Foster Care's Web Of Policies, Problems And Promise Keeps Kids In Waiting

In the first part of this two-part series highlighting the hardships that half a million foster children face each year, Enrique Montiel shared his story. As a foster care alumnus, he now works as a social worker within the system that took him, and his five siblings, from his parents when he was only 9.

Montiel advocates for teens who share the experiences he endured and the problems that persist in America's foster homes. His story provides hope for those who continue to deal with the rampant race issues, homophobia that results in the abuse of LGBT foster children and the denial of adoptive opportunities for LGBT potential parents, problems in education stemming from emotional stress and frequent relocation, and health hazards that result from neglect and abuse that plague the foster care system.

However, as looming budget deficits force states to scramble to reduce recessionary spending, many may cut the programs that provide services to foster children. A report from The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that in 46 states and the District of Columbia, social services have been sacrificed in the latest round of cuts.

Recession-related problems In Texas, Bloomberg reported, the budget cuts are created a dire situation in February for the state's Department of Family and Protective Services. Hundreds of foster children faced the prospect of moving into agency offices instead of homes. Budget cuts in Illinois late last year incited the ACLU to voice a defense for those who depend on the services.

"The Governor and the legislature need to understand that this state's budget cannot be balanced on the backs of its most vulnerable residents -- children in foster care," said Benjamin Wolf, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois announcing the filing of the complaint."

Kathy Ledesma, the National Program Director of AdoptUSkids, insists there is a silver lining to the economic downturn in regard to foster care children. "We believe the economy has had a positive effect on the recruitment of children in foster care."

She explains that because private and overseas adoptions are so expensive, potential adoptive parents are seeking foster children, which she states costs nothing because states provide funding for foster parents. Bloomberg reports, however, that in States such as Texas, where services and budgets are getting cut, financial resources for foster parents may decline.

"Families adopting children may not receive financial assistance from the state anymore under the proposed Senate bill. (Department Commissioner) Heiligenstein said those subsidies have historically encouraged families to adopt."

Federal Solutions President Obama has spoken out about the importance of continuing to provide support, and has included provisions in his budget to assist states with child welfare reform that includes foster care and adoptive services. Obama has also deemed November as national adoption month to increase awareness about the importance of foster and adoptive parents to children around the country. In a letter on he reminds Americans that they can make a difference.

"All children deserve a safe, loving family to protect and care for them...These young people have specific needs and require unique support. Federal, State, and local governments, communities, and individuals all have a role to play in ensuring that foster children have the resources and encouragement they need to realize their hopes and dreams."

Congress has also stepped up to find solutions in recent years. In 2008 President Bush signed "The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act" which increases federal support, promotes adoption and relative guardianship, which results in permanent families, and focuses on improving education and health care for foster children. Under the program foster children do not "age out," at 18 and services have been extended until they reach the age of 21.

According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, many states have enacted the bill.

"In the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions combined, 33 states and the District of Columbia enacted 63 different bills related to the provisions of the Fostering Connections Act. In the 2011 legislative session, state activity around the act continues."

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also issued a "Call to Action" in 2010 to target issues with foster care in America.

"(Congress) established the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth to break down the arbitrary silos of public programs and closely examine the experiences of a young person aging out of foster care so that the Congress and stakeholder could better understand how to address the problem of increasing numbers of young people aging out of care without a permanent family to call home."

Past attempts at enacting legislation to eradicate issues in the foster care system have not been as successful as they were intended, however.

Race Issues Despite the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA), race discrepancies remain. This federal legislation mandates that children cannot be delayed or denied foster or adoptive placement based on race and also calls for increased efforts to recruit foster and adoptive parents who share racial and ethnic backgrounds of foster children and was intended to decrease rampant race issues in the foster care system. Yet, African Americans are disproportionately represented in the foster care system and are are still less likely to be adopted.

A report by the Adoption Institute confirms that they account for 32 percent of foster children in the U.S., though they only make up 15 percent of the country's child population.

"The Child Welfare System is not as culturally sensitive or culturally responsive as it should be," Ledesma explains. "Over representation of African American children has improved, but it is still a problem."

LGBT Issues Issues over sexual identity also continue to create hardships for both foster children and parents despite attempts to produce solutions. In an article featured last year, Mother Jones reported that only 21 foster families, out of 246 that were surveyed, would accept a gay teenager.

The article also cited the American Bar Association's 2008 guidebook, which reports widespread verbal abuse of LGBT foster children.

"virtually all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids in group homes had reported verbal harassment; 70 percent had been subjected to violence."

Unfortunately, many potential LGBT parents face obstacles when they seek to become foster or adoptive parents. A report by AdoptUSkids details the difficulties LGBT parents face, which highlights the discriminatory practices still occurring in most states. This bars adoptions within a group where adoptions are usually a first choice and could make a positive impact on the lives of foster children around the country.

Beyond case-by-case discrimination, which usually involves unexplained dismissals, long waits for placements, and non-supportive caseworkers, some states still have legislation barring same-sex or unmarried couples from adopting. These laws exist in Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah, and contribute to a shortage of adoptive and foster parents that could be alleviated.

Ledesma emphasizes that AdoptUSKids is working with potential parents in the LGBT community and has begun several initiatives to provide resources, education, and support groups. The organization is also addressing states that have either formal or informal barriers against same-sex couples or LGBT singles adopting, with the hope that this problem can be eradicated. Solutions

Though these programs and government initiatives will likely have a positive impact, foster children continue to experience extreme hardships. There are many foster children in need of a home or are waiting to be reunited with their families. They continue to face education obstacles, neglect and abuse, and fearful futures.

The success stories featured on the AdoptUSkids website indicate that there is hope, but advocacy, increased awareness and support, and consolidated dedication to solve the problems are still needed to change the lives of foster care children in the U.S. Ledesma advises that there are many things concerned citizens can do to help both foster children and foster parents. "You can mentor a friend, volunteer to become a temporary caregiver, or provide respite care to neighbors."

Enrique Montiel insists that though there are problems, the foster care system can be successful. He credits it with creating who he has become and enabling him to help others. He believes that foster children need to be reminded that they can be successful and emphasizes the importance of inspiration. "Your past does not dictate your future," he tells them. "Once (teens) see that" he explains, "something changes for them."

Visit AdoptUSkids to find out what you can do to make a difference.