On June 12, my oldest daughter will graduate from Dartmouth College with a Degree in Philosophy. She is fluent in both Taiwanese, and Chinese. She has a remarkable job waiting for her after graduation in the office of a Nobel Laureate. My second child is about to embark on her senior year of study at Vassar. She is also tri-lingual, and, in addition to earning her AB, will be receiving her teaching certification.
They have worked hard to achieve their goals. But, their success in not only important for them as individuals but represents the potential of many other children who have become an invisible segment of America's youth.
May is officially National Foster Care month. Most people don't know this. I would guess a majority of the approximately 500,000 children presently living in foster care don't now it either. You can put a label on a problem but that doesn't automatically make it better for those whose problem it is.
Children are placed in foster care for physical abuse, extreme emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or simply because there is no family member available to care for the child.
Nearly 60,000 children are reported to be abused or neglected each week in America, with an estimated 900,000 confirmations of violence every year. When these children are dumped into foster care, they too often lose not only their childhood, but their dreams, and their futures.
I know two things about the Foster Care system:
1) It is a complete and utter train wreck
2) It can be fixed
Without being aware of it, all of our lives are deeply affected by others. Often by others we have never met. Taxpayers are spending $25.7 billion a year on foster care programs. According the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics we are spending $100 billion annually for child abuse and neglect in the United States. We should consider doing something with the money that works.
When I decided to get my foster care license eight years ago it was not the most practical decision. I was a divorced, single, working mom who already had three children aged 9, 7, and 2. It was chance that made me aware of two teen-age girls stuck in a system that simply wasn't fair, and certainly no fault of their own.
I decided that I wasn't going to leave them there. There are times in each person's life when we make impractical, silly, or even bad choices -- with great results. We do things that go against all of our better judgment, just, because. I have learned, that being practical is not always the best decision. And honestly, three kids, five kids - at that point I figured you just throw a couple more potatoes in the pot.
At the time I first met my two "foster" daughters, they were thirteen and fourteen. Prior to being placed with our family they had been farmed through six different home placements, and as many schools. All of the prior placements had been abusive in some way.
At 13 and 14 years old, they were both just trying to figure out the safest way to move through their youth and survive. Things like grades were not a priority. Things like food were.
Unfortunately, many of the families who decide to become foster parents do it for the money. When a family takes in a foster child they are paid a fee each month for that child's fundamental living expenses. It's a business. It is not nearly enough money to create any real educational or extracurricular options for a child, but for some people it's enough to see that the children don't starve and simultaneously stick a little extra cash into their pocket.
Because many foster families are taking kids for the wrong reason, any time a child misbehaves, the foster parents can just send them back and request another child. The kids are disposable and tradable. That is simply the way the system works. The children themselves are so terrified of the "people movers" showing up and shifting them to yet another home, another school, another place without any consistency or friends, that they are terrified of speaking up, even when circumstances are grave.
Clearly, there are families who decide to foster children simply to expand their family, to help a child in need. But, the fact is that there are way too many families doing it for the wrong reasons and a system that presently can't properly monitor or stop this because their resources are so horrifyingly limited. After eight years of being a foster mother, I have yet to come into contact with a foster child who was with a family I'd permit my own children to have a sleepover with.
There are some truly exceptional people working within the system whose hearts break every day when dealing with the limited resources they have to keep these kids safe. Those people are heroes. And to them I will always be deeply indebted. There are also people within the system who are tasked with looking after these children that are some of the most despicable, incompetent, and unprofessional people I have ever encountered.
My youngest foster daughter started our relationship by letting me know she truly appreciated the fact that she and her sister could stay together and live in a safe home, but, wanted to be very clear that she considered herself a "tenant", and would appreciate it if I didn't try to develop any form of emotional relationship with her. This child, the one about to begin her senior year at Vassar, is basically the marshmallow of the little family brood, and now threatens regularly to move home after college, and never leave. An idea, I might add, that I find very appealing as I miss her and her sister so deeply when they are away.
Being a parent is not always easy. Dealing with social workers was often a challenge that required the tenacity of a saint, merged with the self defense mechanisms of a military sharp shooter. But, I laugh more and have more fun then all of my friends, and that is due to the grace and wicked humor of my amazing children. That doesn't mean I don't wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, wondering how I will ever be able to handle all the responsibility that is sleeping downstairs. In some moments, it all seems so appallingly simple, and at other times just utterly complex.
There is the big picture and then there is the close-up. Unlimited potential is all around me, mingled with the doubts of not knowing if I will ever be able to make everything work for each of their unique, and equally important, individual dreams.
One afternoon the girls invited a friend over to our home. She was one of the foster children they had met years before at another placement. Their lives had all moved in drastically different directions and when she left my daughter had tears in her eyes. Her friends parting words to her were, "I'm so happy for you that you got a happily ever after. I know I never will." We all knew she was right.
Foster children are an easy problem to ignore because they don't have a voice that is strong, loud, or experienced enough, to fight for themselves. That is wrong. We should be ashamed that we allow these children to be invisible simply because we can. It is every parent's responsibility to remember when we look at the joy and privilege in our own children future, there are many, many children everywhere around us who have no one looking out for them. It is all of our responsibility to guarantee that every child has hope attached to their dreams.