Inside the Foster Care System

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May is National Foster Care Month, a month set aside to recognize foster parents, family members, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, and child welfare professionals who help children and youth in foster care find permanent homes and long-term wellbeing. 

In hopes of bringing awareness to a subject that doesn’t get the public attention it deserves, Brighton Jones hosted a panel discussion on the foster care system featuring practitioners, policy advocates, and a woman who was once a child experiencing the realities of the system firsthand.

This article explores the key insights we took away from the conversation. Of course, the views expressed herein are those of the participants alone, although we were honored to serve as a convener and look forward to starting more dialogues on difficult issues facing both our community and the larger world.

Misconceptions of the Modern Foster Care System

“If we want to create and join in the solutions, then we need to understand the problem,” observed Greg Eubanks, CEO of the WACP.

But to understand the problem, conversations need to happen. And that alone has been a challenge.

“Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about child abuse. Nobody wants to talk about child neglect,” Eubanks said. “Nobody wants to think about children being raised by the government.”

Before the discussion, audience members took part in a survey to gauge their existing knowledge of the foster care system. Their responses, as the panelists feared, were in line with the results seen in recent surveys of the American public.

The hard truth: very few of us truly grasp the full scope or composition of the foster care system.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the common myths:

  • The vast majority of respondents were off in their guess when asked to estimate the number of adoptable children in the United States. Of the roughly 430,000 kids currently in the foster care system, more than 110,000 are awaiting adoption.
  • True to the view held by many Americans, the audience envisioned the average child in foster care as a young teenager. In reality, the typical age is 8 or 9 years old.
  • What is the number one reason why kids enter the foster care system? Contrary to common belief, it’s not because of parental drug use (although that’s another major factor); the primary reason is neglect.

Children who end up in foster care aren’t there because they broke the law or misbehaved. The system exists to protect kids, not punish them.

Recognizing the Deeper Challenge of Foster Care

Protection isn’t the only focus of foster care, but it’s often the most emphasized.

“It can’t just be about keeping them alive until they turn 18. Because if safety is all we’re focusing on, then what’s the point?” asked Annie Blackledge of Mockingbird Society. “There needs to be more attention paid to the wellbeing of the children.”

Unfortunately, the odds are often stacked against those in the system. Many do not graduate from high school and have children of their own at a young age. With diminished economic and career prospects, former foster care children often face higher rates of homelessness.

Part of the reason for these outcomes, according to the panelists, goes back to the focus on safety over wellbeing.

The hard truth: very few of us truly grasp the full scope or composition of the foster care system.

“The foster care system does a pretty good job of keeping kids safe,” argued Tim Bell of FosterClub. “But it’s not without its downsides. In order to minimize the risk to the parent, they are kept under wraps.” Foster kids may not be allowed to have a job, drive a car, go on field trips, prepare their own food, or any number of other activities that are essential to growing up and becoming a fully functional adult as they age out of the foster system.

Alarmingly, studies show that kids in foster care are showing signs of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at twice the rate of our veterans.

The ultimate challenge is finding the right balance of protecting foster children while also seeing to their growth needs and wellbeing, including preparing them for a future life outside of the system.

Innovative Solutions to the Negative Impact of Foster Care

Research tells us that relationship trauma has at least as much (or more) of an impact on the body as it does an individual’s psychology. It changes the chemistry of the brain and how it works. “This abuse and neglect doesn’t just impact psychology, it impacts our biology,” Eubanks explained.

This knowledge has spread to the foster care system, where a new effort is being made to connect with children on a fundamental level. Foster parents can’t just tell kids they will be safe; they need to show it and help them feel safe.

“It’s not enough to keep kids doing just okay,” said Michelle McBreen of Treehouse. “We need to do better than that.” Her organization, which invests in youth education, has seen the graduation rate among the children they’ve worked with increase 7 percent in the space of five years.

Kids can stay in foster care until they’re 21, but many of them aren’t ready by that time to become independent. With that in mind, Treehouse has pledged to support the students they help until age 26, determined to boost the chances that they succeed on their own.

Community Effort

The recurring theme throughout the panel discussion was that foster care will always be a community effort. The system was created by elected officials and operates through our government. But that doesn’t mean that individuals and organization outside of the foster care system are unable to implement positive change.

The kids entering foster care will one day emerge. They eventually become adults. They’re part of society, too, and their education and wellbeing will continue to impact those around them.

The problems revealed during the panel discussion aren’t just relegated to foster parents or agencies—they’re everyone’s problems.

When we’re all part of finding a solution, great things can happen.


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