IT SEEMS THAT EVERY TIME we pick up a newspaper, there is another story about the challenges faced by children in foster care. It’s heartbreaking to think about those children, confused and scared, moving from one home to another, one school to another, in search of a stable and permanent adult to guide them through life. As we approach the summer months, when children no longer have the safety or stability of the classroom, there is no better time to shine a light on how we can work together to make a permanent, loving family a fixture for children most in need.
The role of child welfare is to ensure that children grow up in a safe and loving home. Sometimes we are investing in families so they can better parent their child. Other times, children must be removed from an unsafe home and moved to a foster home to await adoption. In Massachusetts, each child who enters the system is given a service plan goal such as family reunification or adoption. A child remaining in the foster care system without the goal of finding a permanent family should never be the outcome, but in today’s child welfare system, that is what happens to 1 in 5 children. That lack of stability, moving from one foster home to another without a permanent loving adult in their life, creates trauma and long-term repercussions for these children in ways that are alarming.
We know that children who grow up in the foster care system, without the support and guidance of a permanent, loving adult, are disadvantaged later in life. The Transitional Age Youth Coalition of the Children’s League of Massachusetts found that of children who “aged out” of the system (which means they were never placed in a permanent home), 42 percent enrolled in college but 36 percent of those enrolled dropped out within two years, 54 percent were unemployed, 37 percent experienced homelessness within two years of aging out, nearly 60 percent of young men were convicted of a crime, and 50 percent of youth who aged out were involved in substance abuse.
These numbers are staggering and heartbreaking. Adult life is hard enough with a support system. Imagine tackling it on your own without ever having had guidance, love, or stability on which to build a foundation.
The churn from home to home and the resulting trauma requires us, as facilitators of this system, to rethink how we manage the best possible future for the children in our care. With so many kids in the system, we must effectively implement a strong permanency plan based on each child’s individual needs.
Permanency is the concept that all children placed in foster care should have a loving, supportive adult to guide them through childhood. Permanency could mean adoption, it could mean reunification with a parent, or in some cases, that permanent adult may be a football coach, a camp counselor, or a grandparent. Each child is unique, as are their needs, but the research is clear that the presence of a permanent, supportive adult helps children lead healthy productive lives as they grow older. We can improve the lives of tomorrow’s adults by helping the children of today. Supporting policies that give children the opportunity for a permanent adult in their lives can change the world, one child at a time.
Lesli Suggs in the president and CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers and a co-founder of the Massachusetts Permanency Practice Alliance.