This morning, 400,000 children woke up in America wondering, “Is today the day?”
Which day? The day they might finally find a “Forever Family.”
They may have entered the system a few weeks ago —or a few years ago. This may be their first foster home — or their fifth. They may have been placed with their brothers or sisters — or they may never see them again. What they all share are biological parents who cannot or will not care for them.
The child welfare system has determined that the parents of one quarter of these children — 100,000 children — are so incompetent that their parental rights have been terminated. That means that, on any given day, 100,000 American children in foster care are waiting to be adopted. Right now.
But only 13% of the children in foster care last year were adopted. (Happily, at least, that number is growing.) Why? Often, their biological parents are given many opportunities to get their lives in order. They may receive drug or alcohol rehabilitation. They may attend parenting classes. They may just be given more time. But the more time they get, the more time their children spend in foster care.
And while the average age of a child in foster care is 9, the sad truth is that their chances of being adopted plummet by the time they turn 4. After that, these children face a lifetime of transfers from one foster home to another.
Many children — over 20,000 every year — will age out of foster care when they turn 18 (in some states, 21) and become ineligible for further services.
What happens to these children, whom the system, with unintended irony, labels “emancipated?” The data is heart-wrenching. They will have no birthday parties, no college acceptance letters, no caring adults.
Instead, one in five will become homeless. Half will be unemployed at age 24. Nearly one in four will end up in prison. About 17 percent of girls in foster care are pregnant by the time they age out. (By the time they are 21, the figure is more like 70 percent.) They will experience post-traumatic stress disorder at double the rate of American veterans. And only 3 percent will earn college degrees.
Even those children who escape dire consequences will be less likely to become engaged in school activities such as sports (because they move so often), more likely to have physical and mental health problems, and less likely to form solid friendships and intimate, lifelong relationships.
There are financial costs, too. Children in foster care cost the federal government $9 billion through Social Security alone. These children consume 1.5 times the tax dollars of children who are adopted from foster care. That doesn’t count the higher costs of government dependency that they will likely require throughout much of their lives.
What does America do for our 20,000 children who age out of foster care every year? The National Council For Adoption, on whose board I sit, surveyed each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to search for “best practices.” What they found: There are none. Each state provides a maze of bureaucracy, which each child must navigate with little support.
One of the most effective states supplies children with a 20-page survival manual. Though painstaking in detail, it does not reflect what every parent of a teenager knows: Their brains are not done yet.
How many of us have waited all day for a call from our teenager, only to find her cell phone forgotten in our car? Or lovingly packed a special lunch — which he leaves in his bedroom? Today, your small gesture of kindness makes you “the best mom ever,” but tomorrow, they declare, “you are ruining my life!”
Yet our government gives advice such as this to the 17-year-old about to become “emancipated”: “According to Stat… #39.701 (6)(a), the Department is required to verify to the judge, no later than 3 months after you turn 17, that you have already received: 1) Current Medicaid card, 2) CERTIFIED copy of your birth certificate, 3) Information relating to Social Security benefits, …”
One state assures the child that he could not possibly have lost Medicaid coverage unless he has moved … or is dead.
Yet foster children are not damaged goods. If adopted into permanent homes that provide loving and appropriate support, they turn out quite well — and infinitely better than their peers who age out of care.
So what can we do?
Check out this adoption website: www.familiesforall.org.
Support legislation that facilitates adopting children from foster care.
Spread the word. 100,000 children are waiting to be adopted today.
Consider becoming a foster parent — or adopting a foster child. (Training and stipends are available.) Your steady presence in a child’s life can transform that life — and yours — forever.
There’s more than enough love in America to solve the foster care crisis. Please consider sharing your love.