Investing in the Future of our Children

Image Courtesy of The Next Generation

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.”

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The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to raising awareness about the millions of children around the world in need of permanent, safe, and loving homes and to eliminating the barriers that hinder these children from realizing their basic right of a family.

7 thoughts on “Investing in the Future of our Children

  1. Since reading this post, I have been very troubled by the portrayal of foster parents in this post.

    As a foster parent, I would like to address some of the statements in your post and offer some suggestions on how CCAI can help to increase adoptions from foster care in the US and improve foster care for all children.

    First, you state that “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 to youth that type of parenting while in care.” While there may be foster parents who are not providing parenting that develops characteristics such as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, in my experience as a foster parent educator for one of the largest counties in the nation, foster parents are often the parents going above and beyond what biological parents do for their children. Foster children come to foster parents with a history of trauma and/or neglect. It can take many, many years for foster or adoptive parents to undo the damage that has been inflicted on children who have lived in an abusive and/or neglectful environment. I am not certain how you have managed to evaluate the parenting skills of all foster parents and come to the conclusion that foster parents are not providing adequate parenting, but I can assure you that many foster parents are excellent parents to their foster children.

    Second, you state “We currently have one foster family for every four children in foster care and a high number of those who are fostering are doing so for the wrong reasons.” I have to ask how you came to the conclusion that “a high number of those…are doing so for the wrong reasons”? In my last 5 years as a foster parent educator, coming into contact with at least 100 – 150 prospective foster families, I have NEVER, not even once come across a family that was entering foster care for the “wrong” reasons, whatever that may mean. I have come across people who would not have been well suited to become foster parents, but every single person I have come into contact with who is providing foster care is doing it because they either want to help children, they want to get a relative out of foster care, or they want to give back having been in foster care themselves. I urge you not to perpetuate the perception that a majority of foster parents provide foster parenting for the money!

    In addition, for every family that I have spoken to about fostering that is hesitant to provide care for children in need, the reason that I am told for their hesitancy is because they could not bear to see a child go back into an abusive or neglectful living situation. We need to work on our system so that this DOES NOT HAPPEN! If foster parents could be assured that the children that they love would not be harmed by the system and that adoption of those children were a more likely possibility, I am certain that more people would become foster parents. We almost did not foster for that very reason. We need to work on making changes to the system that would make it faster and less emotionally burdensome to adopt children in foster care. Children need to be removed promptly from unsafe environments and permanency needs to be pursued swiftly. It is most definitely a loss for children to be separated from their families of origin and I do not want to minimize that loss, however, once abuse or neglect is determined to be harmful enough to a child to warrant their removal from their family of origin, alternate permanency planning should begin, even while reunification may be pursued.

    When talking about the Head Start program, special education services, and federally-supported, school-based enrichment programs such as after-school activities or mentoring initiatives, you state that only 6% of children in foster care are enrolled in the Head Start program and that foster youth are less likely to be enrolled in the federally-supported enrichment programs. You state one of the reasons for that is “most of these programs rely on a parent-or at least an adult acting like a parent to enroll these youth in these programs….Foster parents, as discussed before, are also not ably fulfilling this role.” Again, you lay the blame primarily at the foster parents’ feet. My first response is that children in foster care may be receiving individual services, as opposed to group services such as Head Start.

    Also, for Head Start, it seems to be a very family focused program for low income families. Although our foster children might qualify to be a part of Head Start, we are not a low income family and we have chosen to enroll our children in a local pre-school where they attend with children who live in our neighborhood or surrounding neighborhoods, where they can develop relationships with children who are a part of the community in which our children are currently living.

    As for foster youth taking part in federally supported enrichment programs, once again, these children may be receiving individual services that make it difficult to participate in yet another program. For our foster daughter, we have approximately 8 visits a month: 2 visits per month with her CASA, 1 visit per month with her social worker, 2 visits per month with an individual therapist, 1 visit per month with a family therapist, 1 visit per month with a speech therapist and 1 visit per month with her physical therapist. This is for just one child with minimal special needs. Imagine having this type of schedule for two or more children or for children with more significant special needs. Adding another appointment every month just doesn’t seem to be a wise choice for our daughter or for our family. She needs time to play and be a child, just like the other children in our neighborhood and we need time to be a family.

    Foster children have been abused and neglected. Most of them have needs that go beyond ordinary parenting. Many foster parents pour their love, time, energy and money into children who can be taken away at any time and put right back into an environment that has harmed them. Foster parents are not perfect, but please, before you make negative assumptions about foster parents and publicly speak about them, talk to some of the foster parents who are taking care of these children and find out what we would say about how to best help the children in the system and why we don’t take part in some of the programs that are available. Sometimes it’s because foster parents don’t know about the programs, but sometimes, it’s because we are doing something better for the children.

    I am grateful that you are bringing attention to the needs of foster children and appreciate the work that you do to promote adoption. I hope that you continue to advocate for foster children and for changes to the system that would make adoption of children from the foster care system easier for those who wish to adopt them.

    1. Thank you for this very thoughtful, well written response to our recent blog. We apologize if our desire to highlight the too often experienced tragedies of the foster care system left you or other readers with the impression that we do not recognize the incredible work of foster parents. As you state, the impact a good foster parent has on the life of the child is immeasurable. I think we agree our goal is to have every child in foster care have the benefit of the type of foster parents you have had the privilege of working with. We also agree that the challenges facing the system are complex and are not attributable to any one cause or component of the system.

      CCAI’s Angels in Adoption program is specifically designed to celebrate the heroes in our system and is based on our hope that celebrating them inspires others to follow their example. We hope that you will consider nominating individuals for this program so together we can show the positives of foster care and adoption.

      Again, thank you for your response.

  2. I don’t think you have adequately portrayed the foster care system, families that foster children, or the children who emerge from foster care. Maybe you should take some time to understand better what you write about before you criticize. There are so many factors to take into consideration when you look at statistics. The conclusions that you drew based on the statistics presented in this article were ignorant and simplistic. Spend just one day in a foster home, or in a DFS office humbly asking questions, and you just might learn something. Then, maybe you could write a more useful article.

    1. Thank you for your comment. We agree that the issues facing youth in foster care are complex and that statistics can never accurately portray the children and families involved. To that end, CCAI has remained dedicated to raising the voices of over 150 former foster youth through its Foster Youth Internship (FYI) program and 2,000 of the system’s heroes through our Angels in Adoption program. Understanding that the real work is done outside of Washington, we have sponsored several Congressional field visits to study the foster care systems in Los Angeles, Miami, and Columbus, Ohio. We apologize if the space limitations of a blog designed to remind people of the urgent needs of foster youth made you think otherwise. We hope that you will continue to share your concerns in the future.

  3. That is an awesome picture. I agree taken care of our seniors is a big priority. They put in there time, helped the government with there taxes and helped the workforce. I do believe though that there needs to be a greater focus on children in foster care. I feel like older people have money and backing where there isn’t a well funded group representing foster kids.

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