08 Aug Foster Hope not Judgment
Imagine you are a 16-year-old girl. You’ve been in foster care since you were taken into custody by the Department of Family and Children Services when you were five-years-old when a teacher noticed severe bruising on your arms and legs. Your stepfather started molesting you at age 3, and your mother, who has developed a meth addiction, has disappeared. Your siblings were all taken into custody, too, but each of you was sent to different foster families throughout the state. You go through two failed adoptions. One of your adoptive older brother’s molests you, and you were entered the system again.
Now that you are a teenager, there are no more foster families available, because you’ve developed “anger and behavioral issues.” One of psychologists you’ve seen prescribed psychotropic drugs for you that sap your energy and make you gain weight. Now you live in a group home with five other girls. You’ve been through 38 placements, which means you’ve attended more schools than you can count. Miraculously, your GPA is a 3.0, but your high school transcripts are a mess. You are a junior, but no one has talked to you about your future. You are in survival mode. You long ago gave up any dream of participating in after-school events, because the transportation issues are too difficult to work out. Besides trying to get the money for any extras like field trips, uniforms or anything is a big hassle.
You’ve never spent the night with a friend. You can’t just go to a movie spur of the moment. You can’t get your learner’s permit, because you’re missing your official IDs. You keep asking your caseworker about helping you replace them, but it never seems to happen. But even if you had them, you don’t have anyone to teach you how to drive anyway. Still, it would be nice to have your IDs, so you could at least apply for a part-time job.
You have to do your homework at the library where there are lines for the computers, because your group home doesn’t have any computers for you to use. Sometimes you get in trouble for missing curfew, because you are trying to finish a project. College? You’ve never even thought about it, because you’re thinking about dropping out of high school.
The other girls steal from you, so you sleep with the few things you treasure under your pillow. You’ve learned to keep your mouth shut, and you try your best to be invisible. In fact, you feel invisible, forgotten, swallowed up in a ghost world that few people know exists. “Does anyone care?” you wonder.
I get really disgusted about judgments some folks have when it comes to homeless teens and older kids in foster care. In most cases, the kids themselves did nothing to precipitate being in foster care or homeless. They suffer due to the bad decisions of others. Over the last two years since I’ve been running the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (www.ODBF.org) as its unpaid president, I’ve met hundreds of teens who have overcome more barriers than most people can even imagine. Their daily lives are filled with challenges, big and small. The example I’ve given above is a composite of the many kids I’ve worked with in order to protect privacy.
What got me so angry last week was a post on another Facebook friend’s page wondering if “knowing they could never get any more welfare if they didn’t graduate high school would motivate kids.” I felt my blood boil as I read her words. It’s easy to pass judgment if you’ve never taken the time to get to know our kids.
Here’s what I wrote in response: “I work with at-risk kids — kids in foster care, who get passed from county to county, whose transcripts are a mess, who have no adults to advocate for them, who face all kinds of barriers. I can assure you that being on welfare is not what these kids want. They want a chance just like everyone else. They are often abused by the foster care system that is supposed to protect them. I recently sat with a 15 year old who had been through 32 foster placements. He still had a good grade average, but he’s the exception. The most I’ve heard was one of our recent Orange Duffel Bag Foundation graduates, who had been through 132 placements. She is 16. They want to graduate high school, but I wonder how your child would do if he or she were shuttled among that many schools? Oh, and add in not having access to technology to do your homework. Only 50% of all kids in foster graduate H.S. and only 3% go on to college. I agree that we need better assessment tools. But none of the kids I know would be motivated by the “privilege” of being on the dole. Helping them dream and giving them tools to achieve those dreams is a far more effective approach.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met many caseworkers and others who work within the system who truly care about the kids they serve, and we love partnering with those folks. But the foster care system itself in our nation is broken. In the majority of states, kids age out of the foster care system at age 18. I don’t know many 18-year-olds who are equipped to be completely self-sufficient at that age, much less one who has been effectively cut off from the natural community connections and social interactions most kids take for granted.
The number of kids in care aging out without one single caring adult in their lives has skyrocketed by 42% over the last decade. These kids become our invisible homeless. They fill our prisons – more than 70% of inmates report having spent time in foster care or homeless shelters as children. They are victimized by the drug and sex trades.
Unfortunately a lot of laws and rules are made without a clear understanding of the impact they will have on the lives of children in foster care. They are confusing to me — a reasonably, intelligent adult — so I can only imagine how confused a teen is. Just this week, our family of advocates team spent about 30 minutes after the Atlanta coaching class with our current ODBF students discussing the myriad of situations that popped up. Some students don’t have proper IDs although it is Georgia law that everyone age 16 and older must carry a photo ID. Obviously, if you don’t have a valid ID, you are going to find it impossible to get a job or take your SAT/ACT test. Some are going for their GEDs and have college or military dreams, yet many schools and some branches of the military no longer accept GEDs. The military overall is severely limiting the number of GED-holders it will accept to less than 1% of all soldiers. Yet many caseworkers and foster parents are still pushing GEDs.
Those are just a few examples. Any parent who has helped his or her teen prepare for the SAT/ACT, fill out the FAFSA, and apply to colleges knows how complicated the process is. Multiply that by 10, and that’s what our kids are dealing with.
So how can you help?
- Consider being a foster parent. There is a shortage nationwide – particularly among those willing to take older foster children.
- Adopt a teen. I’ve interviewed 17 ½ year olds who were still hoping to be adopted.
- Get certified to provide respite care – meaning a youth in foster care could stay in your home over a holiday or a weekend.
- Get involved with a local organization that serves older youth in care like CASA (court-appointed special advocates) and serve as a mentor, a tutor, or an advocate.
- Learn more about Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (www.ODBF.org) and consider becoming an advocate, volunteer, donor or corporate sponsor.
- Support our celebrity spokesperson/singer/songwriter Kevin Montgomery (www.KevinMontgomery.com) on his 50 States in 50 Days Tour, a campaign to bring awareness to the many barriers faced by older teens in foster care and homeless youth. ODBF is his charity partner, and he’s working on a documentary by interviewing former foster youth in every state. Here’s the Roadmap of where he’ll be: http://www.kevinmontgomery.com/2012/04/10/the-roadmap-for-the-2012-50-states-in-50-days-tour-rescheduled-host-a-house-concert-get-involved/ –
- Buy a copy of “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change” (the multi-award winning book upon which our certified life plan coaching for teens and young adults is based — and we will match your purchase with a gift of the book to an at-risk youth. (Please see BUY ONE, GIVE ONE, CHANGE A LIFE post for details).