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Unfair! What About Older Foster Youth and Their Families?

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Data doesn't have to lie to ignore the truth. In the case of the annual adoption and foster care report issued by the federal government, ignoring the full truth is unfair to foster youth.

Although all foster youth are waiting for a more permanent home, the phrase "waiting children" generally refers to those who are waiting for adoption. In its annual AFCARS reports on foster care and adoption, the federal government refers to waiting children as those with a goal of adoption or whose parents' rights have been terminated. But wait -- youth 16 or older with a goal of "emancipation" are excluded. That's a huge group who are written out. Nearly 21,000 foster youth have that goal and an even larger number end up there. I guess a family is no longer in the cards for those 16-year-olds.

That's a sad state of affairs. Emancipation -- at age 18, or in some states, age 21 -- is an ominous outcome. Instead of a permanent, legal connection to a family, emancipation is too often a pathway into homelessness, joblessness, and various other "nesses" that should be totally unacceptable to us. That's why it's important to know more about this group of youth -- who often refer to themselves as being "warehoused" until they get too old to stay in foster care.

A report from the federal government showed that children of color may be subjected to this lousy outcome more often than other foster youth. But that report is dated 2003, and there's nothing in the AFCARS reports since then to help us know what's going on.

And there's more. The AFCARS definition of waiting children also excludes those waiting for the most common foster care outcome: return to the parent or primary guardian. This is a big group -- Data doesn't have to lie to ignore the truth. In the case of the annual adoption and foster care report issued by the federal government, ignoring the full truth is unfair to foster youth.more than twice the size of the adoption group. But while adoption is mentioned nine times in the AFCARS report, reunification only gets two mentions. Two of the five pages of the AFCARS report are devoted exclusively to adoption information. Not a single page is devoted exclusively to reunification.

Why is this a problem? Because it makes it difficult to determine whether different groups of foster children and their families are being treated fairly. For example, for children waiting for adoption, the report tells us their average age, age at entry into care, types of placements they are in, race and ethnicity, gender, median time in care, and how long they have waited. For the larger group of children waiting to go home, the report is silent in all categories.

I have nothing against adoption (full disclosure: I'm an adoptive dad and proud of it). But for foster youth, all avenues to loving, permanent homes are vital. And all the data on these outcomes is important because we need to know which avenues are working well and whether they are working equitably for all foster youth.

So, here's my recommendation to the feds: pay as much attention in your annual reports to all forms of permanency as you do to adoption. And don't ignore those for whom the promise of a permanent home is no longer even a promise.