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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Young People Need Families: Taking a Hard Look at Government's Role in Raising Children

Written by Celeste Bodner, executive director, FosterClub, Seaside, Oregon

As child welfare stakeholders across the country scramble to meet the needs of vulnerable families and children during these challenging days in America, it's imperative that we take time to really see the cracks in the child welfare system that have been revealed and widened by the crises of 2020.

Our country is once again reckoning with how our systems and institutions perpetuate racial inequity and racism against people of color. Despite intentions to protect and safeguard the well-being of children, the child welfare system also contributes to racial injustices ranging from disproportionate numbers of Black, American Indian, and Latino children removed from their families, to inequitable services and outcomes for older youth of color who age out of the system. Children of color are more likely to cross directly over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system, doing so at rates greater than their White peers. We must open our eyes to the injustices that pervade our policies and practices and hold ourselves fully accountable to examining the racist roots of the system. Because the sad truth is that implicit racism in foster care harms children, youth, and families of color on a daily basis.

Further, as we navigate the tumultuous and destructive waves of this COVID-19 pandemic, it's plain to see that families are the ultimate port in the storm for many young Americans. We should be providing every child and youth in foster care with a safe, permanent family of their own before they exit care, as it is family that will be there through life's storms. Safe, permanent family may be found in reunification, relatives or fictive kin, or adoption. This pandemic has hit young people from foster care particularly hard. We at FosterClub recently conducted a poll to assess just how hard. What we found regarding connections was alarming: Many youth from care have no connections to family or mentors they can turn to for assistance or guidance on how to survive these difficult days. For the approximately 20,000 youth who age out each year, the biggest crack in the foundation occurs when a young person exits foster care without a family to call their own.

Too often, the adults in the child welfare system make a decision to separate a child from their family then fail to ensure that the child returns to that family when possible, or fail to place the child with a safe, permanent family in a timely manner. The Family First Prevention Services Act strives to prevent the separation of families and children whenever possible and prioritize a rapid path to permanence. However, state budget crises, political agendas, and the emergencies-du-jour all threaten robust implementation of Family First. And, while an important move in the right direction, we all know that Family First is just the start of the major shifts needed within the system. Much more work is needed to strengthen families. 

At FosterClub, we acknowledge the great difficulties faced by child welfare systems in light of the tremendous societal challenges before us. However, while 2020 illuminates the weaknesses, inequities, and tragedies of the child welfare system as a whole, our young people from care have long been telling us and anyone who will listen, that growing up in foster care sucks.

Foster care is no place to raise a child. While we are facing grave difficulties now, it is FosterClub's hope that we can use this time to reinvent the delivery of child welfare services in America. We hope that the bright lights emerging from this moment can coalesce into a national call to action to rebuild and reshape the child welfare system into a system that prioritizes a family for every child, is actively committed to becoming antiracist, and works every day to eliminate racial inequities.

We believe system change cannot be effective in achieving these goals unless young people with lived experience in foster care help power that change. We've seen and applauded the renewed commitment to engaging with young people from care; we must not lose that once this crisis has passed.

Rebuilding a child welfare system where youth and families don't fall through the cracks requires listening to, hearing from, and engaging with young people who have experienced the system firsthand. It requires us to allow the young people to lead us to a better system, a better place, a better future for the children and youth still in care. Organizations and agencies who make this ongoing, renewed commitment to engaging with young people from care should prepare themselves to do so successfully (I suggest starting with a self-assessment like this resource from Family Voices United). It will not be easy, and it is my hope that where and when our best efforts fall short, we will be willing and committed to correcting our course by keeping this simple goal in mind: Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, permanent family that can help them weather life's storms.

And, it's up to us to make sure no child leaves care without a family they can count on.