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The Cycle of Violence: How We Failed 23,439 Children Last Year

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Last year in the United States, 23,439 children in foster care turned 18 years old and were emancipated. In simple terms, they "aged out" of care.

Put in perspective, last year in this country there were more than 3.3 million reports of abuse to authorities, representing about 6 million children, or 8 percent of the child population. From those reports, after investigation and intervention, about 400,000 children were placed in foster care, and of those, nearly 60,000 were permanently terminated from their families of origin.

These are children who were neglected or abused -- physically and/or sexually -- and at a level so egregious that after numerous court proceedings, the rights of the parents to claim these children as their own were legally and permanently severed. Terminating, or legally ending the right of parent to child, is not something a judge decides lightly. In fact, every legal, social, and system opportunity is given to parents to keep their families intact, too often at risk of emotional or physical harm to the child.

Because we know that children thrive in families -- not institutions or transient, temporary care -- we made a promise to those children in particular. We promised that the day they were permanently separated from their families, we would find them new ones. A place to call home, to be loved, supported, and cherished, as every child should.

We failed 23,439 children last year, and legally emancipated them from care. This world is not an easy place for children to grow and thrive on their own. In fact, too often it is not even a safe place. Odd when you think about it, given that the one and only thing that we all share as a human experience -- no matter our background, culture or the borders that define us as individuals -- is childhood. Each of us deeply understand, joy, fear, sadness, loneliness, curiosity and loss from a child's perspective. We do, because we experienced life as children long before we forgot those feelings as adults.

And yet children in the United States who are released from foster care, not unlike prisoners being released after 18 years of lockup, have little more than perhaps some information on survival skills, and if they are lucky, an adult contact that they trust and to whom they can turn. Make no mistake, many dedicated and skilled adults step forward to care for these children, as their social workers, counselors or temporary foster parents. Some even stay connected once a child leaves care. And some states have worked hard to extend foster care to 21, but resources for older youth are limited and difficult to access. A Health and Human Services report found that the federal Foster Care Independence program meant to help foster children make the transition to adulthood is inconsistent from state to state and provides too little for these troubled young people. And it simply is not a substitute for a family.

Once they age out of care, they will be on their own and at an elevated risk for homelessness, hunger or unemployment; of becoming young parents or falling into substance abuse. And too often, many are at risk of moving back into government systems -- from juvenile centers to prison. This is not because they are bad kids; they are children without the safety nets of families and homes, and their mistakes or missteps become a matter of public record rather than an opportunity to learn.

There is a cycle of violence and helplessness innate in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. foster care system. And yet millions of Americans are unaware that thousands of children remain in this cycle, and those charged with their protection fail to commit to better solutions for support, employment, life skills training and secure and permanent homes.

Violence should not be accepted at any level; violence against children is intolerable. It is our duty as a nation to end this cycle. We made promises to these 100,000 children in foster care that we would find them safe, supportive homes. We must take the lead and no longer accept the pain of a child as ordinary, the bullying of a child as common, the cry of a child as silent to our ears.

May is Foster Care Awareness Month. Take this opportunity to call your U.S. Representative or Senator, speak with your State Representatives, or write a letter to your Governor to urge them to focus on the foster care system in their states, counties or districts; and to make the health, safety, and welfare of children in their states an uncompromised priority.

We can make the life of each and every American child a cause for celebration and joy. We must demand justice at every level for children, not only because it is their basic human right, but because those children who grow and learn in just environments ultimately create humane and thriving societies as adults.