The more than half a million children being raised in foster care belong to all of us and deserve at least as much support, guidance and love as our biological kids. But the sad truth is that less than a third of the 25,000 young people who age out of the foster care system each year will obtain either a high school diploma or a GED. They are also much more likely than our biological children to suffer from depression as a result of childhood trauma, to become victims of crime or be incarcerated. Fully 30% of them will become homeless at some point after leaving foster care.
This is not an indictment of foster care; in fact I am a foster parent myself. Rather it is a plea for more people to care about the needs and welfare of children who are in the foster care system. A big step in the right direction was taken this week when Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and President Obama added programs for mentoring foster youth to the list of national service programs through the Serve America Act.
Mentoring is a critical component in the success of teenagers, particularly for those who didn't have good role models in their childhood. The Orphan Foundation of America (OFA) is an amazing nonprofit organization with documented success in helping young people make the transition from foster care to success. OFA shared with me some letters from young people in their mentor program:
A young woman named Tina wrote to her mentor, "I never had a female role model to look up to. But then I got you and technically that's all I need. Over the last several years since you've been my mentor, life has had its purpose." Antonio wrote, "Having a mentor meant a lot of me. He not only acted as a big brother, but like a cane to help me walk through school. He gave me a better feel of how to be successful." And finally, Maria said of her mentor, "When things have gotten hard, my mentor has given me the strength to move forward. Even if other people were giving me negative responses, she would remind me that I can do it. She helped me make smart life choices. She's someone I will have in my life forever."
As a foster parent, I know the concept of "forever" can be a difficult one for children who are shuffled from one living situation to another. Impermanence can become the theme of their young lives and can shadow them as they become adults. That's why a mentor can be so critical -- offering advice, providing friendship and modeling a stable, successful life. Kudos to Senator Landrieu, President Obama, the Orphan Foundation of America, our nation's foster parents and mentors and all of those who hold our foster children close. You don't need to be a foster parent to have a positive impact on these children. You only need to care enough to mentor.