By Jeremiah Saint
According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, in the year 2017 there were a reported 442,995 children in the foster care system; 123,437 of these children awaiting adoption. Twenty thousand of them will age out of the system within the next 12 months. An approximate 16 percent of these will age out of the system without ever finding permanency. Clearly the United States as a whole has failed to address this critical issue. But what do theses numbers mean? What and who do they represent?
To find some of these answers we were fortunate enough to meet with “E” (name withheld for anonymity) for a candid inside view of the foster system and the children in it. E is a permanency specialist from the East Coast with five years of background in foster care, in a residential care unit, and now as a permanency specialist. She explains to me that her current occupation is a mix of therapy, case study and resource officer duties.
She not only works one-on-one with the children to plan out their goals, but also identifies resources for possible adoption and support networks, while also compiling their medical and family history.
With the staggering 442,000 within the foster care system, it only gets worse when she tells me that in her experience most will be in and out of the foster system from the time they first enter care, until they time out of the system at 18.
The majority have both living parents, and enter the foster system due to parental neglect, abuse or addiction. Reunification with parents is sought, but while it commonly occurs, the story rarely ends there, as E explains that the children will often be back in care. If reunification becomes impossible, adoption will then become the goal, and they will join the ranks of the 123,00 foster children awaiting adoption.
When I question E about the misconceptions about foster care and what we need to know, she tells me that it’s “not all babies.” According to an AFCARS 2017 study, infants under one-year-old make up 7 percent of children in foster care. The majority, 71 percent, are 4 years old and up.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” she tells me. “I think many people think it’s just going to be easy.”
She goes on to explain the unique challenges that are associated with dealing with damaged children.
Being separated from family is trauma enough, but many have experienced terrible neglect or outright abuse. These children cannot be expected to immediately acclimate to ordinary family life when they have never experienced such a lifestyle before. But it is rewarding, too. She tells me of the joy of seeing children experience holidays and things like Christmas trees, ordinary childhood landmarks that have been denied them.
But even that is not without its pros and cons. Older adoptive children can come to resent their birth parents being ‘shown up’, as they perceive it. Older children (14- to 17-year-old children) make up 20 percent of foster children and are traditionally less desirable to adoptive parents. While it is understandable considering the greater issues that can come with an older child, the fact stands that every year 20,000 teenagers will time out of the system with no permanency. Many simply “drop off the radar”, she tells me. Some return to families, even to abuse and neglect, and some vanish. Others choose the option of working within the foster system until 21, but many will give up on that as well. It is plain, that these youths need our help, and we are nowhere near as effective as we need to be.
Just trying to work with them and understand them is very important, she says. To explain to them that they aren’t obligated to forget or disown their birth family, but instead benefit from having two families. But many are in positions where contact with birth parents is not guaranteed, until the age of 18, which E says, is another large challenge for the youth.
When I ask her what she wishes she could change about the system most, the answer is not quite what I expected.
She went on to tell me about the mother of a little boy, who, while not overtly abusive, was neglectful.
This boy developed a skin decay where stitches were left in 10 times longer than the removal date, and the dressing had never been changed. Her social circle included individuals with sexually abusive pasts. E’s wish was that the system wouldn’t allow unfit parents continual chances after proving themselves unfit.
Even more shockingly, E shared that federal sex offenders under Megan’s Law are not necessarily disqualified from regaining their parental rights. This led her to sharing several nightmarish accounts.
After talking to E, it is clear that we are only scratching the surface of a monumental issue, and one that we all need to recognize and address. While there are 123,000 children awaiting adoption in America, there are also a shocking 300,000 Protestant churches. A surprising ratio when one realizes the Christian religion requires Christians to aid the afflicted and take care of orphans. Yet somehow this issue is failing to receive the recognition it requires. With the numbers climbing every year, the foster epidemic is growing unchecked, while countless of our youths will age out of the system without ever finding their home.
With each passing year there is a greater need for competent, caring families to step forward, educate themselves and stand in the gap.
For more information visit www.acf.hhs.gov and for how to help, get in contact with your local foster agency.
Jeremiah Saint is a local freelance writer, Christian, and activist. He can be reached on his blog: https://wanderingwritersite.wordpress.com/
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