May is National Foster Care Month. The month may be coming to an end, but former and current foster care youth will always need our help. Here, one of our contributors who spent time in the foster care system tells us how to get started.
Growing up is tough. You’re navigating school social circles, managing classwork, going through puberty, and figuring out who you are and who want to be. It’s a lot to handle. Now, imagine that you’ve simultaneously been suffering from abuse or neglect. You’ve been ripped from everything you know — your family, your home, often your school, even your community — to be placed in a house with strangers.
You’d hope that, soon, you could move back in with your family, maybe after they go through some counseling. Maybe you’ll go live with other family members, or you’ll get adopted. Otherwise, the best-case scenario is that your foster home is a safe, loving place. If it’s not that kind of place, you’ve got more disruption ahead. You’ll bounce between different foster homes with different guardians and different sets of rules.
That’s what happened to me when I entered foster care at 12 years old.
I lived in six different towns during the years when I was a “ward of the court.” I had to follow strict foster placement rules, attend court hearings, and move from home to home until I landed in my “forever family” after a teacher from my high school adopted me.
The most recent research available says that, as of 2016, there were more than 437,465 children in the United States foster care system, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. During that same year, 117,794 children were waiting to be adopted from foster care and 57,208 were successfully adopted from foster care. More than 20,000 foster youths aged out of the system — meaning they were still in foster care when they legally became adults because they hadn’t been reunited with their families or weren’t placed with permanent families.
Unfortunately, the statistics for what happens to numerous former foster kids later in life are pretty grim.
Without family support and with the weight of childhood trauma, foster youths are more likely to end up incarcerated, homeless, or addicted to drugs. Foster kids can also grow up to achieve great success — look at comedian and actress Tiffany Haddish and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. Every foster kid should have the opportunity to beat these statistics, and there are so many ways that we can help current and former foster children lead their best lives.
There are numerous volunteer opportunities for those who want to help current or former foster kids. First, you could become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or a guardian ad litem. After training and passing a background check, CASA volunteers represent the child’s best interest in court. They do this by getting to know the child or children they are assigned to represent, as well as the people in their lives who are also pertinent to the case (relatives, parents, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys, social workers, etc.). CASAs use what they learn to inform judges and other decision makers of what they find to be the best permanent home for the children, and what they think the children need in general.
My CASA volunteer made a huge difference in my life, not only by doing that specific work, but also by being a positive adult in my life who wasn’t paid to be there for me. My CASA helped me apply for federal aid for college. She was a reference for my first apartment, and she helped me move in. My CASA even talked the landlord into letting me live there for a shorter lease before I moved away to college. We are still in touch, more than a decade after I’ve left the foster care system.
You can also find local organizations that serve the foster care community. In Los Angeles, where I live, I recently volunteered at a fundraising event for Echoes of Hope, a charity that serves at-risk and emancipated foster youth by providing support and resources for post-secondary education. Look up your local chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America and, if you’re not a current or former foster youth, consider helping the group as an ally by signing up to promote and participate in an annual FosterWalk.
Do you have knowledge or a set of skills that could benefit others? If so, consider mentoring a current or former foster youth. Search for local organizations that could use your help and let others in your social network know that you are interested in mentoring.
You can also mentor through Foster Care to Success, a wonderful nonprofit that provides tuition assistance and other resources (including mentoring) to former foster youth attending college. I was a lucky scholarship recipient during undergrad and can’t say enough good things about my experience with them,
Side note: If you’re a current or former foster youth interested in writing, visit my website and send me a message through the contact form. I’ll be happy to chat with you about how to improve your craft, and will point you in the direction of resources to help you do so.
Sending money to an organization you’d like to support is, of course, a generous way to help. Beyond money, you can donate items for care packages through Foster Care to Success (cards, cookies, school supplies, scarves, and more all go in care packages for former foster youth in college so that they can feel like their peers who receive goodies from families at home). You could also make your own care packages and find organizations that would be interested in giving them to those in need.
Vote for politicians who promote policies that benefit current and former foster youth. It can definitely be intimidating to sift through all the information out there, but a good way to start is by checking out websites for organizations such as FosterClub to see what politicians have to say about current and pending legislation related to our cause.
5Become a respite foster parent
All parents need a break every now and then. For foster parents, though, getting that time off can be challenging because they have to leave the kids with someone who has the proper training and has passed the necessary legal checks. A respite parent can provide weekend or short-term care to foster children. For more information, contact your local Department of Children and Family Services branch.
6Become a foster parent
I’ve lived in a lot of foster homes, some good and some not-so-good. All kids need a home where they are safe. They need to be fed, clothed, encouraged, and cared for, but those are things that many foster children have lacked for months or years. Maybe even for all of their lives.
If you have it in your heart to become a foster parent, I encourage you to do so. Giving a loving family to a child in need can make all the difference in their lives. Foster parents need to be trained and licensed; foster care is provided by private and public agencies, such as those within your county, state, or tribe. For more information about becoming a foster parent, you can visit the National Foster Parent Association. Also, if you are interested in growing your family through adoption, consider adopting a child out of foster care.
There are many ways to help current and former foster youth flourish and become contributing members of society. Whether you want to do any of what I’ve suggested or you simply want to learn more about foster care, the more people interested in assisting some of the most vulnerable children, the better. Read articles about child welfare, share stories online, keep a dialogue going about the struggles of current and former foster youth. Every bit helps, and allies are appreciated.