’ll be tomorrow or when you or life as you knew it will ever feel “normal” again.
There are many reasons why children are placed into foster care, and in many cases, it is the very last resort that nobody had hoped for, one that is decided based on a lack of or no other alternatives. But to a child, there is no reason good enough that could possibly make sense for having had your world turned upside down, be it for a week, a month, a year, or year after year.
The number of children caught up in the United States foster care system is staggering and continues to soar depending on whose website and statistics you research, with the lowest agreed upon figure seeming to hover at more than 400,000 (with one site suggesting more than 600,000 in 2015). The truth is, even one child in foster care is one child too many, but trying to digest the reality that hundreds of thousands of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens are living life without safe, loving, and permanent families is (or should be) incomprehensible to all of us.
Why Are There So Many Children in Foster Care?
The reasons children find themselves in foster care are many: from losing a parent or parents to premature death to physical, emotional, and/or mental abuse and neglect to outright abandonment, and more recently due to the growing opioid crisis that every corner of our society is facing—spanning all cultural, social, and economic groups.
According to a recent article on the WebMD website, the number of kids placed in foster care in the United States due to parental drug use has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising to nearly 96,700 in 2017 from about 39,100 in 2000.
“The continued trend of parental substance abuse is very concerning, especially when it means children must enter foster care as a result. The seriousness of parental substance abuse, including the abuse of opioids, is an issue we at the United States Department of Health and Human Services will be addressing through prevention, treatment, and recovery-support measures,” said Steven Wagner, former acting assistant secretary for children and families at the Administration for Children and Families.
What Is Foster Care?
The federal definition states that foster care means 24-hour substitute care for children placed away from their parents or guardians and for whom the state agency has placement and care responsibility per Speakupnow.org. Foster care is supposed to be a temporary solution with the goal or end result being reunification with the child’s biological family—unless that option is off the table and then the federal government and states are both working hard to find placement via kinship care or adoption for children for whom going “home” is no longer an option due to parental death, incarceration, unsafe, or unhealthy circumstances.
Who Are the Children in Foster Care?
According to AdoptUSKids, foster children can range in age from 0 to 18 or 21 (depending on individual state laws). On average, these kids may remain in state care for a year and a half (a much shorter time span than years ago where many kids found themselves trapped in the system for years. Oftentimes, sibling groups have to be separated, and children are moved from placement to placement with little to no sense of permanency and with little to no control over their current or future situation.
Foster children often get a bad rap as being bad and broken. The truth is these kids are like any other kids but had the misfortune of experiencing a bad situation. They are tough because they feel they have to be. They are survivors because they have experienced and overcome things that many adults never will. They are loving and kind, but may not have had an outlet to express these qualities. They have feelings and most likely love their biological families, no matter the circumstances, and long to go home as soon as possible. Just like any other kid, they may have a decent life overall—teachers they love, friends they laugh with, relatives who love them, favorite toys, good memories as well as bad ones—but for whatever reason, their parent(s) were unable to or unwilling to do their part. As a result of this, it’s understandable that foster children are likely to develop emotional issues and act out, like most children do. At the end of the day, they long for the same love, care, and understanding all children do, and they are fully capable of loving, caring, and understanding right back with the right encouragement and support.
What Is Life Like for Children in Foster Care?
Most people’s vision of foster care stems from fictional stories like that of Little Orphan Annie who spent time in a very dysfunctional and ragtag group (orphanage) setting being taken advantage of by her less than kind caretaker until she was saved by a kind millionaire (because that’s reality) or the recent movie Instant Family that portrays a couple who find themselves fostering to adopting a sibling group of three children, including a very outspoken teenager. And while these and other stories provide a balance of lightheartedness and comedy mixed with small doses of reality, the truth is that there is nothing entertaining about life as a foster kid.
Most children who enter the system do so with anxiety and fear just having been removed from a bad situation and being moved into an uncertain one. And while there are many great foster parents and homes, you can imagine that with an overcrowded system (which is becoming more so every year), not every placement is a good match. As a result, these already traumatized children find themselves entering through just another door (and possibly many doors afterwards) that are by no means a great improvement from where they were.
Mary Lee, a former foster kid herself, who in 2015 was honored by the White House as Foster Care Champions of Change, described her foster care experience like this: “When I was about 12 years old, I was removed from my family and placed into the Tennessee Child Welfare System as a foster child. I had to pack all my belongings into trash bags and leave the home I knew behind. Roughly five years later, one week before my 18th birthday, I was adopted by my forever family.”
Having gone on to earn her undergraduate and then law degrees, Mary Lee found a career and a program that allows her to work to help young people who age out of state custody without ever having been reunited with their families or finding a new one through adoption.
Who Are the Foster Families?
Foster parents tend to get a lot of bad press as just “being in it for the money, being abusive and cruel, or being ill-prepared to take on a child only to then pass the child along when he becomes (or the situation becomes) too much to handle. They are often portrayed as mean and uncaring in movies and shows; however, in reality, most foster parents are good people and are just trying to do their best, having entered into a very chaotic situation for all of the right reasons and with the best of intentions. And in truth, no parent is perfect. No family situation is perfect. It’s far easier to point fingers than it is to make changes to help to support those families who are willing to open their hearts and homes to children in need.
AdoptUSKids shares that “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent” and describes the best candidates for being good foster or adoptive parents as:
- Being stable, mature, dependable, and flexible
- Having the ability to advocate for children
- Being a team player with your family or child welfare worker
Nobody gets rich off of fostering a child, and the money that families may bring in is meant for the child’s care which could include medical equipment and devices as well as support and other basic needs. Foster parents can expect to receive a foster care stipend, insurance, and tax benefits.
The Adoption.org article, “Do Foster Parents Get Paid” sums it up this way, “Fostering is not a job, per se. Therefore, foster parents do not receive an income or ‘paychecks.’ However, foster parents do receive a stipend for room, board, and daily essentials. ‘Professional’ foster parents do consider fostering a job and one parent must be at home full time due to the intense behavioral needs of the children in their care.”
Adoption.com’s Becoming a Foster Parent Guide offers insight into the foster care system as well as the steps you need to take to become a foster parent.
Where Are the Biological Families?
As stated before, the ultimate end goal behind foster care is to reunite children with their birth families. That said, foster parents need to understand when they are matched with or accept a foster child into their home, that in some cases, the birth family may be involved, and in some cases, they may not. Each case is unique, and it really depends on the situation.
You can expect to work closely with your caseworker and to attend a court hearing shortly after placement (usually the next day if possible), at which point, the amount of involvement and a visitation plan may be determined.
Children in foster care may also have siblings in care in other foster homes or environments with whom they may wish to visit.
The blog Working With Biological Parents And Families posted on the Foster Talk website shares some helpful insight into the challenges foster parents face when interacting with biological families (real and perceived). The post states, “I encourage foster families to remember that no parent wants to put their child in a situation where they need to be removed from their care for safety reasons. A biological parent may face this situation due to untreated mental health or addiction issues or their own trauma history. I try to remember that the difference between foster parents, staff and biological parents are the lack of skills, support system and untreated issues.”
Further, the authors encourage foster parents and adoptive parents for that matter to speak positively about foster and/or adopted kids’ biological parents no matter the situation.
So long as the goal remains reunification, it’s important and beneficial for all parties involved to remain understanding and cordial to one another. Foster parents may want to consider how biological parents may feel and work to ensure that insecurities and tensions can be resolved through respect and compassion on behalf of the foster child.
How Many Children in Foster Care Are Eligible for Adoption?
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption pegs the number of children in foster care who are eligible and waiting to be adopted at more than 125,000 with more than 20,000 teens aging out of foster care annually, “putting them at a higher risk of homelessness, early parenting, and other negative outcomes.”
How Can I Adopt a Child in Foster Care?
If you’re interested in adopting a child who is currently in foster care, Adoption.com’s Adopting From Foster Care Guide is a great place to start researching the ins and outs of the process with information and resources covering everything from adoption subsidies to special needs to understanding children who may have experienced abuse and neglect.
Adoption.com offers an easy to use state-by-state photolist here.
The bottom line is that we all should care about and must share in the responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of children currently in our foster care system with a mutual goal of providing help and assistance to biological families in crisis to proactively thinking outside the box to work harder to prevent and avoid family disruption. We must do what we can to assist foster families willing to step up on behalf of the innocents caught in the middle. Whether you are open to fostering a child, adopting a child from foster care, or simply supporting foster kids through volunteerism, donations, or spreading awareness (which in truth is much needed and not really simple at all), we are all in this together.
“These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.” – Dave Thomas, Founder of The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.