How often have you walked past that young person sitting on the sidewalk, dirty and desperate with their hands held out for change, and wondered how they got there?
Yes, there are many paths that lead to homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution, but unfortunately a common road is the one that winds through the foster care system.
Not only are many foster children scarred and hopeless after being passed from family to family as they grew up, never feeling the security and love of a life long home, but children that turn eighteen in the foster system “age out” and are turned out to face the world, often penniless and alone.
This week Diane from Partners in Prayer for our Prodigals looks at the foster care system and in particular the “aging out” crisis in a three part series.
Today I asked her how she got involved in foster care and what she believes we need to do to help these children and our society.
Janice: Hi Diane, thanks so much for joining us today. First may I ask what led you to become a foster parent and how old were your biological kids and your foster child when you began?
Diane: Thank you Janice. Because I grew up in an alcoholic home with a father who battered my mother and me, I had the opportunity to see the difference another person can make when they swoop into someone’s life and save them. I was homeless at the age of 15 for three months. A relative and his new wife heard of my situation and offered to share their home and their lives with me. I slept on their living room couch in their tiny one-bedroom home, they made arrangements for me to reenter high school; they loved me with a passion that began to heal the ulginess and anger I harbored from years of pain and sadness. They completely and forever changed the direction of my life. They not only nurtured my physical well-being, they fed my soul.
After meeting my husband in college, we were married in 1974. Soon, thereafter, my younger sister ran away from the same home I had escaped. Although we were newlyweds, we took her in. She met another young girl at her new school who was on the run from an abusive home; we phoned Social Services and they asked us if she could stay with us until they could send out her Social Worker. Three months later, after Dawn was securely in our home and hearts–the Social Worker came and announced to us that my husband and I were too young to be foster parents (we were 25 and 23 respectively). However, after a few tears on my part and the great negotiating skills of my husband, the Social Worker agreed to start the licensing process. Dawn was the first of 21 foster children over the next 12 years.
Our birth children were born in 1980, 1982 and 1992. They did not know any other experience; we had foster kids before we had our own children. They grew up loving each foster child that was in our home.
Janice: How did your children respond to this new family member?
Diane: Honestly, Janice, they have a solid relationship with just one of our foster children, Diana. Many of our foster children were in our home for brief amounts of time (less than a year). Diana came to our home at the age of 13, leaving when she graduated from high school to begin working. Our children were 5 and 3 years old when Diana came into our lives and they still consider her their older sister (and her children are their nieces and “god-children”). She is a member of our extended family and was most recently our daughters matron of honor.
This relationship has been very rewarding, yet I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that there are painful moments to any blended family. Suffice it to say, as with any family dynamic, open and honest communication is a must–that and a healthy dose of grace!
Janice: In your essay, you highlight the difficulties foster children face when they turn eighteen and are forced to leave the foster care system. Studies, like those you quote in your essay, prove that this part of the system is failing foster children. Do you see this as the greatest problem facing the foster care system? What do you believe the government and society should be doing to address this problem?
Diane: Quite frankly, I believe that foster children suffer great hits to their self-esteem even while in the foster care system. Teen years are especially difficult. As you know, teens do not like to be different, in any shape or form, from the group. Foster children are different at a foundational level: they do not live with their own mom or dad. Other people look suspiciously at foster children, wondering what they did to be placed in a foster home. Unaware, many people presuppose that the foster child is guilty of some dysfunctional or inappropriate behavior.
Foster children, when placed, are often moved to a new school, a new house, a new church, a new community. Gone are their friends, their extended family, and any support system they may have had in place. While these can be integrated while in foster care; it is still is a hit to their esteem and self-confidence. Trusting is an essential part of healthy relationships; these children learn early not to trust anyone or anything.
I believe that while the foster care program is not a perfect answer, it is a GOOD answer for minor children. However, upon graduation or emancipation, these young people take their unresolved and painful insecurities into the real world where insecurities and pain only compounds. Without a family to lean on, they often find ways to cope that are harmful and damaging to themselves and others. The “aging out” problem is a huge crisis for these young adults and their future.
I believe awareness of this crisis is a very important start to societal and government intervention. This is a multi-level dilemna: we need more transitionary programs for these children, perhaps we need Interim Social Workers from differing agencies to follow through the transition. But the government does not provide hugs, gifts at holidays and birthdays, or a kiss good-night. That is up to us.
One of my readers, a former foster child, posted a very interesting comment on my blog. She stated,
“My greatest disappointment with institutionalized churches has been their focus on getting children born into this world, but not wanting to become involved in the aftermath often experienced by unwanted children.”
Real conviction requires action.
Janice: You quote Harriet Mauer, Director of Social Services Overseeing Residential Care at Good Shepherd, as saying, “We ask more of our fragile, vulnerable foster children than we would ask of our own kids. We expect them [foster kids] to be out on their own cold turkey” (cited in Boyle, 2000). What was your personal experience sending your foster daughter out into the world? What kind of support system did you offer her to aid in the transition? What would you do differently if faced with the same situation again?
Diane:When our foster daughter graduated from high school, we did what other parents do. We shared the excitement of finding and setting up her own apartment (she opted not to go to higher ed–which was an option extended to her) and encouraged her as she began her new career. We continued to assure her that although she was not legally our child–she would be part of our family–forever. This was not really solidified for her, however, until she had her first child. It was when her daughter called us Grandma and Grandpa for the first time that Diana settled into home. Today, we have three granddaughters..who love visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house!
Janice: In conclusion, how can families like mine, who do not feel able to take in a foster child at this particular stage in our lives, help contribute to solving this problem for foster children and our society?
Diane: I’m so glad you asked that Janice! There are many ways to support foster children. I would suggest to, first of all, call your local County Social Service Office. There are programs for children that may need back-packs at the start up of school, mittens/hats/boots in the winter, Christmas gifts in December, those types of donations, as well as $$’s are always welcome and needed.
Secondly, perhaps more importantly, if you know foster parents–you can support and encourage them. If you or your children know a foster child–please treat them as though they were any other child in your neighborhood or school. They are not damaged goods–they simply have hurting hearts.
Where there’s a will…there’s a way! We can get creative. I have volunteered in classrooms with foster children who are behind in school because of their home lives. Do a quick google search on foster care–with awareness comes caring. And caring always produces results!
Because someone(s), long ago, stepped into my life and helped reshape my future and my heart–I feel it is something that I must do in return. It is not an obligatory sort of thing–it is merely a heart string that longs to find another heartstring. That kind of connectedness works miracles!
Janice: Thanks again Diane for your time and for your great blog, Partners in Prayer for our Prodigals.