That's My Issue: Foster Care
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
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Kids who age out of foster care are screwed and most people have no idea - that's my issue. Aside from perhaps Native Americans, the community of foster children is one of the most forgotten populations in our country.
The foster care system is designed for two things: to return kids back to their biological families or to have them adopted in to new families. Currently, if you're a child in the foster care system and you don't fall in to one of those categories your future is bleak; particularly as you reach 18 or 21 years of age - depending on what state you're in - and are forced out of the system and in to the world completely alone.
I was a foster kid...temporarily, I guess that's when it became my issue.
When I was two years old my parents went through a very nasty divorce and custody battle. My mom couldn't afford to stay in the state of Alabama where they'd been living and it was illegal to take me over state lines to Tennessee where she was staying with relatives.Seeking revenge against my mom for leaving him, my father, a native of Cyprus, was threatening to send me back to his country to be raised by distant relatives. The judge placed me in to the system while they sorted out their differences.
Since that experience, I've had a lot of curiosity about the foster care system. It's not something I spent tons of time thinking about, but you don't remember many specifics from when you're two and so I'd often find myself daydreaming about what it was like...how scared and alone I must have felt or confused I must have been.
It wasn't until I was a social work graduate student at NYU, working at an agency with kids who grew up in the system that I realized just how royally fucked this particular section of the population is. I began focusing the bulk of my papers and research on this topic, but mostly, the tender spot in my heart grew by leaps and bounds.
It was no longer just a curiosity about my own experience; instead, I began focusing my attention on the thousands of kids who have grown up in the system and had to endure the difficult process of aging out.
Imagine trying to find a job, with no records or documents. Because foster kids are forced to frequently change homes, agencies, and schools it's not uncommon for things like birth certificates and social security cards to get lost in the shuffle making it nearly impossible to land employment. In addition, these kids often have severe PTSD, which left untreated can make it nearly impossible to function in society. This population has some of the highest suicide, high school drop-out, and teenage pregnancy rates in our country. More often than not, they go to juvie or jail, become alcohol or drug dependent, or homeless, and yet, it's rare that you hear people discussing this issue.
To me, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this issue is that of the sliver of kids who are successful - who defy the odds and make it to college (one statistic I read said only about 3 percent) , less than half actually finish. It makes sense; picture your first day of freshman year.
The scene likely includes being dropped off by at least one parent who sticks around long enough to help you set up your room, unpack, hug you tightly and tell you you're loved, maybe they shed a tear or two before traveling back to your childhood home. The same home you probably returned to for Thanksgiving, Winter, Spring, and Summer break.
Now imagine how you'd feel if you didn't have that, or where you'd go when the dorms close during the many breaks that take place during an academic year. These kids, even the ones who show hope and promise are alone, with no lifeline, and it's heartbreaking.
Now, a psychotherapist in private practice, I work mostly through an attachment and neuroscientific lens. As human beings, we're wired for connection - our survival depends on it as does our sense of self and emotional health. The relational trauma of going through life alone and unwanted is emotionally damaging, but it's not without hope.
We're resilient creatures and with the right resources, therapeutic help, and awareness, these kids do stand a chance; but first, as a society, we have to give a damn. In this moment, it's my issue. My hope is that it will become your issue as well and that eventually kids who age out of the foster care system and are propelled in to adulthood have a soft place to land.