The foster care system is the second largest contributor to the youth homeless population, after the juvenile justice system. About 40 percent of young people experiencing homelessness have been in contact with the foster care system in one way or another, whether it’s temporary foster care or becoming a dependent of the state.
According to Kristine Scott, executive director of ROOTS, a youth homeless shelter in the U-District, there’s also a 40 percent chance that someone coming out of foster care will be homeless after their 18th birthday and before their 19th birthday.
The foster care system doesn’t prepare those within the system adequately for when they “age out,” which, in most states, is when they hit the age of 18. What issues within the foster care system we can look at in hopes of figuring out why there is such a large overlap where the venn diagram of youth homelessness and foster care is concerned?
As always, the answer is more complex than one would like. The issues come from the fact that people within the foster care system rarely get to experience the autonomy and independence one needs to successfully transition into adult life and that many don’t get the emotional support they require.
Financial independence is a must if one wants to support themselves or their family. Employment is required for pretty much everything, from renting an apartment, applying for a credit card, or getting a car. However, many people age out of the foster care system without any work experience, which, when coupled with the fact that only 3 percent of people within foster care will graduate from college, is an issue.
In addition, some states go even further to undermine someone’s independence by prohibiting them from obtaining a driver’s license or even doing more “normal” things, like going to a sleepover. Not being allowed to participate in extracurricular activities like that definitely has an impact on their social development.
Though most people enter the foster care system as preteens and only stay for around 13.5 months at a time, that doesn’t discount another large part of the equation: The goal of foster care is to reunite children with their biological family, even though those families get very little actual support from the state.
How difficult is it to care for a child if you’ve been incarcerated and come out with a record? Or if you’re dealing with mental illness or addiction and can’t get the support you need? It’s easy for someone to say, “Well, they shouldn’t have had children.” But that doesn’t change that they did.
The state isn’t equipped to parent a child, and in many cases, it can’t help the actual parents. Ultimately, whether that lack of parental ability is due to parents’ own failings or the way their socioeconomic status has affected their livelihoods is irrelevant to the child in question.
It isn’t enough, really, to just remove an abused child from an abusive situation. Having to rely on strangers is difficult, even if it’s a better environment to be in. And dealing with abuse — which, for a lot of kids, is abuse they’ve been facing their entire lives — leaves an impact. It’s an impact that isn’t going to be erased by a few kind words or gentle smiles or having a bed to sleep in.
Kids need support. Kids need someone they can trust. Kids need someone who’s able to understand why kids sometimes behave irrationally; someone able to understand and accept the situation they’re in. They need someone who understands what it feels like to be a part of the foster care system and to tell them they are wanted and have done nothing wrong and that they don’t deserve this. It requires patience and empathy, and unfortunately, that isn’t a realistic expectation for many.
The main support someone in foster care has is their social worker. Social work is an emotionally and physically exhausting job, and coupled with the fact that so many social workers are overworked with enormous caseloads and very little time to actually do anything but endless mounds of paperwork means that support can be difficult to provide.
Not because they’re lazy or they don’t care, but because there aren’t enough social workers to adequately provide support. In Washington state alone, social workers are sometimes responsible for more than 40 cases due to the high turnover rate. This means new social workers may only have a couple cases, but the more experienced ones are left to pick up all of the others.
It isn’t all bleak. People have been making strides to bring positive change, and some of them have worked. There are new structures in place, for example, to provide housing and financial support for people who would age out unless they go to college.
In doing research for this article, I interviewed Charlotte Sanders, the field lead of the Northwest Leaders in Behavioral Health Program. She exuded this quiet, understated confidence. She spoke softly, but underneath it, you could sense the steely determination.
The unwavering belief that not only was this work important, it was worthwhile, and it would work. Sanders has been in social services for more than 22 years, and I asked her how she continued being so optimistic, looking at the system and easily identifying the flaws without having enough power or influence or money to make those changes.
“Being able to notice the small successes when working with people,” she said. “You cannot just expect these huge changes, because if you just expect huge changes, you will be greatly disappointed. Not that they don’t happen, but you might be waiting for a while. It would be really difficult if you always focused on how far we have to go and ignored how far we’ve come.”
“I want a better world, period,” she said in conclusion. “Maybe that’s also the encouragement — I know it can be better.”