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Monday, June 04, 2007

Foster Children & You

Admittedly, it is often that I get on the proverbial soap box about a subject. And usually I feel passionate about the subject and want to implore (or exhort) everyone else to my point of view. Today is no exception. But it's not because I think I'm always right. (I don't. I'm not.) But it is because I believe God leads me to conclusions about things He wants other to know. In other words, I see things that I believe many others don't see. And then God leads me to get on my soap box and make an issue out of it. Such is the case with foster care.

Children in foster care are a tragic plot. Typically they are removed from unsuitable homes, and placed temporarily with better parents in better situations. Whilst there, it is the intent of the governmental agency (usually Child Protective Services in each state) to "rehabilitate" the birth home and then reunite the child with the birth parents.

My wife and I were involved in the foster care system and saw this happen several times. In more than one case, we became the foster parents of children who had birth parents that weren't necessarily bad parents, but they weren't good parents. In one case they were homeless and living in a car. In another, they were young and naive. Once the case workers helped them address the unsuitable conditions --- i.e., get a home, take some parenting classes --- the children were happily reunited and the case closed. Those are the happy cases.

There are many more cases that are not so happy. At any given time in the U.S., there are more than 500,000 children in the foster care system. Most are in the legal custody of the state they live in. The good news is that there are places for all of them. Many people with big hearts reach out to help these kids. But there is a train wreck occurring that impacts all of us, whether we reach out to these kids or not. I'm talking about the kids that "age out" of the foster care system.

For starters, let's look at the main reason children are removed from birth homes and placed in foster car. Most are abused. Many, many have been sexually abused. And in most cases there has been gross neglect, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, etc. So the kids are in distress when they enter the foster care system. If the family cannot be rehabilitated to provide a suitable home for the children, then the courts move to "terminate the parental rights." At that point, the child becomes "available for adoption," and is placed "in inventory" with the state. They then languish in the foster care system, bouncing around from one temporary home to another, hoping to be adopted. Many never get adopted.

In my state (Texas), there can be as many as a thousand or more children "in inventory." You can shop for them on-line. Go to this link (, pick a couple of search criteria, and see what's that like. Scroll through some of the categories and click on some of the photos to read the cases. Get to know who these kids are. Understand that every single child you're seeing is "in inventory." That means they have no home to return to --- and nobody wants them. They are languishing in the foster care system, hoping and praying for someone to love them, parent them, teach them. For most, nobody does.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is an organization that is funded by several foundations and takes on several causes (like me). It funds research and advocates social change. Recently they conducted another study on the faster care system to see what happens to these kids that nobody wants. You can check it out The Pew's foster care reform advocacy at Their most recent study reveals that a record number of teens are leaving the foster care system without a family to help them.

"Aging out" of the foster care system means that the child turns 18 and is considered a legal adult. The state's obligation to care for them terminates, and the foster care parents can no longer receive any support or assistance to take care of them. About 20 states give these kids Medicaid health insurance until they turn 21. Texas, for example, gives most of them free tuition at state colleges. But only a handful of states provide money for housing or food beyond the age of 18. But if they don't find jobs and become self-sufficient by then, they often become homeless. The Pew report indicates that in the last seven years, the number of kids "aging out" of the U.S. foster care system climbed 41%.

What's to become of these kids? My own experience tells me they have challenges. Despite the battle scars of being born into dysfunctional (or even dangerous) homes, these kids often change foster homes as often as twice per year. Many are behind in school because of the constant moves and school changes, school missed because of abuse or neglect, etc. Many haven't even graduated from high school at age 18. Most don't know how to drive, keep a check book or even hold a job. They've never had the opportunity to learn.

So why should YOU care about this? Well, the prognosis isn't good. Homelessness, prostitution, drug rings, dysfunctional relationships, teen-age pregnancy, high school drop-out, marriage, and college degree ratios for these kids are all considerably worse than for the general population. Simply put, these kids are tomorrow's adults. They will become your neighbors. They will be homeless, jobless, underemployed and need public assistance. They won't know how to cope with life's problems. They'll have no one to mentor them. (You parents with adult children know that you're still not done parenting your kids!) They will have more failed marriages, be more likely to abuse their own children and even be more likely to commit crimes or end up in jail. And there are literally thousands of them "aging out" of the foster care system every single year.

What can YOU do about this?

The first thing you could do is become a foster parent, especially to older children. If you're children are grown or you have no children, you are ideally situated to set aside the sail boat or golf course home and take on the task of parenting these needy teens. And if you do, go into it with the commitment that you'll continue to have a relationship with them after they're 18 and you're not getting paid to love them. Just love them anyway.

The second thing you could do is to create community for these kids. Have your church set up a mentoring program for foster kids aging out of the system. Case workers will be happy to help you figure out what to do. Offer these kids a place to come home for Christmas. Offer these kids a loving adult to call on when they can't figure life out. Mentor and love them.

A third thing you can do is give to organizations that help these kids. Do some research and find out what's available in your area. One of the first things you'll notice though is the lack of non-governmental organizations to address this issue. The National Child Resource Center for Youth Development is a government clearing house on this topic (

There is a need for more private sector support in this area. One of my favorite organizations that is addressing this need is the Buckner Organization. (Check them out at Buckner is a licensed foster care agency and takes placement from the state. They also license individual family homes for foster and adoptive care. But one of their programs specifically addresses these kids who "age out" of the foster care system. Even though Buckner no longer receives state support for their foster kids, they raise money to continue providing for --- and loving these kids. The kids can even come home for Christmas and other holidays --- to Buckner campus in Dallas. I love what Buckner is doing for these kids. (But it isn't enough!)

Go back to the shopping web site and stroll through those children. Look at each of their faces and imagine someone telling them, "I'm sorry honey, there's no one who wants you." Then ask yourself, and your God, what you should do about that. And get busy. There's a world to change here. You can be part of it!

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