A Bill of Rights for Foster Children

When you've donated, volunteered, mentored, coached, fundraised and still the world remains full of homeless kids, you have one move: Do more. To that end, I often think about what it would take to turn off the faucets upstream, to work toward reducing the flow of young people to the doors of Covenant House and other youth shelters around the world. And the fastest faucet sending kids our way? Foster care.

Last year, 415,129 children entered foster care, a number that has increased 4.5 percent from 2012.

That's a disturbing trend. In studying the recent report of kids leaving care, I was pleased to see a decline in the number of kids leaving foster care without a forever family, down almost 25 percent since 2008. But 22,392 kids graduated from foster care in 2014 without a place to call home, or people to live with. Think of how many faces that is!

When states find it necessary to pull children from their homes to protect them from abuse or (far more often) neglect, we owe those children a safe and secure family before they are adults. Languishing in government custody is a dead-end for kids, in large part because government can never love children the way healthy families do. If we neglect that most basic need, people to belong to, people to care about them, aren't we just neglecting them further?

We know that young people who age out of foster care without being adopted or taken in by relatives who act as their guardians face daunting challenges: 60 percent of the young men who age out of foster care are convicted of a crime by their mid-twenties, and three-quarters of the young women are on public assistance. Forty percent of young people who age out of foster care at eighteen become homeless before their mid-twenties. They fill up the waiting rooms and waiting lists at homeless shelters, because we as a society have failed them.

I am heartened by two legislative efforts that aim to address that neglect, as it plays out in our schools. Young people who move frequently from one foster home to another lose an average of six months of progress per move. As I wrote in Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, one young man, whom we call Benjamin, arrived at our Houston shelter shortly after his 18th birthday, reading at a second or third grade level, in part because he had endured dozens of foster care placements.

But thanks to a bill passed this fall in California, kids like Benjamin will be given a way to protest if their educational rights are being violated. They have the right to stay in their home school, to transfer credits, and to enroll in a new school immediately if necessary. It's a travesty that we haven't been providing these basic services to wards of the state all along. But it's a step forward.

Likewise, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan House-Senate bill, includes similar provisions. Please join me in asking the House and the Senate to pass this bill. It's what we'd want for our own children. And foster children, in a very clear way, are the children of us all.