“We are sending more foster kids to prison than to college”–Brent Kent, Indiana foster youth advocate
In late 2019, the Kansas City Star published “Throwaway Kids,” a six-part series on foster youth, written by Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas. “Taken from an unstable home,” Bauer and Thomas write. “Terrified by their first contact with the state. Emotionally and cognitively damaged in care as they are moved from home to home. Robbed of an education equal to their peers.”
As part of its investigation, The Star surveyed nearly six thousand inmates in twelve states. One in four said they were the product of foster care.
The investigation also found that:
* Many kids are moved dozens of times from one foster home to another–a few as many as 100 times–over several years. Foster children are diagnosed with PTSD at a rate greater than Iraq war veterans.
* Since the 1980s, nearly three dozen states have faced lawsuits asserting that they were further harming children they were supposed to protect.
* In Oregon, just 35 percent of foster kids earned a high school diploma in 2017 compared to 77 percent of their peers. Nationwide, less than 3 percent of foster youth will get a bachelor’s degree.
One who did is Stephanie Serrano, who grew up in foster care without a real family. When she was pushed out of foster care at age eighteen, she became homeless. Ultimately, she managed to go to college and is now a case worker for foster youth in Los Angeles and runs Seeds of Peace, which conducts special programs for foster youth in several high schools. She calls foster youth “the invisible class.”
That’s hard to argue with. Most people not directly involved with foster youth know nothing about these young victims and may not even know that they exist (even though there were 442,995 kids in foster care nationwide as of 2017). And it’s not as if foster youth are trying to make themselves seen or heard. “I think people like myself who have experienced these things,” Stephanie Serrano told me, “we’ve learned to just survive and move forward so we don’t talk about it.”
Roughly 23,000 kids across the country are churned out of the foster care system every year. “When you’re ageing out you’re thinking about ‘Oh, I have to find a job, I have to get housing,’ ” says Stephanie Serrano. “Nobody’s really thinking about mental health and how am I recovering from this trauma that I just lived in foster care. The needs foster youth have in transitioning are not met so a lot of them become homeless.”
One center for homeless youth in Indiana reported that nearly 70 percent of the young people it served in 2019 had spent time in foster care, a 36 percent increase over 2018.
“Depression is a big thing that I see with youth who are transitioning out,” Stephanie Serrano says, “because they had somebody who legally had to keep a roof over their head, legally had to pay for their food, legally had to be around them, meeting their social and emotional needs. But when they’re going to leave foster care all that’s being ripped away. I’ve seen youth that were getting straight As in school start getting straight Fs.”
“The state that neglected me as a kid and allowed me to age out of its support is the same state that wants to kill me.”–Convicted murderer on death row in Texas
Those who do step up to help face many challenges. Carvell Holloway is a professional jazz trumpeter who has also worked for a foster care agency. He teaches music at a middle school in Compton, California. He told me that it’s difficult to connect with foster youth in the classroom “They think ‘Nobody gives a fuck about me so why should I do anything that anyone says?’ They’ve been thrown out–from a home, from everything, from life. They don’t see any reason for doing anything.”
Stephanie Serrano describes her own experience with foster care as “Constant change. Could never really get my roots down, never could have stability. There were times I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t know what was happening, I thought I was dying. I could never feel safe and secure.” She was under the control of California’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), which does little to keep families together. Instead, they look for reasons, most of which boil down to poverty, that families should be torn apart.
“How about instead of paying a stranger $800 a month to take care of my kid, how about you help me so that way I can be present for my kid?”–Stephanie Serrano
DCFS doesn’t go into rich neighborhoods and break up families there. Stephanie Serrano says, “DCFS is a war on poor people, on working class families that are amazing, that are super resilient, women who are recovering from domestic violence, that are heroes and warriors and they’re not giving up. They can’t drive so they’re walking to work. Passing by drug dealers, recovering from their domestic violence. But that’s not valued by DCFS. They’re seeing them as less than, and that’s based on privilege.”
Families don’t just fall apart. They are pushed. Most of the $30 billion spent on child welfare annually is funneled into foster care or adoption services, despite a forty-year-old federal mandate that prioritizes family preservation. More dollars are spent on investigating families than trying to keep them together.
Is this because DCFS is run by heartless bureaucrats? Only in part. In The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, Daniel Hatcher writes: “Vast contractual interconnections between government and private contractors are undermining the legal and economic structure of America’s government assistance programs and siphoning billions in aid from those in need.”
State human services agencies face shrinking budgets and a rising demand for services. Instead of pushing to tax bloated corporate treasuries or local billionaires to make up the shortfall, these agencies increasingly partner with corporations. At the national level, the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act requires government agencies to determine every possible government activity that can be contracted out to private firms.
For example, state human resources agencies hire corporations to help them find the children already in foster care who are entitled to Social Security disability benefits but are not receiving them. The state then applies for the benefits in the child’s name without telling them about it and then pockets the money every month. Ditto for child support payments. If the child has parents who were killed while in the military, the state takes their VA benefits.
“They target the kids ahead of time,” Carvell Holloway notes. “They know what monies are associated with the kids before they take them from the home.”
Corporations and state agencies collude to have as many foster children as possible declared disabled by the Social Security Administration and thus eligible to receive SSI benefits. The state agency will then apply to become the payee, without telling the child, and keep the resulting payments for itself.
The money’s just sitting there so corporations and government agencies go and snatch it. Except that in order to get the money, they have to first snatch the children. Any poor family is in danger of suffering such a kidnapping–California routinely sends its agents into homeless encampments and forces children living with their parents into foster care, a policy reminiscent of press gangs and slave patrols.
As American attitudes toward the homeless continue to shift toward sympathy and solidarity, foster youth remain ignored and isolated. Yet they are natural allies of all others without a home or in danger of losing the one they have–the homeless or anyone facing foreclosure, eviction, or skyrocketing rents. Foster youth could be a key component if they were embraced, nurtured, and encouraged to use their gifts and hard-won experience to push the overall struggle for decent housing forward. We need only look at the way that teens and young adults have escalated the fight against climate change to see the possibilities.
There are many obstacles to realizing such possibilities. Stephanie Serrano describes some of the roadblocks faced by her organization Seeds of Peace: “I’m coming up against a lot of heavy hitters, corporations and large non-profits that already have a grasp on the funding for these programs. That’s detrimental to the work we do because a lot of these programs are outdated or the leadership is not reflective of the community they serve. They haven’t been through these experiences so how can you help someone in that situation if you don’t understand the needs? We need to have the community at the table and to ask the uncomfortable questions and demand answers. We need to hear from the children impacted by it, we need to hear from foster parents, because they’re doing this work, we need to hear from group home staff.”
Foster care advocate Brent Kent warns that “As a society we view foster children the same way that we might view offenders coming out of prison or addicts in recovery. We forget that they are just children, that they were put in foster care and removed from their families through no fault of their own.”
We need to follow our instincts, which are to love all children, not just our own. Children are a blessing, filled with great potential and wondrous capacities. They should be loved and honored. Any government or corporate policy which falls short of that standard is nothing less than a hate crime.
“If it’s really about family, then you need to solve the problems of the family. A lot of that is having homes for people, having jobs for people, developing a society that takes care of everyone. If we have a society that takes care of everyone, then we can have stable families.”–Carvell Holloway