Yesterday, the Washington Post, The Next Generation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation hosted the “Children and Families Summit 2013,” a convening of parents, policymakers, and experts unified in their belief that our nation not only can, but must, do better at investing – personally, privately and publicly – in the future of our children. The day’s agenda focused on a relatively simple and yet profound question: How can we as a nation strengthen support systems for those young people and parents who desperately need them?
As this important conversation continues, we must remember that hidden within the millions of children who live in poverty, lack access to a high quality education, or suffer unnecessarily from chronic health conditions are our nation’s half a million foster children. In taking these children into our governments’ care, do we not also make an implied promise to provide them the attention and support they need to become successful, stable adults? Most would say the answer to this question is unabashedly yes, and yet what research shows is that foster children are chief among those falling through the gaps in our current system.
Here are just a few sobering facts: according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, compared with children from the same socioeconomic background, children in care have much higher rates of serious emotional and behavioral problems, chronic physical disabilities, birth defects, and developmental delays. Educational attainment studies reveal that less than 50% of youth in care graduate from high school and only 3% go on to get a college degree. As if those statistics are not compelling enough, studies also show that as many as one in four foster youth will end up homeless, in jail or die within a year of leaving care.
There are many reasons why children in foster care are not achieving their potential; I would like to focus on just two. First, as Paul Tough explains in great detail in his new book, How Children Succeed, “what matters most in a child’s development… is not how much information we can stuff into [a child’s] brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help [them] develop a very different set of qualities; a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.” According to Tough, it is these skills, and not the accumulation of book knowledge, that are what allows students to maintain focus during a difficult exam or get noticed for having a “good work ethic” in the workplace.
And who is it whom most often helps cultivate such skills in children? Good parents. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of yesterday’s events for me came during the remarks of sixteen year old Alfa Lopez who introduced the Secretary of Education to the audience. Lopez said what an “only in America” moment it was for her—a Los Angeles teen who hails from a low income neighborhood with a school dropout rate over 50%—to be in Washington, D.C. and introducing such an important government official. She opened with “Thanks to my parents, who sacrificed everything to give me what they never had.”
Not only do foster children not have the benefit of being raised by the type of parents who lead to success stories like Alfa, we are also failing to provide too many youth that type of parenting while in care. We currently have one foster family for every four children who need care and a high number of those who are fostering are doing so for all the wrong reasons. Foster children move from home to home almost as often as the seasons change and the vast majority of teens in foster care are growing up in group homes, many of which resemble prisons, not families. One way to bring about change for children would be to invest in systems that allow children to go from broken homes into supportive settings with caring adults who are willing and able to build the skills celebrated by Tough.
The second reason foster youth continue to struggle is that major federal programs designed to meet the needs of disadvantaged children in general too often miss the mark in meeting the needs of children in care. Here are just some examples: one third of all children in foster care are under five years old when removed because of abuse and neglect. Because they are in care they are categorically eligible for Head Start Services, and yet according to the National Study on Child and Adolescent Well Being, only 6% of children in foster care are enrolled in this important program. Similarly, although foster youth are three times as likely as the general population to be identified as being in need of special education services, they are half as likely to receive them. Foster youth are less likely than their counterparts to be enrolled in federally-supported, school-based enrichment programs such as after-school activities or mentoring initiatives.
Why is this? Again, there are many reasons but one of the main problems is that most of these programs rely on a parent—or at least an adult acting like a parent—to enroll these youth in these programs. Youth in care are most often represented by social workers who have a long list of things they are supposed to be doing for the children in their caseload and often lack the time, expertise and resources needed to accomplish these goals. Foster parents, as discussed before, are also not ably fulfilling this role. So the programs exist to help youth in care, they are just not currently doing so.
These are the types of questions CCAI strives to provide answers to everyday. We look forward to working with Next Generation, the Washington Post and all of the committed partners who attended the event yesterday. As my former boss Senator Landrieu used to say, “Children might only constitute thirty percent of America’s population, but they are undeniably 100% of America’s future.”