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.
I was very, very fortunate. I went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees and found a career where I can work every day to help foster children and youth. I work in a program that helps young people who age out of state custody without ever being reunited with their families or finding a new one through adoption. Last week, I was one of 12 foster care advocates honored by the White House as Foster Care Champions of Change. We all can help the 400,000 children in foster care and the 23,000 who will turn 18 and "age out" of foster care alone this year.
But to do that, we need more people to understand foster children and the unique challenges they face. Here are six things foster children and youth want you to know.
1. Many of us could avoid foster care if the right help were provided to our parents. Intensive services that strengthen and restore struggling families can keep children out of foster care entirely. That's best for most kids -- and society. Just the act of entering the foster care system, being taken away from your family, is traumatic and can cause serious emotional damage. The state just isn't equipped to be a parent.
2. Thankfully, most children don't actually "grow up" in foster care anymore. There was a time when a baby could enter foster care only to exit at 18. Now, under federal regulations, states are required to help children and youth find a permanent family situation more quickly than before. In 2013, the average length of stay in foster care was 13.5 months. That's still too long in the life of a child. Children enter foster care at all ages. The greatest need is for people to become foster and adoptive parents to teenagers. Most of the young people who age out of foster care at 18 enter foster care as teenagers or have had multiple foster care stints.
3. The system is a scary place for children. Even if your family is chaotic, neglectful or abusive, being taken away from everything you've known is terrifying. Imagine having to go live with strangers, often a series of strangers, and there's nothing you can do. Foster children have no control over their lives, and that lack of control causes continual insecurity. They don't know how long they'll be in a particular foster home or where they'll be going to school next month or next year. Foster teens aren't allowed to do many things other teens do, like getting a drivers license or going to sleepovers. Just the act of entering foster care can cause serious emotional trauma. In fact, one study found that foster children are more likely to suffer PTSD than combat veterans.
4. Most foster parents are good people, but there aren't enough of them. Most foster parents aren't like the ones you see on TV news in unfortunate ways. They try hard and do the best they can to help the children who come to them. There just aren't enough good foster homes. When foster care is at its best, each child is matched with a family who best meets his or her specific needs and interests. Stays are really temporary -- a month or so, as intensive services are provided to parents or kinship care is found. In today's systems, most often kids go to the foster home that has an empty bed. Some children end up in group homes, shelters or other congregate care facilities. That's worse.
5. Foster kids are good kids in a bad situation. Foster kids are just kids -- like your kids. But they've experienced more difficult situations and hard times than most adults ever will. Some develop emotional and behavioral problems and challenging behaviors. Most have tough outer shells to protect themselves from more hurt and rejection. They desperately need committed adults to make a difference in their lives. They want someone to cheer for them at their football games, go to ballet recitals, help with homework.
6. Adopting from foster care is not as hard as you would think. Heard about how expensive adoptions are? Well, not from foster care. When you foster-to-adopt, you'll receive a reimbursement to cover the cost of providing for another child in your home, and you may qualify for a continuing support after adoption. The child's health care and college expenses may be covered as well. And you may be surprised to hear that most teens want to be adopted; I was 17 when I was adopted and my family is still so important to me today.
In every state system, there are thousands of children and youth who haven't received the help they need to be reunited with their family or find a new one through adoption. We can do better than this and we should.
Mary Lee is national coordinator for YVLifeSet, a program of Youth Villages that provides help to youth who age out of state custody at 18 without continuing support. The program was recently the focus of an MDRC/University of Chicago study that found it increases earnings and economic wellbeing, improves mental health and decreases homelessness and partner violence for the young people who participate in it. For more information, visit www.YVLifeSet.org.