James is an African American male in his early twenties who aged out recently. He spent 14 years in foster care and during that time he had 9 different placements. Those placements consist of foster homes and adoption by a foster family. He described his current situation as homeless and unemployed.
When asked to describe how the system may have failed him, James said that he and his siblings were beaten and molested. It was unclear whether or not he meant by his biological family, foster families, or eventual adoptive-foster family. His response to another question suggest that the abuse occurred after entry into foster care. That question was about his satisfaction with biological family visitation. He said he got no contact with his biological family and that the “case managers were not making the right decision on my behalf.” Since he feels the system let him down by permitting the abuse, if it had occurred in his biological family he would not have wanted visitation with them. It follows then that the abuse occurred during one of the placements. When asked how adoption shaped his fostering experience, he responded with one word: terrifying. The abuse then may have occurred in the adoptive home, which would explain his current homelessness and lack of supports. It may also explain why he was uncertain whether or not he had technically “aged out” of the system.
When asked what he thought he goal or purpose of foster was, James said this, “To get rid of kids for good. That’s what I think foster care is about.” He went on to warn, “Don’t trust foster care.” Despite the gaps in James’ story, it is clear that his experience was extremely negative. Whatever the specifics of the events, James is like a great many other young adults after foster care: homeless, unemployed, and (righteously) angry. As his final comments suggest, the system that was purportedly going to help him escape from whatever neglect or abuse occurred in his biological home instead became a source of further suffering.
James’ story brings up two common themes with former foster care youth. The first is a preponderance of homelessness. The second is the possibility of foster care adoption that leads to reentry into the foster care system.
Homelessness… Studies about reporting rates of homelessness ranging from 36 to 60 percent for foster care alumni. There is an additional population who don’t sleep on the streets or in shelters, but stay with friends and family in a perpetual state of “couch-surfing.” All of these studies report the same constellation of contributing problems: lack of social networks, lack of education which in turn leads to reduced employability, and lack of resources like cash, references, and experience. Think about the hoops you jumped through to get your first apartment on your own–a huge deposit, personal and job references, established work, or co-signers. Many foster alumni have no one to ask for a co-sign or reference, lack consistent work as young people, and don’t have the cash. Programs to help youth transition have mixed results. Those that focus on teaching skills are helpful, but do nothing to mitigate these underlying needs. Many states have already or are considering extending how long young adults can opt-in to care. Those who do stay in-care have many advantages. But opting-in is a bureaucratic nightmare that doesn’t consider many basics of young adulthood. For example, states require alumni to be enrolled in school or have a job. That seems pretty straightforward and reasonable. But consider that schools disenroll you when your bill is late (and recall that the state is the one paying the tuition), or when you fail a class or your gpa drops too low (as happens with many young people). Or think about how hard it would be to find and keep a job with limited education and skills in today’s job market.
Reentry into care from adoption, unadoption, and adoption dissolution… Stories and reports about people adopting and then giving the adopted child back to foster care seem to popping up everywhere. This happens whether the adoptions are international or from U.S. foster care. In the case of foster care, the “why” seems to generally be linked to the once-foster-now-adoptive-parents citing a change in behavior post-adoption that makes them unable to have the child in the home any longer. Surely this varies from case to case. In very rare cases, child welfare steps in and removes a child from an adoptive home. A childwelfare.gov report (June 2012) on Adoption Dissolution and Disruption reported that approximately between 0.5 and 3 percent of adoptions from foster care are dissolved. This area needs more study.
Finally, I want to bring up the statistics about abuse that happens while children are in foster care already. These statistics come from the 2011 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services entitled, “Child Maltreatment.” 81 percent of all substantiated abuse or neglect allegations were perpetrated by either the mother (37 percent), father (19 percent), or some combination of a parent and another person. Of abuse or neglect substantiated claims that make up the remaining 19 percent of all perpetrations, non-parent relatives, or partners of parents make up the vast majority of cases, followed by daycare neglect and abuse. Approximately 0.2 percent of all substantiated abuse or neglect cases happened in foster homes. 0.1 percent of substantiated cases occurred in a group home or residential living facility. Now, this does not mean abuse or neglect of foster children while in foster care is not more common and either goes unreported or is filed away as unsubstantiated. In raw numbers, too, 0.3 percent of abuse and neglect substantiated claims is more than 2400 children (out of more than 558,000)! 2400 kids being abused in-care is a lot of kids – too many. But the point of bringing up these statistics is to remind the reader that most foster parents are not abusers and neglecters. Most of them are pretty great. However, when we think about reading 2400 news stories about abusive foster parents, that seems like surely every foster parent is abusing their foster children–and that is clearly not the case. Nonetheless, I absolutely do not want to take too lightly what may have happened to James, or those other 2400 children who were abused while in the supposed protection of the state from child abuse. 2400 is too many. But also, not all foster carers are evil. (And they certainly aren’t in it for the money, but that’s a topic for another story.)