U.S. Foster Care: A Flawed Solution That Leads To Long-Term Problems?

Studies show that abused or neglected children placed in foster care face lifelong challenges greater than children who remain with their families.

 

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n rural Oregon, an 11-year-old girl wearing a pair of plastic sandals walked 13 miles to a local tavern and convinced a man she didn’t know to drive her two and a half hours north to Long Beach, Wash. She was sick of foster care. She wanted to go home.

A 2011 survey reported that 13 percent of all foster children run away at least once, and another 9 percent abandon their foster homes to live with friends. When 22 percent of any child population flees the system which adults have provided to keep them safe, something is wrong. These youth may have insights the rest of us fail to see. Studies show foster care is a highway to health problems, homelessness, early pregnancy, arrest, incarceration, and sex trafficking. And those are the lucky kids. Foster care alumni are five times more likely to commit suicide and eight times more likely to be hospitalized for a serious psychiatric disorder.

Then again, decades of research show that childhood maltreatment interrupts healthy emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development, so we can chalk up the poor outcomes to abuse that occurred before these children were rescued, right?

Maybe not.

***

In 1983 I was a 23-year-old single mother living in poverty. My twin sons and I survived the first five months on welfare and food stamps. For the next several years, I lived in bad neighborhoods, drove cars that constantly broke down, and perpetuated my relationship with an abusive partner partly because at the end of each month when money ran out, I could count on him for money to buy diapers or to get my electricity turned back on. I lived in apartments with cockroaches and a house where the floor was so rotten it wasn’t safe to stand in the shower. We ate off-brand macaroni and cheese (4/$1) and drank Kool-Aid (8/$1) supplemented with milk, cereal, cheese, and grape juice from the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC).

I got a job, then a better job, and paycheck by paycheck I built a life for the three of us. I received daycare assistance, but slowly earned enough to render myself ineligible, teetering on the edge of poverty. I made mistakes—dated the wrong men, managed income poorly, and on free nights, went out to party. The difference between me and so many other single mothers was that I averted any catastrophes that could draw the attention of child welfare authorities: a toddler’s suspicious fall, an arrest for driving under the influence, or my partner’s fists battering my body the way they had before I was pregnant.

I wasn’t better than other mothers. I was luckier. I didn’t end up an alcoholic or drug addict, so I never had the compulsion to trade my food stamps for alcohol or drugs. I’ve never had chronic mental health problems, so I was able to get out of bed every day and take care of my kids. I kept the men I dated away from my young sons. I had the intellectual capacity and the social ability to perform well on the job, so I was hired by the Social Security Administration, which provided good health insurance. When the boys were 6, I met (and later married) a man who lifted me into a life of plenty. He had steady employment which, combined with mine, allowed me to fill my gas tank and pay the electric bill on time.

The single most common factor in families whose children are placed in foster care is not cruelty or rage or sexual perversion; it is poverty.

In 1992, when I had been married for two years, a relative’s children were at risk of being taken into foster care. My husband and I agreed to become a licensed foster home for the State of Oregon. The relative’s three children came to live with us. A year later, Children’s Services Division asked us to take our first non-relative foster child, a 10-year-old boy who had been in 17 foster homes. It should have raised a question in my head: 17 foster homes? What was wrong with all the certified foster parents who couldn’t keep this boy? I didn’t ask. I believed in the system with the zeal of a reborn Christian trying to save souls with a bullhorn on a Seattle street corner. I felt indignant that his mom hadn’t gotten her life together. I was the good mother. She was the bad mother. That was that.

***

Many people believe, as I did in 1992, that child welfare workers rescue children from homes where they are being beaten, burned, starved, and sexually violated, and place them in loving homes where they can grow and thrive. Some do. Yet the single most common factor in families whose children are placed in foster care is not cruelty or rage or sexual perversion; it is poverty. In 2012, about 16 million children in the U.S. lived below the poverty line. Child abuse and neglect occur across all racial, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural lines, yet most children who enter foster care are from impoverished homes. (In the last nineteen years, I recall just two cases in which a parent did not qualify for a court-appointed attorney.) Three quarters of the children who come into foster care have suffered neglect. One in 11 has been sexually abused. One in six, the victim of physical abuse.

The little girl—let’s call her Cali—who fled with a stranger to Long Beach could have ended up dead, but she didn’t. She recently said, “I never felt afraid. I knew I could take care of myself.” She was 10 years old when she first came to live in our home. She and her siblings were camping in a tent with their mom who was pregnant with her fifth child. Mom was hauled to jail on a warrant for unpaid traffic citations, and the children came into care. Eighty-pound Cali arrived with a skirt rolled up in one pocket of her jeans and a shirt rolled up in the other. Everything about her seemed older, from her confident posture to her budding breasts and sassy talk. As I offered her a hug before bedtime, she said, “Call 503-655-8331 and see if my mom is going to be recogged.”

Her mother had been arrested so many times, Cali knew the phone number of the jail. She wanted to know if her mother would be released on her own recognizance. I thought, “This little girl needs a mom.”
 

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ourts have long held that parents have a fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit, and that social and cultural norms for attention, affection, supervision, and discipline vary widely. The intersection of the rights of parents with the child’s rights to safety, permanency, and well-being is at the heart of every child welfare case.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” It’s easy to say that children who are beaten or sexually abused should be removed from those situations, but what of the child left napping in the car while the mother runs into the mini-mart? Or the school counselor who reports that a child has chronic head lice and never brings a snack? What about the mother who loses her temper at the park?

In the U.S. a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds. In 2012, there were more than 3.3 million reports of child abuse. Of those, child welfare agencies confirmed 678,810 cases of abuse or neglect, and in each of them the huge engine of child welfare revved up its motors to respond.

Every year, roughly the same number of children enter and exit foster care, keeping the annual census around 400,000 children at any given time. In 2012, children entering foster care numbered 254,162, while 241,254 left. The child welfare industry employs more than one million adults to serve foster children and their families at an annual cost of $15 to $20 billion. In a 2014 book about the broken foster care system, To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, author Cris Beam writes, “And yet nobody—not the kids, not the foster or biological parents, not the social workers, the administrators, the politicians, the policy experts—think the system is working.”

The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) requires child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to help the birth parents remedy safety concerns, yet only 11 percent of federal child welfare dollars are earmarked to prevent children from coming into foster care. This means the majority of support is available only after a child is removed from his or her family.

In Oct. 25, 1992, my husband and I had completed 24 hours of foster parenting training, undergone a background check, and had a home visit with a social worker before receiving our certificate of approval. I was required to complete 10 hours of annual training but could meet those requirements with self-monitored activities such as videos or books. Most states average about 25 hours of in-service training, but Minnesota requires only six.

A 2004 study of foster homes in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Oregon reported that the average foster provider’s length of service was less than eight months. The National Center for Youth Law found that there is little research for the efficacy of foster parent training. Many foster parents are unprepared or ill-equipped to deal with the challenging needs of children whose early deprivation or abuse has resulted in complex psychological, medical, and educational needs. This can lead to high turnover rates that make it difficult to have highly qualified, well-trained adults available to provide foster care.

Foster providers are responsible for our nation’s most vulnerable children, yet the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) collects only basic demographic information such as age, race, and marital status of foster parents. Just 56 percent of foster parents have a high school education and almost half of foster parents are unmarried. Foster families have more children than typical homes, with a high proportion of homes having five or more children. In other words, abused and neglected children live in foster homes with adults who have less education, less disposable income, and a higher child-to-adult ratio than most American families.

***

The foster care certificate my husband and I received states, “The maximum safe capacity for this home is four children.” I had five children at the time our first foster child arrived. That quickly grew to seven, then eight, and sometimes nine. For most of the next 20 years, we had eight children living in our home. It was a chaotic and enriching life. I learned about fetal alcohol syndrome and prenatal drug affects, signs of tobacco use and huffing aerosols, sexually reactive behavior and reactive attachment disorders. I documented behaviors and incidents, advocated for Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and drove kids to counseling and parent visits, Boy Scouts, soccer, dance, and horseback riding lessons.

Many small losses can bury a child who is already waist-deep in depression and loss as they move from foster home to foster home, never feeling at home.

We treated foster children as if they were our own, yet many of them never felt as if they were. In a non-foster family, you may not have rules prohibiting children from sitting on adults’ laps or cuddling up in the parents’ bed to watch Saturday morning cartoons. You probably don’t have a nursery monitor and motion sensor set up in your school-age child’s bedroom. You’re unlikely to have alarms on the bedroom doors. Yet those strategies were necessary to keep everyone safe given the needs of the children we welcomed into our home.

I knew our kids wanted to go home but I didn’t fully understand the stress they experienced at the separation from their biological parents and family home. I didn’t recognize the small losses a child could grieve: the tree they loved to climb, the field where they rode bikes, and the neighbors they knew they could count on. I understood they missed their stuffed animals and pets, but didn’t grasp the intangibles such as the smell of their home or the texture of their own blankets in bed. At our house, new foster children often came without clothes, so they were given sometimes new, sometimes hand-me-downs. They were the new kids in class, the ones not invited to sleepovers and birthday parties. These many small losses can bury a child who’s already waist-deep in depression and loss as they move from foster home to foster home, never feeling at home.
 

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n 2012, almost 200,000 children were in non-relative or “stranger” foster care. A child’s first placement is often whichever home has an empty bed, which may not be the best placement for the child because it was chosen for availability rather than the child’s unique needs. So children bounce from home to home when their needs are too challenging for the current foster providers or when their behavior conflicts with the needs of other children.

Frequent moves adversely affect a child’s ability to trust adults and form healthy attachments. My first foster son said he’d been in foster homes that were Christian, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, and agnostic. Every set of parents he’d lived with had different ideas about what mattered. Situations that create such cognitive dissonance would be stressful for anyone, but for children who are expected to conform to adult value systems, it accentuates the distress of being separated from their known world. It’s one more way to feel you don’t belong.

Foster care is intended as a temporary safe haven for children who are abused and neglected, yet the wheels of such a bureaucracy turn slowly. On average, a foster child spends 23 months in care, often living in multiple foster homes. Nearly 20 percent of foster children experience 10 or more placements. And how long do they wait for their parents to get it together or for the courts to decide they are out of chances? In 2012, nearly 36,000 foster children had been waiting more than three years to return home or to be adopted, and 24,000 had been waiting more than five years.

Then there is the question of safety in foster homes. Data reported by the states to the federal government show that less than one percent of children are abused in foster care. Studies suggest the number is far greater. A 2010 Casey Family study of adult alumni in Washington and Oregon found that one in three former foster children reported being abused by an adult in the foster home. A lawsuit filed in April 2014 on behalf of a young Washington woman alleged that after being born to drug-affected, mentally ill parents and removed from an unsanitary home at the age of 4, she endured years of sexual abuse in two separate foster homes. Both foster fathers and one foster brother were convicted of sexual assault.

When a parent is unable to meet a child’s needs, the child can understand that this was one adult’s problem, and they can learn to trust other safe adults. However, when adult after adult is unable to meet a child’s needs, children internalize the failure as their own, and generalize a lack of trust to all adults. In worst case scenarios, they learn not to trust anyone.

Foster children are given psychotropic medications 12 times as frequently as other low-income children living with their biological families. The Casey Family study showed they experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at twice the rate of Iraqi war veterans. Despite their increased need for health services, nearly 33 percent of adult foster care alumni surveyed had no health insurance. By the age of 25, 81 percent of all male foster care alumni had been arrested once, and 35 percent had been incarcerated. Adults who had been in foster care as children suffered worse prognoses than their peers in almost all domains (foster care/general population):

  • PTSD: 25% / 4.5%
  • Depression: 24.3% / 10.6%
  • Anxiety: 43% / 5.1%
  • Addiction/alcoholism: 11.1% / 2.5%
  • Males convicted of a crime: 60% / 10%
  • Homeless for more than one day: 22% / 2%.

These differences between foster children and children in the general population cannot be explained solely by the maltreatment that occurred prior to foster placement. The largest studies undertaken (in 2006, 2007, and 2008) found that with the exception of the most severe cases of abuse, even comparably maltreated children who remained at home fared better than maltreated children placed in foster care.

The Casey Family study also found that 65 percent of all foster children have been in seven or more schools. Twice as many repeat a grade. Of those who graduate high school, two percent of former foster children achieve a Bachelor’s Degree, compared to 20 percent of adults who were never in care. These academic shortfalls affect employment and earning power, decreasing their ability to provide for their children—one more cog in the wheel that perpetuates generational poverty and neglect.

When I conjure the image of 250,000 children entering and 245,000 leaving care each year, it feels like a nightmare involving a huge self-perpetuating machine. For 20 years, I have worked as part of that machine, so I recognize its value. But over the course of any given decade, that machine processes almost 2.5 million children who have been taken from their families and rehomed, often repeatedly. Many of those children’s lives may be forever affected not only by the early maltreatment they experienced, but also as a by-product of our intervention.

How many child injuries—or even deaths—are we willing to risk to reduce how many kids we place in foster care?

Anyone who has worked in child welfare for long can’t help but have an underlying sense of anxiety about the possibility that a child will be seriously harmed under their watch. An estimated 1564 children died from abuse in 2012. Thirty states reported that of those fatalities, 8.5 percent involved families that had received preservation services (assistance in the home), and 2.2 percent involved children who had returned home from foster care. Neglect was involved in 70 percent of child fatalities.

Many years ago I was involved in a case where a child was removed from the home of a mentally ill parent. A safety net with multiple community providers was put in place when the child returned home. Within months, the mother’s condition deteriorated, and the child was killed. To face the crime-scene photographs knowing you had recommended the child return home is the kind of horror that you never forget. The sense of responsibility never fully recedes, so it is with great unease that I ask the next question: How many child injuries—or even deaths—are we willing to risk to reduce how many kids we place in foster care?

When I read Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but wonder if Walls and her siblings would have been better off in foster care. The book never dips into sentimentality or trite answers. Instead, after reading the story of a tumultuous and neglect-ridden childhood, I came away with questions: Can familial love mitigate poverty and chaos? Did the relationships Walls and her siblings forged with their parents have value despite the pain the parents’ choices caused? Did the neglect the Walls children experienced contribute to their strengths as well as their struggles? A memoir is a collection of moments contrived to tell a story, and in that way, the book is an incomplete picture of what the children experienced. Even so, I wonder if families like theirs that stayed intact despite appalling circumstances have something to teach us. What might be gained if 11 percent of the federal funding went to foster care and 89 percent of the child welfare dollars were made available for services to support children in their own families?

***

In time, I learned to appreciate the strengths the birth parents brought to my foster and adoptive children’s lives. Our points of view and priorities were often different but I saw what the birth parents meant to their children. The way one parent encouraged her child to trust us. The way another mom scooped her puking boy up in her arms, and wiped his mouth with a wet cloth. The way the children’s eyes lit up when they saw their mother’s car coming down the driveway. I stopped judging birth parents through my black and white lens, and strove to see them through the eyes of their child.

In the most egregious cases (where a child has been subjected to extreme cruelty or the parents have caused injury or death of another child) it’s appropriate for legal proceedings to relieve agencies of their duty to help parents. In those cases, children should not be subjected to further risk. But what of the middle-of-the-road cases where parents are unfit, and yet placement in foster care seems to compound the trauma of an already mistreated child? The parent who is cognitively too impaired to read her babies cues, yet is a loving and attentive woman? The man whose misdemeanor acts repeatedly land him in jail, rendering him intermittently available to parent?

I am not the lone voice in the wilderness. Statute and policy changes over the last decade have reduced the number of children in foster care by 20 percent. Some states are striving to include “differential response”—the ability to engage a family’s strengths, and provide supports to mitigate their weaknesses, while the children remain at home. Differential response promises more flexibility in responding to abuse and neglect reports, a less adversarial relationship with parents, and a commitment to better understand the family issues underlying the reports of maltreatment. In 2012 almost half of the children who left foster care returned to their families after less than one year. Could these children have remained home while their parents received the help they needed? Would they have been at least as safe as they were in foster care? The AFGARS Report states that 122,173 children were reunified with their families in 2012. How might we have better identified those families likely to succeed, perhaps reducing the need for out-of-home care?

When children are removed from homes where they are being abused or neglected, and placed in safe homes with well-trained providers, they are free from immediate harm. Should we breathe a sigh of relief? Is it enough to have accomplished the short-term safety of a child at the expense of long-term outcomes?

Just nine states “quickly and safely return foster children home to their biological families when possible.” It’s clear that safe, well-trained foster homes are the best type of homes when children must enter foster care. But some evidence suggests that even good homes with well-trained providers contribute to adverse long term outcomes. In my experience, although the children I fostered made many positive gains in personal, educational, and social development, their transitions into adulthood were consistent with other foster alumni who struggle with drug abuse, mental health disorders, incarceration, early pregnancy, and homelessness.
 

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ali and I lost touch after she left our home at age 12, couch surfing for a while before moving in with her birthmother’s ex-boyfriend. Her mother was in jail for the umpteenth time. By age 16, Cali got a job, an apartment, and took in her younger brother, who was 10. I met her again when she was 25. She had just finished raising her brother while caring for her own two small children. Cali’s mother, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, her sister, and her brother were all in prison.

“The only reason I know anything about being a mom,” Cali said, “is because of the two years I spent in your home.”

I did a decent job with many challenging children. Still, many of them would be considered alumni with negative outcomes: arrests, convictions, early pregnancies, unemployment, lack of health care, psychiatric hospitalizations, chronic physical ailments, and mental health disorders. When I think about them, I don’t see failure. I admire their ability to take responsibility for their actions, strong work ethic, kindness toward animals, children, and the elderly, a strong sense of humor, sociability, perseverance, and hopefulness. Can I claim that my care instilled these qualities?

Would the children I love have had better outcomes if they had remained in their original homes with attachments to the world they knew? Would the parents have been more successful if the state had provided intensive resources while the children remained at home? When I started out, I was certain our foster children were better off in our home.

Nearly two decades later, I feel less sure.
 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
ReMoved, a short film about a young girl in foster care
To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam
Casey Family Programs, Foster Care Alumni Studies
The Administration for Children and Families, The Children’s Bureau
2012 AFCARS Report
National Foster Parent Association
National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association
Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

MORE RESOURCES:
For foster care alumni:
A Home Within
Foster Care Alumni of America
For those who would like to help a young person in foster care:
Foster Club Permanency Pact
 

Deb Stone

Deb Stone has been a birth, foster, step, and adoptive parent to over 30 children, and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for another two dozen kids. Her essays have appeared in The Truth of Memoir, Stepping Up: Stories of Blended Families, the Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, and Portland Upside. Follow her on Twitter.

 

104 Comments

  1. I had never considered the pressure of conforming to each home’s set of rules, especially in regards to religious values. Something so basic that it didn’t even cross my mind, truly would disrupt the childs’ structure cyclically.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. I know, right? What we believe is such an intrinsic piece of identity, and it develops so organically from our environment that we claim it as our own. Yet to moved from belief system to belief system before we have any claim on who we are is so discombobulating. So very sad.

    1. I’m no hero, Elliot. I’m just a witness, trying to do something because doing nothing would be unbearable.

  2. A number of years ago, I was working with a young woman who had her children removed from her care, including her 5 week-old nursing baby. She claimed the children were removed because the social worker assigned to her “thought” she planned to skip her require baby weigh-in. When the police arrived unannounced at K’s door at 11pm to take her children, she went wild, and was arrested and held overnight in the county jail, barefoot and leaking milk.

    K was, in my eyes, young and impoverished, but a dedicated and attentive mother who was working as hard as she could for her kids. However, as a teacher in a residential treatment program, I had worked with children who had no parental contact because of horrific situations, and I had faith that like me, the people working this case had the best interest of the children in mind.

    Boy, did I have my eyes opened at K’s hearing some two months later! I went fully expecting to hear that there was more to the story. Expecting that the court had some compelling evidence that I was completely unaware of that would show just cause for the children’s removal. What I heard instead was that there was even less evidence than I thought: the judge threw the case out, admonished the social worker involved in open court, and returned the children to their mother that day. From my courtroom observations, the situation was the result of a knee-jerk reaction from a burnt-out, jaded social worker who should have long ago recognized that she could no longer make objective decisions about an individual’s ability to parent.

    K will never get that two months back with her baby and her six-year old son will never forget his two month in foster care.

    I know that this is still finger pointing, just in a different direction. I only offer it in support of the notion that there are rough places on every facet of the foster care system. Thank you for your thoughtful piece, for considering the needs of the children first, and for highlighting that fact that not all parents who have children in the foster care system are heartless, apathetic or incompetent.

    1. Sad story. It’s important we keep telling the stories of individual people until others understand the size of the problem. 12-14 million adult former foster children in our country. Their stories matter.

    2. Please remember, no social worker makes a decision to remove a child, it is the supervisor, who sits in the office and rarely sees the children, who is making the decisions.

  3. Having spent more than 20 years managing CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) programs and advocating for abused children, I find myself asking the same questions as the author. And my conclusion is: our children deserve better.

    Thank you for a thoughtful article that should challenge the idea that we “save” abused and neglected children by placing them in foster care.

    1. I believe every stakeholder, even those who aren’t often invited to the table, would agree that our children deserve better. Maybe that’s the place we begin?

  4. I lived in 5 different foster homes, the first at age 9. My mom has paranoid schizophrenia and was self medicating with drugs and alcohol. I wish there was better training for foster parents so they could try and understand how foreign their world is to foster kids. I would compare it to being a foreign exchange student, but compound the culture and language barriers with the stressful unknown factor. Where is my mom, brother, sisters? Are they ok? When will I see them again? Is this my fault? How long will I be here?

    Just when you start getting close to your new “siblings”, and sometimes even “parents” it’s time to move to your next foreign country.

    To claim there are only 1% of foster kids in foster homes who are abused is ridiculous. What I witnessed and what foster siblings told me of their travels through the system would make me put that number closer to 40% at least! My brother was sexually abused in his foster home, I lived in a house where they kept all the food locked up and we were fed one meal a day. I lived in another one where I was put in charge 80% of the time…in charge of 5 or more kids, when I was 12. One of the kids chased me with a butcher knife before I locked myself in the bathroom for hours. The sexual abuse amongst the kids is horrifying. I witnessed a foster father sexually abusing one of the teen girls, my caseworker moved me but did nothing to the man, who still took in kids.

    Ugh. 1%….yeah right!

    I have always wondered if it would be better to have group homes for kids with trained people in charge. But then reality steps in and I know there would never be enough funding to keep facilities well staffed and safe. So, who knows what the right answer is?! But, I do believe better training for those families who care and better screening for those who don’t would be a great way to start.

    1. Angie, What you’re saying about your experience of abuse inside homes is what researchers found when they interviewed adults who’d been in care. Those numbers were far, far higher than what the government records of incidents show. I’m sorry you experienced the poor conditions you describe and hope you are doing well.

    2. 1% abuse is BS. Those of us that were in care know. I find kids talked to each other and not workers you barely saw. The truth is it takes less money for a functional group home than it does to run incarceration nation. Our priorities are funky. Good luck Angie.

  5. Are there alternatives to the foster care vs. intensive home support options? Maybe its not either or, but a different blend? Elevating the standards for fostering and commiserate pay so that skill levels of foster parents were higher; entering the bio parent along with the child into foster care, i.e. day care? Creating family teams around child and parent with the foster parent as coach? Changes in the judicial system so that bio parents spent time learning parenting skills in intensive treatment centers with their child/ren instead of going to jail?

    The cost for this kind of blend would be high, but probably less than the current costs of incarceration, mental health services, welfare, etc, etc. Not all bio parents would choose to make changes and learn healthy parenting, and, some bio parents are not safe to parent by virtue of mental illness or sociopathic disorders.

    An aside from the big picture issue is your comment about 1:11 children entering foster care as a result of sexual abuse. With the national average at 1:4 for girls I am guessing it is much higher than 1:11 who enter foster care.

    I also wonder about the assertion that poverty is the prime reason children enter foster care. I am guessing that drug abuse has caused the poverty and lack of employment in most situations.

    Knowing you, I think that your intelligence and multiple internal gifts contributed to your life success. Not everyone has a full deck to play.

    Maybe a beginning strategy: Mandate 3 hours/day contact for bio parents with their children?

    1. I was surprised the statistics said 1:11 enter foster care as a result of sexual abuse too when one hears the 1:4 or 1:5 tossed about. Then I thought about my own foster kids and realized none of them came into care because of sexual abuse, but several of them had experienced it. So maybe most people that experience it don’t come into care? Also, I believe the 1:4 or 1:5 numbers are for women over their lifetime, including date rape, adult sexual assault and so on. I’m not well versed in this though, so I may be speaking out of turn. But 1:11 is what national studies showed as reasons for children entering foster care.

  6. I entered foster care as an infant and bounced back and forth until my mother’s rights were terminated when I was 8. From the age of 8 until 18, I lived in 42 foster homes. I went to 2 dozen elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 7 high schools. While my mother was sentenced to prison for more than a decade for felony child abuse and long list of other similar charges, I experienced equal and at times far worse abuse in foster care.

    I aged out of foster care at 18 to homelessness ten years ago. I graduated college and currently have a lower middle class job, health insurance, and am able to take care of myself. It hasn’t always been easy. I was homeless for five months just last year. But my life could have easily gone the other way. None of my siblings are functional human beings. I think the only reason I have gotten anywhere in life is because I turned to school to cope. I thought that if I got good grades and was a good kid, someone would love me, keep me, and adopt me. School became my only escape from reality and all of my hope for the future. But I was not encouraged in this. I had my violin and other extra curricular activities taken away from me many times as punishment frequently. I was told, both verbally and otherwise, that my efforts in school were futile.

    I don’t have any meaningful relationships. I have no one in my life who was had an active role in my life before the age of 18. I have no support system. No family. I don’t have many friends. I trust no one. When the day comes that I need help, I know it won’t be there. My yearning and need for a family to want me and keep me is still relentless and just as painful as it was when I was 4, 7, and 8. I want to belong to someone–something, but I belong to no one and nothing.

    I have been called a “foster care success” in the past and I hate this because I think it invalidates how much I struggle in life. While I may be standing on my own two feet right now, my knees are wobbly and weak. I have great anxiety that the smallest bit of turbulence will knock me over and I won’t be able to get back up again. And… I feel so alone and lonely. It makes me sad that the bar is set so low for foster children if I am what is considered a success.

    1. Cricket: I can hardly find words to respond to your experience. There’s nothing I can say that makes any of it okay, or easier to have endured. I understand your resistance to the label of “foster care success” and want to affirm your right to eschew any labels you don’t claim for yourself. I admire how articulate you are and how succinctly you express your story. I admire the internal fortitude you have to keep standing up even when you feel wobbly and weak.

      Thank you for sharing your comment. It touches me deeply to read it and know to that because of your voice others will hear how hard it is to be a foster child. When I was researching this story I came across a website that offered lifelong free mentoring and support for foster care alumni. I will try to find that link again, and post it as a general comment in case you or any other foster youths or alumni are interested. I hope you will keep telling your truth to the world. Perhaps things will change. Perhaps other people will not feel so alone.

    2. Cricket…God Bless You. So much of your response…breaks my heart. The first being…it took the state 8 years…to terminate rights. Those first 8 years of your life…if you had been allowed to remain…in one home…could have made all the difference in the world. Your story….needs to be told…the world needs to know….this system…is messed up!! I can’t stand the term ‘aging out’…we don’t ‘age out’ our biological children…why is it okay…to do that to a foster child? We recently took in a 16 year old girl…who turned 17 one week later…the only thing she wanted ….was ‘to belong somewhere’…. Cricket…honey, you stand tall….those wobbly knees…have held you up..and will continue to do so. I would be honored…to have you become a part of our family….Please…don’t let ‘statistics’ dictate who you are…you look in that mirror…and see that beautiful, strong young woman..that you have become. I would love to give you a great big hug…{{{ <3 }}}. Take care of you…signed, your friend, Lori

    3. Cricket, Thank you for being a voice in this dialogue. Your perspective is the most important in this conversation. 7 out of 10 homeless individuals have spent sometime in foster care. And in turn will most likely end up with children back in the system. It is outrageous and infuriating that the system hasn’t had a complete overhaul. I am so sorry that you fell victim to this and I encourage you to keep moving forward. Much of what you said resonates with me as I have a few similarities in my own story. I know I am a stranger, but I know that feeling of being alone. Please feel free to message me, media@timberlie.com. I think there is much strength and courage in people connecting and standing in these things together. Sending you lots of hope your way.

    4. I wish you were close by,so I could give you a hug.Prayer has always helped me get thru the times when I didn’t feel loved or wanted by anyone.I would not refer to you as a Foster Care success story,but rather-as a Survivor.Foster Care is a battle & no-one comes away from a battle un-scarred. Love will find you-don’t lose hope!

    5. Dear Cricket – Please remember that success should not be gauged in freedom from pain, but in how far you have come. There is love in this world – and I send you love from afar and wish you this for all of your life. You have learned to cope, and can teach others to climb. It is your gift to us.

  7. As a high school teacher, I have many foster kids in my classes. Some of them thrive, and many other’s of them do not. One student who remains in my mind came to my classroom after school often for tutoring, or guitar club, and often just to have a place to be. He was a nice kid. His senior year of high school, he turned 18 in April. His foster parents kicked him out onto the street as his birthday present since the state would no longer pay them for giving him a place to live. He couch surfed from one friends family to the next for the rest of the year. Last I saw him, he had found a grant that helped him transition into community college, and he was attending. I don’t know if he made it through or not. I have had several students sent to my school for “pine tree therapy”….they are in trouble in the city, and someone thinks that moving out to the suburbs will cure their problems. That has almost never been a successful strategy. When I was in high school, my parents took in a foster child. He was in 6th grade, and attending middle school. He stayed with my family through his 10th grade. We lost contact for several years, and then he got back into contact. I am the godfather for his oldest son. We are on each other’s facebook friends list, and I see him and his wife every summer. I agree with the author that money and services up front would be more useful than spending it less effectively later. Every case is unique. When successes occur, it is wonderful, but that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. The number of failures unfortunately seems to require a complete restructuring of the system.

    1. If we didn’t have any system at all, how would we imagine it? If we were forbidden from removing kids from families, how then would we solve the problem? Let’s think outside the box.

      1. You asked how would we imagine a system that protects children? First off, children wouldn’t be removed from their homes. If a parent is accused of an actual crime, it would be treated like every other crime; the accused would be removed from the victim, charged and face a judge/jury. if no actual crime, but just poverty or lack of education, the parent would receive in home support including money if needed. Why are we paying strangers money for the children’s expenses when we could use it to help keep families together and improve their lives and futures?

        If both parents are facing criminal charges and it is impossible for the child to remain in their own home, safe relatives should be the next option. The very last option should be foster care, in their own area so they can remain in their school, which far better trained and far better evaluated foster parents who, preferentially, share the child’s culture and religion.

        There should be limits on number of times a child can be moved. And social workers and supervisors need much better understanding of what is and is not “neglect” or “abuse”. In fact, those terms should be far more clarified so there’s less personal discretion involved.

        And, while we’re imaging a better system, let’s force social workers and family courts to abide by the same standards as law enforcement. Let’s open up hearings, allow parents to defend themselves and get second opinions. Let’s acknowledge that it’s a normal response to be angry and desperate if your children are taken and hidden from you. Let’s have workers listen to the children they’re supposed to be protecting when they say they’re being abused by foster parents, let’s have medically fragile children placed with people who have actual training, not just whoever is available.

        I think all those things would be a good, basic start, combined with ending the financial incentization of destroying families.

    2. It should not be hard to find a way to transition young people out of foster care into independent living without allowing the evidently-common experience of seeing them dumped out willy-nilly upon reaching their majority. What steps could be taken toward achieving this goal? (Should we at least tie the end of benefits to completion of a school year? Or achievement of a diploma or certificate of completion?) Should foster parents who do “kick a foster child out” at 18 be allowed to take in other foster children?

    3. As foster mother to only one child ever, I think that there should have been more structured monitoring and “education” in how the living situation could have been more positive. No one told me anything about what I needed to do as a foster-mom other than provide food, clothing, shelter and “not be cruel or abusive.” No one gave any support in how to deal with relationships with the parents, how to help the foster-child make a positive adjustment to a “new” set of parents and a new environment. We just sort of wobbled through it.

  8. I truly admire all the work you have done. I know other foster parents who ended up adopting children, but have constant struggles. I took in a niece for tow years and not matter how we tried to help her, she wanted to go back home. She is now a single mother of two who has suffered several abusive relationships, depression and anxiety and a string of health problems. The early years are so important in a child’s development and it seems almost impossible to undo the damage that is done when they are babies.

    Bless the foster parents, the solution is complicated.

    1. I don’t believe it’s impossible to undo the damage, but I think the way we’re attempting it is inadequate and intrusive even though most the time it may be well-intended help. Neuroscience research validates the idea that change continues to occur throughout a lifetime, and that means the brain’s plasticity allows for rewiring and relearning. It does take much greater time and consistency the older you are, but it can happen. It’s not happening in the system we have. That’s our clue that we need to change.

  9. That is a very powerful piece of work! You have lived it, researched it, thought long and hard about it and come out w/ some ‘unexpected’ views. The hard part to swallow, is that there is no easy answer to the growing problem of kids living in ‘hurtful’ situations.

    1. Yep, agree. Don’t want children hurt. But also, easier for us to wrestle the questions than for children to live with what’s occurring. If someone has to struggle, let it be the adults, not the kids.

  10. The author does a journeymans job of summarizing research concerning foster care.
    There are an abundance of issues that make foster care an on going problem. Poverty is singled out as a core element in child welfare placements. The author relates her personal history in which hard work, determination and good fortune all play a role in her escaping generational poverty.
    It’s often easier to develop a checklist of what’s wrong with a system but much more difficult to develop realistic solutions.
    How do we reduce poverty?
    What are the client barriers as well as the societal barriers?
    A well done piece. Looking forward to a follow up centered on viable solutions.

    1. The author did suggest possible alternatives, including the differential response model and allocating more federal funds to support families at risk.

      STIR’s goal is to foster conversation rather than preach answers. We ask writers to explore issues by providing solid research and raising questions, which Ms. Stone did thoroughly and articulately. We encourage readers to consider what they’ve read and discuss what actions might be taken to facilitate positive change.

      One article, no matter how well-written, cannot create positive change unless readers feel compelled to contribute their own ideas, stories, and ideally, calls to action.

      Short version: The comments are the follow up.

  11. I had goose bumps throughout this piece, and I hung on every word. My heart is in my throat. Thank you for beaming your bright light of inquiry into one of the great shadows of our collective human experience. These questions you raise are alchemical. They are setting something in me in motion. Thank you, Deb. Thank you.

  12. Deb, I appreciate your honesty here. Even more so, I appreciate that you are willing to take a second, objective look into a system in which you’ve invested so heavily and personally. Not many of us are willing to test such close and personal premises. Well done!

    1. Thanks! It’s disconcerting to reassess the way you’ve spent most of your adult life. But reflection is important if we are to continue making meaning of the work we do.

  13. I have been a Court Appointed Advocate for over 20 years and appreciate your candor and experience. Your voice needs to be heard and you do a good job of educating us to the reality of the system. As a new CASA, I figured removing a child from dysfunctional parents and placing them with a ‘good’ foster family was the way to go. 20 years later I can tell you, my experience taught me the opposite. The majority of children want to be in their home surrounded by what they know. I have often thought we should be removing the parents and letting the children stay in their home. Well staffed group homes are also an alternative, especially for teenagers. Deb, you were one of the good foster homes and as you came to realize it still wasn’t life changing to the extent these kids needed. The voices of former foster kids and parents are powerful in helping raise awareness. We need to use our resources to help parents and children rebuild their broken family together. You have written a well researched article along with your life’s experience…good job!

    1. Most of the CASAs starting out that I’ve known want kids to have a better life and believe a new home will accomplish that. Many of the foster parents I knew wanted to help out and believed they were. Others had different agendas. Most of the CASAs I know who stick around any length of time come to understand the importance of connections to family. Likewise, I think, social workers and foster parents. Experience does broaden the view. I wonder how we can education others with the experience so many bring to the table. Have you seen the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c15hy8dXSps by Molly McGrath Tierney who managed Baltimore’s child welfare system for seven years. She advocates completely dismantling foster care.

  14. Wow. What a powerful piece you have written. I think most foster parents (and many social workers) don’t grasp the effect that separation has on these young minds and aren’t educated enough on the attachment issues that inevitably arise. Each separation only makes it worse – a child that ends up bouncing from home to home really gets shafted by the system.

    As a counterpoint, the Miami Herald has had an ongoing series about Florida’s foster care system called “Innocents Lost.” (http://www.miamiherald.com/projects/2014/innocents-lost/). Among the series’ other focuses, it identifies a trend of returning foster kids to their families – a practice that has resulted in a number of tragic deaths.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but tragedies abound.

  15. While this is of no help in the short-term, someday the USA and many other countries will probably move to a “basic income” for all from birth, by expanding Social Security to all instead of Social Security just for the old and for those labelled disabled in some official way — and we will no doubt see the same for Medicare for all someday. John Holt wrote about this idea of a basic income for all in the 1970s in his book “Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children”. He says you can’t have a political democracy without some degree of economic democracy. A basic income of US$1000+ a month per family member would go a long way to addressing the issue of poverty that you point out is connected to so much dysfunctional family behavior in the USA. For a parent and two kids, that would be US$3000 a month, which would be 50% above the current poverty line for a family of three. Such payments could replace needs-tested ones like welfare and unemployment and food stamps. A basic income would not be needs-tested, so it would not diminish if someone took employment or accumulated assets (big problems with the current system which in that way discourage becoming more independent). A basic income means a spouse could leave an abusive relationship without worries of extreme poverty. And it means that many families will have the money available to make it more feasible for at least one parent to stay at home for young children. With a basic income for all, neighbors and relatives would also likely have more time and money to help the children of fewer families nearby that are still struggling (like from addiction and mental illness and such).

    Germany has had several discussion about a basic income recently as a way to deal with increasing unemployment, and Switzerland is having a referendum on it. Given the falling birth rates of most industrialized countries, several government out of desperation are already paying extra to parents who have more kids. The USA also has its own small child tax credit. Also, something like a basic income (but not fully one) passed the US House around 1970 under Richard Nixon, but not the US Senate (some liberals thought it was too small); Daniel Moynihan wrote a book about it called “The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan”. Search on “Basic Income Earth Network” or “The U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network” for more information.

    1. I know too little about economics to have any idea if this is a possible solution. It seems simple, but I can hear the protests about socialism that would come. If you have enough disempowered people in society, it ensures room at the top for those who are used to being there, right?

  16. My concern is that any reduction in removals of children to foster care would supposedly lead to more in-home services, then the in-home service funding would never happen and children would die. I can’t find it now, but there were startling statistics from Florida moving in this direction. I would be interested in learning more about parents struggling with addiction and what is best for their children. Are there enough support services to know that children are relatively safe with an addicted parent? This said, I appreciate your hard look at this issue, and as a new foster parent, I benefit greatly from hearing from people like you with years of experience. I know fairly little about the cases I’m involved with so far. I hope to make a difference by being a long-term well-trained foster parent that supports reunification, but I know that it’s not enough.

    1. Unfunded mandates are a huge problem in social services and education so your concern is legitimate. The funding mechanisms and priorities would have to change first. Agencies and nonprofits that are supported by the current structure would very likely oppose complete overhaul. I don’t know how to achieve it. I just know what we are doing is wrong.

    2. As a former child victim of this flawed system, I would like to invite you back to reality. I know damn well, that foster parents do not simply take in children out of the kindness of their hearts…I am well aware of foster parents that habe made this act of kindness a very lucrative way to make money.
      So you’re wanting to know about parents with addictions. Well, first off, foster parents, do not always receive correct information about the child’s parents.

    3. While every death of a child by their family is a tragedy, removal is not necessarily the answer. Children are murdered by foster parents every day, too.

      Is possibly preventing a few deaths (while causing others in foster care) worth the destruction of thousands of lives and families, plus the generational effects, every year?

  17. I’m really not sure how to express my feelings about this except that its conclusion feel true to me personally. As a sibling to foster children, I had a firsthand account of the system and was repeatedly surprised at the time how many “homes” my new brothers and sisters had come from. It’s not a surprise that, 20 years later, the data shows this is harmful. While anyone involved in foster care may not need data to know this, I believe the data is helpful if we can use it to guide our decisions. Although everyone’s hearts are in the right place, good intent does not necessarily result in positive outcomes, as the author points out. I’m not sure where following data will lead, but it’s a reliable way to understand the effects of our actions.

    1. I think compiled anecdotal information and measurable data should provide some clarification where not to go; then to develop some priorities of where to go, but I am not well versed in those. I have some undeveloped ideas that I be researching and investigating.

      1. It used to be the system tried to keep kids apart that went through it. The truth is kids would find ways to keep in contact. Kids talk to each other not workers. Are there facilitated groups now with foster kids run by people that have been in foster care? Is there any place where a child can talk about their abuse without risking putting their parents in prison? I knew my parents were mentally ill and did not want to put them in prison. Kids talk to each other when they have lost all trust in the system.

  18. Yes! Thank you for this article! So many people are not aware of what is really going on. The average age of a child entering foster care is age 6, these families need more support, more services so that the child never even enters care. Which tells me this is not a case of parents not caring about their children. Some would say that I was a lucky kid who got to be adopted at age 5, but I have always said that I wonder if my mom had more support would the outcome have been different? The need for support is not just on the bio family side. Many foster/adoptive families are abusive, as mine was, as a result of being completely unprepared for the issues an older comes with. I helped prove the statistics that my childhood predicts and became a mother at 19. The pain of my own childhood was still so fresh that I was determined to do better. My son is now 16 and was just accepted to Stanford’s Jazz Institute. Motherhood has been the most rewarding job, but I don’t kid myself, I know I was a lucky one. I was lucky my boyfriend wanted to be a father, I was even luckier that he was older and had a promising career. Though I sacrificed many dreams and hopes, I can only imagine the additional stresses if I had to worry about how to put food on the table. I am now getting to finish college myself and am getting my MFT in hopes to have a voice for these children. This country has it so upside down. Thank you for speaking up and presenting the situation as it is.

    1. So glad you have been more successful through your commitment, capabilities and a supportive partner. I bet you’re proud of your son.

  19. I ran away from home the first time at 13. I was sent back. I remember the gal I talked to at the juvenile court. She said crap to me like “You just don’t like rules do you?” Of course kids don’t talk to morons. I had been isolated and had no one sane in my life at any time. It had been extreme sexual, physical, and emotional abuse all my life. I ran away again right after turning 14. That night I stayed with a friend that hid me under her bed. It was 1970. She was in foster care. I listened as her crazy foster mom got home and started hitting her and calling her whore and slut. She was a gentle kid. I told her to run away with me and she did. Six months later that same foster mother would go to prison for man slaughter. We went to her sisters foster home. It was a bad idea because the foster father was a Portland police officer. He said I would have to go back the next day but he would let the sister stay. He said we would have fun that night. He gave us beer, wine, rum, and whiskey. Then he was all over me. I was screaming “get your hands off my tits you bastard”. His wife yelled to find out what was going on. But she would not get out of bed even after I screamed telling her. I hit that cop with his telephone and puked down the front of him good. Enough to take the starch out of him. I was lucky but the other girls stayed. I was thirteen and that was my first runaway. At 14 I ran but got very ill because it was winter and snowing and I did not have anything warm. Lot’s of men would have let me stay with them if i slept with them. How many men want to sleep with children? Lots. After spending months in JDH I was sent to a group home stranger than fiction. I swear what I am about to tell you is true. First I told the worker I was an NDN and I wanted to be with native people. She said I was too light. My grandfather was full blood and had been born the first year of the civil war and spoke english only as a second language. My mother had Indian territory on her birth certificate in Oklahoma and had grown up with other natives and NDN boarding school (school abuse had caused her mental illness). We had been isolated other than school. I had been in another childs house for 10 minutes as a child. Not again until I was a teenager. No one asked about who I was. They all just made stupid assumptions. So my first foster care experience was being taken to a house. It had crosses every few feet in the living room. There was a girl on the couch about my age that would not speak at all and looked at the floor. Nobody else was around. She did ask if it was alright if she left me because she had other stuff to do. After she left the girl spoke to me enough to tell me her name. At that point a woman came through the door. Swear on everything good in this life this is true. The woman started clucking like a chicken. She thought she was a freeking chicken. I asked the girl if that was our foster mother and she said no that that was a friend of the foster mothers. After a couple hours the foster mother came home and shooed the chicken out. She made dinner and called a son down to eat that I had no idea was there. He came down the stairs a man with a full bushy mustache in drag. Kind of a Dorothy from the wizard of oz dress. Smeared red lipstick. Stoned drunk or something. I was nervous and laughed. The girl leaned over and said”Don’t lagh she’ll put you in the closet.” Foster mother came at me with a heavy spoon to hit me. I said, “That will be the last time you use that arm if you touch me”. She stopped dead. Son was crying “They are all little bitches, always little bitches”. I got the girl alone and she told me about being beaten and closets. All in whispers. I took her out of there that night after finding she had told her case worker but they were short of homes. I told her to refuse to go back and just stay in JDH until she got something better. I told them when I was caught too. It was not that they did not believe me it was “No foster care is perfect” and other statements like that. My foster homes got worse and worse. I ended up with a prostitute and heroine addict as a legal foster mother. Her old man was bringing most of the heroine into Portland at the time. I was needless to say very abused in foster care. I met many foster kids and most of them were abused in state care. I was jaded by it all. At the time that foster mothers best friend was being pimped by a caseworker at the juvenile court. They fired him but there were a couple at the time caught doing that. i was in another group home where the worker got us drunk for house meetings. The abuse by the system made me trust no one. The only thing that saved me was one young woman at the court pulled me out of that last one. Then I just went to live on my own. I was the first child on independent living in the state of Oregon. I refused to go to another foster care. And every time they sent me I took abused kids out with me. No one cared about any children. not the foster parents nor the workers. I still at 58 have a real distaste for social workers, police, judges, etc… I saved myself in spite of the states best efforts to kill me.

    1. This is truly horrifying, Mary. In my experience, foster youths who repeatedly run away are returned to the birth parents as “out-of-control” teens, or just allowed to be on the run. There is a house bill currently in Congress designed to ensure the state agency provides the youth a birth certificate, social security card, their medical records, and a bank account, as part of a means to keep them from engaging in sex trafficking. That’s a good idea, but a young person without a home will soon lose those items, or have them stolen. It’s one more good idea that is still too little too late.

      1. In the seventies they would stick you in institutions. I almost went to Hillcrest for no crime except running from abuse. That is where my prostitute foster mother had grown up as a teenager for getting pregnant. Not one foster home got me a tooth brush. I was starved in several. I went without food the longest time for two weeks. After a while you lose the desire to eat. What I know about kids is they talk to each other not workers. I was in care that did not register me in school. I did not go to high school at all in the most criminal homes. They knew as I was on an emergency move list for a year. They knew. The best thing that happened was neighborhood youth corps helped me get a job. Before that between care I was on the run alot. Creative living. I always talk to homeless kids if I run into them. Life is hard for them. I was gifted with a fine mind and will to survive. But when I went on my own I had no skills. My first car I blew up the engine. No one to tell me cars needed oil. Simple stuff like how to cook or what bills you will have to pay. In foster care it was like the streets just survival. I hope things have gotten better but with this culture and its fear of children I doubt it. I have done much in this life to help others as kids and adults. I care about people. But I don’t have time or patience to spend with people that make children the problem instead of society. There needs to be safe places for kids on the run. Harry’s Mother in Portland will take in runaways but they call their parents to get permission. An abusive parent won’t give it. They don’t want their kids talking to anybody. Outside In used to give runaways a place for the night on people’s floors. Had some interesting experiences with that. Most of these kids just need normal. Normal place to sleep at night. Normal loving environment. Teenagers are pretty hardened from experience but most I believe can be reached. The system should at least try to do more harm. I also know that people of color should deal with kids of color. More effort to hire native american, hispanic, and black social workers should happen. My family should have gotten help but it could not happen with white workers. They had no idea of native history. I know today in multnomah county I meet native mothers that wait for years to get there kids back when it should not be like that. I know as a child I was very culturally different and could not relate to the folks that spoke with me. They were completely culturally ignorant. That is the same today in many cases.

        1. I don’t think love is enough once a child has been removed from the family to whom they’re attached. I think part of the problem is well-intentioned people who believe it is getting in over their heads with complex needs they didn’t anticipate, and then feeling overwhelmed by the child and under-supported by the community. I do think relationships are key though, and that primary relationships need to be started early and uninterrupted except in the most extreme cases. Attachment and stability are key.

          1. There is truth to what you are saying. Too many kiddo’s are taken when families could be supported. At the same time some children have to be kept safe. I had to be out of my home. The only way my family could have made it would have been the native community stepping in and helping my mom through what she had been through but my Dad would have went to prison along with several siblings would have been arrested. It is tough but for some including myself home was not an option. Even though I grew up in a very large family no one connected with each other. I did not miss anyone when I left. I made a connection later with my mom when I went back to get some understanding. But I don’t feel I have a family. I am on the outside of it. The truth of it should not have been that I and many others got more abuse in foster care. It should have been safe. It should have been culturally appropriate.. I have many friends I love today and I have found a place in my own culture that gives me a sense of belonging. Yes I have attachment issues but I also had them at home with my family. It felt like living in a house with dangerous strangers. I do have suggestions. 1. Don’t make the child’s family out to be monsters no matter how bad they are. Never helps anyone especially the child. 2. Don’t tell children they were not loved. Even if they were not. 3. Don’t set out to fix a child. Focus on the good and begin there. 4. Pay close attention to who the child is culturally. If you have a culturally different child their community can help fill the blank spots a bit. It may make all the difference in the child feeling supported later. 5. Don’t think a child won’t lie about their abuse if a parent or sibling may go to jail. 6. Counseling in groups for foster kids. Most of the one on one treatment for children makes them feel different. The point should be they are not alone and they can make their dreams happen. 7. Quit labeling kids so much. It makes them feel sicker. They behave worse. 8. If poverty is the issue than help the family rather than pay so much later for incarceration etc… 9. Screen foster parents very well. 10. Quit medicating kids so much. 11. Life skills have to be given to kids in care and support after 18 if needed. I have more but that is all for now.
            Foster care should be the last resort.

  20. Really interesting post. I’m sure my perspective is skewed by the fact that I was 14 when I entered in foster care and all other kids I met were also teens, but I have to say I never ever met anyone who wanted to return to their birth family. As much as I disliked the foster home (I was only in one home), I had no doubt that it was an improvement.

    I do agree that coming from poverty was the norm among foster kids. I was unusual in coming from a middle-class background. My observation is that social workers and the police would remove kids quickly if the kids said they were sexual abused, but otherwise no one would pay the least attention to anything else kids reported about how they were being treated or what they wanted. I was able to enter foster care because my mother gave me up one fine day, but I had been begging social workers to be removed a long time before that. For all its innumerable flaws, I’m glad that there was a state apparatus that eventually helped me escape.

    Like teh other foster care alum above, I have no family and or close friends, but I’m pretty happy because I have the things I wanted as a child — an apt of my own, some money in the bank, stabilty, tranquility. I definitely don’t yearn for a family. I know the difference between myself and other foster kids with worse outcomes is mostly money — coming from a middle-class background, inheriting money which helped me to fix many of my young adult mistakes, being able to earn a decent living, etc.

    Regarding education and most foster parents being uneducated, that is really disturbing. One thing that truly shocked me as a kid was the lack of concern over the education of children in care. Kids, including myself, were made to switch schools repeatedly, there was zero academic encouragement or support programs, everyone assumed that the kids, including myself, would get manual labor jobs or at best become secretaries regardless of their grades or potential. Luckily, I had a strong sense of middle-class entitlement and believed that college was my birthright (lol) long before I entered foster care. I dont have the skills to be a foster mother full time but I would like to volunteer to be a babysitter or someone who takes the kid out once in a while to a museum or something. Are there any programs you know about?

    1. I’m glad you had a positive or at least neutral foster home setting to reach adulthood, and that you didn’t bounce around. So important! It also sounds like you had some internal resilience (believing in yourself, the idea of going to college) and very importantly, the financial resources to stabilize a life for yourself. I’m not sure where you’re from, but I can tell you about the resources in our area and maybe you have something like them in yours. You can call the child welfare office and tell them you’d like to mentor, be a big sibling, tutor, whatever, and they may be able to recommend a program. You may have to be fingerprinted and have a criminal background check. You can take the foster parent classes to learn about the system rules, and become a respite provider. You wouldn’t necessarily have to take kids for days, but possibly for an afternoon. (Different locales require different training/background checks.) You could volunteer to be a lunch buddy at a local elementary school as they usually pair with kids who need some extra support. You could contact the local CASA program (link above can get you there) to become an advocate for a child. You could volunteer to be a reading buddy through your local library. Most elementary schools need volunteer listeners for emerging readers too. It’s great you want to give back!

    2. I have been looking into this organization, I don’t know of any first hand experiences yet. But from what I can tell it seems like their mission is solid. Their focus is on providing support for the family as a whole, so they have volunteers for things like babysitting. http://www.safe-families.org/ They are only in 22 states though, so not sure your location. I know here in Los Angeles several foster care agencies work with them. Deb, do you have any experience with them? Thoughts?

      1. I don’t. I have some peripheral knowledge of “relief nurseries” in the Portland, OR area. I understand they provide parenting classes, respite, play dates and other activities and supports for parents and children. I had only heard the employees speak, and I do know they work with some foster families, but not only foster families. Recently a young mom told me how supportive they’ve been in her life, so that seems promising.

    3. I am very happy about your good experience with foster care, but I also don’t believe you had a typical experience. In many ways (not all) you had the experience of what foster care SHOULD be. One stable family that wasn’t abusive (just assuming since you did not mention that they were). I am not sure how aging out was for you. Were you thrown out of your foster home on your 18th or 21st birthday? Many of us were.

      You maintained a tie with your biological family even if it wasn’t physical one. Otherwise you would not have gotten an inheritance. You KNEW you belonged to them. You were SOMEONE’S child even if that someone was not a great person/parent/family. Some of us go our entire childhoods as NOBODY’S child in a sea of temporary families who reject us repeatedly.

      Your foster family was an improvement to your biological family. Many of us experienced far more abuse in foster care. My mother went to prison for felony child abuse, so it shouldn’t have been hard to find me a place that was safer than with my biological mother and stepfather, but apparently it was. My experiences in foster care were just as traumatic and sometimes far worse than my biological mother (with every type of abuse), but then I had the added traumas of being rejected and abandoned by family after family after family on top of the abuse and neglect. I grew up just wanting a home and a family that would keep me.

      I disagree that the main difference between you and other foster children is mostly money. You may have had the means, which is a very big factor in your success, but you also had a solid, stable foundation (even if it was shaky and unsafe at times). That middle class entitlement and feelings of having a birthright came from self-esteem/self-worth which comes from more than just money. Some of us never learned that we matter or that we have any kind of birth right. Some of us lived in dozens of homes, starting at a very early age (42+ for me). We learned that nobody wanted us, that we were worthless, defective, “damaged goods.” Many foster children never develop the skills to survive outside of foster care. They were never prepared for college. Only slightly more than 50% of foster children will even graduate from high school.

      I am very happy that you had a better experience in foster care than with your biological family and I’m also very happy that you are doing so well now. I just think it’s important to be aware that your experience may have not been the typical experience and your success is due to more than just financial means. There are many factors in your success (including your own strength) and there are many factors in the lack of success in other foster children. I worry that people are going to think the issue is purely a financial one. We could throw a great deal of money at kids leaving foster care and I believe many of them would still not succeed because of issues and problems that run deeper than dollars.

    1. I know that many times the experience in foster care is grim or abusive. i know that the motive for foster parenting is sometimes financial. I know that the system is flawed and doesn’t serve children well and that few caseworkers are attentive. I can acknowledge that the children who lived with me as a foster parent…some for a weekend and some for 5 years ,longed for their biological home, but it is hard for me to hear foster parents painted with a broad brush. as “bad”. Many of us paid from our own pockets money we couldn’t afford for enrichment activities, took our foster kids on family vacations, arranged our work schedules so we were at home, when they were, volunteered in their classrooms, had our houses damaged and our pets harmed and, didn’t give up on kids because we understood their rage. We genuinely loved the children who stayed long term and privately wept when they went home because we missed them. So, yes, being home with bio parents and figuring ways to make that reality is ideal, but I know MANY foster parents (you, Deb for example) who gave kids an island of stability in an imperfect system. Not all foster parents are bad.

      1. I don’t believe all foster parents are bad. In fact, I think most are average people who start out with good intentions. It’s the system that I think is wrong. I liked what this former administrator said, that foster care should be rare, swift, and decisive.

        1. I love what you say here about “rare, swift, and decisive.” It seems to me that one of the worst things about the system is its randomness and the lack of decisiveness.

  21. Deb I really got a lot out of this article and shared it. As the sibling to someone our family adopted out of foster care, your piece really resonated with me. I have one suggestion. Would you consider making an edit to the paragraph where you talk about your foster son formerly staying with: “Christians, Catholics, etc…” to “Protestants, Catholics, etc.” or “Evangelicals, Catholics, etc.” Catholics and Protestants are both Christians, they just have different theological beliefs.

    1. I’m glad you found it informative and shared it. It’s an important topic whether people agree or disagree with my point of view. As for editing: I was representing how he saw it as a ten-year-old boy who had not opportunity to know or understand any of the theologies because he was re-homed so many times. He didn’t say, nor did he understand Protestant, Evangelical, etc. Your request reinforces the point: how can any child moved between religious cultures know what to believe or what to call it?

      1. What you mentioned about editing makes sense.

        I really think this is an issue that conservatives and liberals could find a lot of common ground on, and possibly work to make changes. What do you think? What can we do to strengthen first families? I would like to see some of the churches that are placing so much emphasis on adoption — particularly the adoption of overseas children — to put more of their time, money and promotion into helping first families through parent mentoring programs, nutrition classes, childcare classes, vocational classes, afterschool care, and of course, financial help.

        1. I think in schools and neighborhoods that beginning to recognize children who struggle as valuable and valued citizens instead of children that we want our children to avoid would help. Ensuring children and their parents feel welcome despite their limitations. Reaching out to offer encouragement rather than judgment. Voting to support social programs that provide positive opportunities for those less fortunate and provide safe childcare and teen activities. Caring deeply about one person who is not in our family circle is a really basic way of changing the world that each of us could do to impact change.

  22. Deb, I have long wondered what the trade off has been between group homes/orphanages and foster care. Could we have done better with orphanages if we had had had better supervision and support to prevent abuse there? Is it worse to have been raised in an institutional situation as opposed to multiple “home” situations? Would close supervision of children and parents in the original parental situation have been a better option? i.e. keeping the children in their own homes, but providing close oversight of what went on at home? I don’t have any answers, but if someone as dedicated as you have been to the welfare of foster children finds that moving children out of their own presumed-abusive/neglectful homes may be as damaging or more damaging than leaving them with their parents, then I am ready to be taught. This article is mind-blowing and very disturbing.

    1. I think a very large number of children bounce around group homes too. I lived in 42 different placements but many of them were group homes, shelters, treatment centers, and foster homes. Just because something is an institutional setting, doesn’t mean it’s more stable. Kids can get removed from group homes for many different reasons. My brother lived in more group homes than foster homes. Group homes add a whole new set of issues on top of being a foster kid. Although, one of my favorite places was a group home, so I am not saying they are all ‘bad.’ I don’t think growing up in a group home or orphanage is the best choice for a child. It may be better than bouncing around and severe abuse, but I do think we should strive for more than “better than horrible” when it comes to child welfare.

      It’s tough because I don’t believe there is a one size fits most mold we can use when it comes to child welfare. There will always be a need for foster care, but foster care should be rare and the stays should be short. Children need family and if that family can’t be their bio family, then they need an adopted family. I also believe that if it’s safe to do so, then it should be mandatory that bio families stay connected, including extended family. I do not have any family today because the state made a choice to completely sever all ties with my bio family. I’d probably feel a little less isolated, alone, and disconnected in this world if I had connections and a group of people I belonged when I was growing up and today. It doesn’t just have to be mom and/or dad. Most people don’t age out of their families and support system’s at 18 or 21 in some states. People need stable, permanent, loving connections in life. That’s just part of the human condition. Not even the best institutions can provide that.

      1. Marsha, I’m ill-equipped to know the answer. I just know the questions. I’m starting to think there has to be a huge upset in the distribution of funds so that more money goes into supporting families. I also think we need to start education about what it takes to parent and contribute in a family in elementary school. I know people don’t want morality taught, but could we agree on a moral code for decency? I don’t know. Even third graders could understand Maslow’s hierarchy. Even third graders could understand to never shake a baby. Starting the process when you’ve got a child, or after you’ve neglected or hurt a child is too late…especially for that child. One of my kids said that he could have survived better if only they’d have either sent the child home sooner or cut the ties so child could get on with their life in another family. Limbo is devastating. I think that’s what Cricket seems to say too.

        1. I actually don’t think you need to, nor should you cut all ties with a child’s bio family in order for a child to be adopted into another family unless the bio family is dangerous in some way. I think it’s actually better for most children to stay connected with their bio family if possible AND be adopted by another family if they can’t return to their bio family.

          1. Yes, I believe in maintaining connections. I was just stating what one of my kids said. And I wasn’t clear…I meant to suggest that you seemed to say limbo was part of what was so devastating. Did I get that right?

    1. Deb I can’t begin to express how much I related to your story and commend you for all that you have done for “our” children. I discovered your story while doing research for a college course term paper in which my subject or thesis is based on the problems that aging out causes to foster children.
      I myself fall into the statistics like a well fitting glove, my story starts at the age of 5 my parents were divorced and my mother had received custody of me and my 3 brothers which caused her to have to work 2 jobs, well apparently our babysitter had chosen to just leave us alone one evening and the police found my 3 year old brother wandering the streets at 2 a.m. trying to find someone to get him a drink of water. Needless to say no questions asked the police scooped me and my brothers up and dumped us on my fathers doorstep (he had just remarried another woman who already had 2 kids). Now my father had made it perfectly clear to the police and us kids that he did not want us and did everything in his power to stop the police from leaving us with him, but he would ultimately have no choice in the matter as he was told that he either take us or the police would take him to jail. My father had no problem in expressing himself verbally and physically to me in particular that he did not want me. He seems to take his anger towards my mother out on me as I was the constant reminder to him of how she caused us to have to be in his home. So my father had a very physical abusive anger that typically would involve the leather belt with the nice etched pattern that one time in particular the belt would come unfolded as he went to strike me with it and end up wrapping itself around my stomach leaving blood blisters that matched the decorative pattern. So I am sure you can understand that the abuse got to be to much for me so I had tried to runaway (what became a total of 17 runaways on my juvenile record) my step mother told me the first time I ran away I was 7 years old and I went to the juvenile hall and asked them to keep me as anything would be better than to be at my dad’s house. Now this is what I could never understand the fact that no one thought about checking as to why I was running away so much and starting so young. I could not get anyone to believe the severity of the abuse my father would inflict on me. (Believe it or not I am now 53 and I still have the scars on my rear end from the many beatings I got from that belt) My step mother would end up divorcing him because she couldn’t watch him continue to treat me that way and he wouldn’t stop. Well I eventually end up in my first foster home which was an absolute nightmare it was obvious they were foster parents for one reason only and that was the money, they were mean and wouldn’t feed us. So me and one of the other girls ran away to my step mothers house where she had tried to get custody of me but unfortunately step parents had no rights in those days and in fact faced going to jail just for my presence at her home. This was when I knew my dad was happy making me unhappy, after all he obviously did not want me why not take the easy way and let me go live with my step mom, he couldn’t do that because that was what I wanted. Well with the help of my father and his bank account at the age of 15 my father had me declared as incorrigible and I was made award of the court I was placed into a facility called Girls Rehabilitation Facility for 6 months which was basically a place that the really bad girls got sent to (my only crime I had ever committed was running away in fact I was a straight A student) It was when I was to be released that I was placed on probation (for what reason I don’t know) and was immediately placed into another foster home with the most wonderful woman, I knew she was a decent person simply by the way she immediately thought my father was an absolute ***** and had no problem saying it to him in a polite manner. This foster home at its fullest would have 6 teenage girls and this woman Ida was her name was such a caring and compassionate lady, she became a foster parent for all the right reasons and made everyone of her girls feel as though they belonged. She showed me how much she cared and how much she wanted to make sure that I never felt the pain of the abuse and nobody wanting me, and continually told me that I am a wonderful person and that people cared. I was quite devastated when it all came to an end one day. I had made the mistake of driving my boyfriends car at the age of 17 with only my drivers permit (I was driving it back to my boyfriend who had been drinking the night before and I didn’t want him to drive so I took him home and kept his car) and of all people to pull up beside me my probation officer does and orders me back to Ida’s well upon my arrival I am scared to death and in tears and I find Ida just as upset crying and begging my PO to please don’t take me back to juvenile hall she promises to punish me with severity she states that I am a teenager who has made a mistake don’t make me pay such a high price but the PO is adamant and proceeds to take me back to juvenile hall. After about 1 week there I am just over 17 and the courts have decided that they do not want to be responsible for me any longer because I am a trouble maker with no regard for the law there direct words so they literally release me from juvenile hall with nothing and no one and I have been emancipated so in reality I have been pushed out on my own at 17 to which I end up as the common statistics that you speak of I had my first child at 17, I have been homeless countless times, I did not graduate high school, I have been a drug addict, I have been a victim of domestic violence to the severity where he almost killed me. I have lived a life with a whole lot of pain and sadness and continue to wonder when will it be my turn. I continually feel in my heart I am a good person with a big heart and just don’t understand why or when am I ever going to feel the happiness that I know I deserve and that I see everyone else around me has. I did keep in touch with that wonderful foster mother Ida on a regular basis as I do know that to her I was one of her daughters as she called us (she used to joke and say that the word “foster” was a cus word and we don’t cus in her house) that she didn’t have foster daughters she only had daughters and that was the way she treated us all with a lot of love, patience, understanding and compassion. She has obviously passed on since but I know that she has a beautiful place in heaven where she is surrounded by all the daughters that she raised over the many years that she gave her love to those of us who were troubled and just needed someone to show us the way and love unconditionally.

      1. Karen, I’m glad you could share your experience here, and I’m glad that you found support in Ida’s care and attention. Those kind of childhood experiences do stay with us for a lifetime, but I’m glad to hear you seeking healthier happier situations. Everyone deserves to be safe and to feel welcome in our world. Take good care of yourself.

  23. What a fantastic article. Very well written. Thanks for your post. I work in this field and these are the types of analysis that is needed when making those huge decisions impacting children’s lives. Unfortunately, we tend to overlook the lasting impact some of those decisions have and just focus on the present, make the decisions we need to make and move on to another case. In the majority of the cases with good intentions. Again, thank you for your post, great article to discuss when we are sitting in one of our regular professional meetings.

  24. My daughter is adopted by a director of CASA and her law enforcement husband she has been physically abused raped in and out of juvi mental institutions no one will help everyone that’s tried has been shut up she is 14 and I’ve found porn with her in it nobody cares I’m guessing your alumni is above the law.

    1. Tawnya, It’s so important to make your concerns known to law enforcement, court personnel, social workers or their supervisors. I don’t have any way to help you have someone look into this but you can and should report any time you believe a child is not safe, and if you aren’t heard the first time, be sure to speak with someone else until you are heard.

  25. Have you ever heard of foster care being used as a “punishment” against the kids themselves to “teach them a lesson” about the choices they’ve made that the state disagrees with?

    Because that’s what we’re dealing with as foster parents and we’re feeling used by the system and so sorry for our foster kids. The behaviors they’re being punished for aren’t out of line with behaviors other teens engage in without receiving such an excessive response so we don’t understand.

    1. I haven’t heard of foster care as a punishment per say, although I’ve heard things said that were threats similar to that. For example, I have heard a judge tell a teenager that if they broke curview again while they lived with their mother, they would be taken from her care and placed in foster care. So maybe that amounts to the same thing you’re talking about. I think judges are often frustrated that there is little they can do when a young person is out of control if the child refuses to abide by a parent’s or the court’s rules. My experience is that those teens rarely get more compliant once they are in care–instead, many of them feel like they have nothing to lose–and they act out more. I’m glad you care about your foster kids and the extent to which you can show your care, empathize with their frustration that it isn’t fair, and yet hold the boundaries that are needed, you’re providing important lessons to the youth. They do need to understand that if the defy rules constantly, they are going to have less control and choices in their own lives. If you can help them see that cause and effect, and help them know they are loved, you are helping them so much.

  26. There are some major issues with the anecdotal evidence provided here and even more with the research provided. While foster care is not perfect and there are certainly bad homes, it gets a worse rap than it deserves. .First the anecdotal… The foster families I know are all good Chirstians, loving, and caring and treat foster kids as their own. The article suggests children are better off staying with family and use evidence in long term outcomes, but the kids who stay with their parents come from a different sample than those who go into foster care permanently. If a child goes back to his parents it means that those parents or family members go through training to get them back and also make sthem more likely to be children of neglect instead of significant abuse (thus the kids staying in foster care are more scarred when first entering than those who eventually leave were when they entered). This article also ignores the fact that many foster care children get adopted (and thus are with family). In fact 21% (or 54k) children are adopted each year by foster parents! The real issue is the length of time to make a decision for life plans. This happens because the preference is given to the biological parents and family. We dont respect the rights of the child but instead focus on the right of the parents. Often leaving the child waffling in foster care for too long without certainty of a future. it is a system that needs fixing, but the problem in my opinion is because we emphasize parental rights instead of childrens rights .

    1. I was in three foster homes before aging out. All Christian. Trust me. That is NO guarantee there will not be physical abuse or molestation. And believe me, we kids talked to each other. “Christians” can be foster parents for the money and power over others lives just like regular folks. You sound like someone with a vested interest in believing that Christians do no harm. In my experience, and that of friends, “good Christians” have been the worst. Call it anecdotal if you like, but I was there. My friends were there. You have, by your own admission, been removed from the situation. Perhaps you could leave the evaluations and reporting to those with a more direct experience.
      I’m now directly involved as a foster parent to create a healthy (as much as possible) AND SAFE alternative for kids in the system. And, 40 years later, I still remember my experience in foster care.
      While you are entitled to your opinion, perhaps you would waive your certainty in the face of others’ direct experience.

  27. We agree that the timelines for adults to get their lives in order, and the amount of time children spend languishing in foster care, is detrimental to many children.

  28. Though I wasn’t an official state foster child, I spent about half my childhood in foster situations due to the fact that my mom was terminally ill and my father an alcoholic. When I was twelve, my grandmothers went to court and won temporary custody after Dad almost killed me during a drunken rage. (He was a doctor and held political office so he knew the local cops and judges quite well; as a result, there were no criminal charges but he was committed to psychiatric facilities twice that I know of.) Before that, I can’t count how many times I was called to the school office where I was handed a sack full of clothes and a bus number, then was dropped at the end of a stranger’s drive where I stayed for various periods—sometimes months—until Dad reclaimed me. I also suffered various forms of abuse and neglect, including molestation, yet considered myself lucky in comparison to several girls I knew in the state system. (I’ve also suffered many of the side effects common to such an unsettled childhood, such as depression, anxiety, health issues, homelessness, trust issues, and a series of abusive relationships.) What saved me from the worst of it was the fact that the judge who handled the custody case ordered me into counseling until age 18, in addition to my love of learning & the support of several caring teachers. I think counseling and job training are the two best answers to alleviate the lifelong suffering of those in foster care. So many foster kids end up homeless; wouldn’t they have a better chance and feel more in control of their lives if we provided them with a means of self-support BEFORE they turn 18 and end up kicked out of the system with no one and nowhere to turn? Just a thought…

    1. Agreed that counseling is important. And think that some parents and families would benefit from intensive family counseling and supports before children are removed. Too many counseling services are the 50 minute a week variety which is insufficient when people are struggling on multiple domains and children are in the home.

  29. Deb,
    Thank you for writing this. This only verified my love for kids and the need and the want to help make a difference. Thank you.

  30. foster “care” is a joke! I got treated like crap, screamed at, hit all the time, made to feel completely worthless. now I”m older I push everyone away don’t let anyone get close and trust no one thats what foster care did to me! I would have rather stayed in a group home my foster “mother” was a evil bitch and hope she dies and rots in hell!

    1. Aw, Jules, I hear the anger and hurt. I can’t fix it and I can’t change your awful experiences. I hope you will reach out for counseling or support, or find one safe person you trust. Life can be so much more than isolation even if you have good reasons to want to protect yourself. There are some resources at the bottom of the article you could check out. Or you can contact me through my website at http://www.debstone.net I’m sorry so many adults let you down.

  31. I lived with my grandmom until she unexpectedly died when I was 5. IN the midst of my grief, I moved in with my mom was a drug addict who neglected me during her binges, and who had a boyfriend who beat us. That said, one day when I was 7, a social worker took me to family court to decide my fate. The sudden realization that I could be taken away from my mom was the most horrifying thing I could have thought could happen to me; I lied to everyone involved from that moment on and told all the adults that everything was fine. From age 7 until I was 17 I hid the abuse in my household and shared with no one, because there was one fate much worse than any abuse I experienced: losing my mom. It doesn’t matter to a kid if their mother is a drug addict – yeah, it hurts, but it doesn’t hurt as bad as losing her. No well-meaning foster parent could have replaced my mom- no one would have known how to hug me like her and talk to me like her – my mom, for better or worse, was my mom, and we loved each other, even though she was screwed up.

    I graduated high school and then graduated college. I’ve never been arrested, and have never taken drugs. But if I had been taken from my mom, I think I would have died – or else been buried in depression and been lost to whatever drugs they would have put me on to control my grief. Foster care is a child’s worst nightmare – no family, however much they might be some ideal family, is better than your own. To think so is to force some elitist middle class value onto other peoples’ children – it’s similar to taking Native children from their tribes to give them a “decent upbringing” which destroyed entire generations of native kids. Attachment is a human fact and is basic to our emotional makeup, and this idea that kids can just endure losing their parents because someone thinks their family isn’t healthy (and even if it isn’t) just doesn’t change the fact that our first and most basic need as humans is attachment – and that attachment can’t be changed on a whim.

    1. You are lucky you survived. Many of us did not have the romantic feelings of “attachment” you describe. For some of us, it was beaten out at a young age and we would have done anything to find a place of peace and no violence.

      And because, “children belong with (and are the property of) their parents” and “children lie”; no one tried to protect some of us, even though we told the truth about the abuse and endless violence. I left home shortly after I turned 14, because I knew that if I didn’t, I would have been dead by 15. I am certain.

      After years on the street, I was placed with a series of foster parents until I joined the military as soon as I could. None of the homes were perfect, but every one of them was better by far than the home I was born into.

      Obviously, our experiences are our own and lead to different conclusions. You say keep the family together at all costs. I say that all too often the system’s enforced family reunification ends in death for the youth.

      It may be true that no other adult can take the place of one’s mother. For some, like me, that was a gift. It was from those other adults that I learned simple things like hygiene and caring for myself. I learned that I was smart and I could do anything I set my mind to. I learned what it felt like to have someone really care about what happened to me and I learned that an adult’s touch doesn’t always mean being hurt.

      You call the response to protect children an “elitist middle class value”. I call it a simple human one. The idea that violence and drugs are limited to the ‘lower classes’ is itself an elitist one. It is part of the collection of beliefs that makes poverty itself a crime. And, it is far too widespread in my opinion.

      Now, 44 years after I left an abusive home with no idea where I would end up, simply to survive, I’m an active participant in the foster care system, providing respite care and a place of safety, kindness, and encouragement to youth from 4-18.

      I came from poverty, as do some of the youngsters I welcome into our home. Not all of the youth are from poor families, but all of them have been abused, neglected, and/or sexually assaulted. Every one of them is looking for a safe place to be. That is the goal of foster care and while it is, admittedly, not always attained, I’m content knowing that in these kiddos lives, I am now one of the safe, loving adults that back then I wished so hard had intervened earlier in my life.

      1. Your response and Heather G’s show that there is no one answer to address a complex problem. I hope we could all agree that children deserve to be safe and loved. I think we could all agree that we ought to try and help the parents fix the problems or remove the barriers where kids are unsafe or feel unloved. Conversations are the place to start by hearing each other’s experience. I’m glad you each felt like you could voice your experience here.

  32. Mrs. Deb are you still fostering children or have you retired? I am trying to use your article for an essay for my college English class.

    1. Sorry I saw this so late. I no longer foster. I had a houseful that became permanent and focused on them.

  33. Hi! My name is Emily Gil and I’m doing an investigative journalism assignment about this topic and was not only very impressed by your essay, but very intrigued to know more. Is there any way I can contact you? My email is emaliah47@gmail.com. Hopefully you’ll see this comment. Thank you so much!! And good job!

  34. Emily Gil- which newspaper do you work for? Are you trying to interview adults who have been in foster care? I went through hell and back.

    1. I don’t work for a newspaper, I’m just a college student! Interviewing you would be a great help, so yea! Email me! Thank you.

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