When Enrique Montiel was 9 years old, he and his four siblings were taken away from their parents, and placed into the foster care system. He remembers the fear, sadness, confusion and longing. "We were put into a car and as I looked out the back window I watched my parents disappear into the distance. I tried to memorize where we were going, hoping maybe to find my way back, but it was just too far."
According to AdoptUSKids, an organization jointly run by the Children's Bureau, Administration for Children & Families, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are nearly 500,000 children in the U.S. still waiting to go home.
Montiel's parents immigrated from Mexico. His mother, who had a condition that gave her seizures, was unable to care for her children, and his father had little means to find a job so he resorted to selling flowers on the street.
The family of seven was forced to survive on food stamps and welfare, and lived in a one-bedroom mobile home in around Compton and Watts.
Montiel, who is the second eldest of five, recalls that concerned school officials intervened when they noticed discrepancies in his and his brother's attendance patterns. "We would take turns going to school," he says, "so after a while they noticed." When the cops arrived to inquire about the truancies, Montiel's father was drunk, a state he was often in. Officials promptly acted. "They just drove us off." His father visited his children regularly and worked hard to regain custody of them. "They loved us," Montiel reflects, "they just had a problem with alcohol." This problem caught up with Montiel's father, who developed cirrhosis of the liver. As he began to get sick, he told his children that they had come to America for opportunities, and so they could get an education. "That stuck with me," Montiel explains. When Montiel was 12 years old, his father died from his condition. All hope of familial reunification died with their mother a year later.
Montiel's story is one of many featured on the "AdoptUS Kids" website, detailing the lives of foster children in the U.S.
Foster children face a myriad of problems, including issues that stem from racism and homophobia, and other social problems which can result in abuse, neglect and even death.
A problem that affects nearly all foster care children, however, is the increased difficulty they experience in education. Because they are forced to relocate often, foster care children often lack both academic and emotional support. They have little recourse for dealing with these emotional stressors.
Montiel shuffled through, on average, a new foster home every year until he was 19. He continued to fight to find the confidence to be the only source of support for his younger siblings. "I was forced to become responsible for everyone," he remembers, "but it's my brothers who kept me on track. I couldn't live not knowing what was going on with them."
Childtrends.org reports that children in foster homes are twice as likely to do poorly in school than other children.
Casey Family Programs, a foundation that focuses on foster care policies, reports that 65 percent of foster children experience more than seven school changes during K-12.
"For every move, a child loses six to 12 months of educational instruction, which is detrimental to academic achievement," Kathy Ledesma, the National Program Director of AdoptUSkids says. But, she elaborates, that inroads have been made and the system is now seeing greater stability. "It is still not good," she explains, "but it is much better."
Foster children are also more likely to experience physical and mental health issues. Childtrends.org reports that foster children have a greater likelihood of health problems, even when compared to groups of children who are also disadvantaged, including those on Medicaid and those supported by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform also reports increases in abuse in group homes, which often negates the reason by which children were originally taken from their homes:
"In group homes there was more than 10 times the rate of physical abuse and more than 28 times the rate of sexual abuse as in the general population, in part because so many children in the homes abuse each other."
Sadly, some of these children do not survive these difficulties. A Center for Family Policy & Research report estimates that in 2009, 1,770 children died from either neglect or abuse, 80 percent of which were under the age of 4. Stories like Montiel's demonstrate that there is hope, however. Montiel now works as an advocate on behalf of other children who share this situation. He has custody of his brothers, one of which is a college-bound high school student set to graduate this June. His sister is currently working and going to college. As a social worker at Nuevo Amanecer Latino Children's Services, he is working to help other children whose struggles he shared. He continues to believe in the power of the system that took him out of the dangerous living situation he would have remained in, but emphasizes the need for change.
"If I wouldn't have gone into foster care I wouldn't have accomplished what I did," he says. "But what really affected me was the idea of attachment. I never had someone I could call my parent -- the feelings and sense of belonging to a family."
"I was determined to be something in life, for my dad, for my brothers who were still in foster care, and for the children in care who experience what I had experienced ... I hope I can motivate prospective foster/adoptive families to consider becoming a positive resource for the children that are unable to return to their birth families. Every child needs an adult in their lives that could love and care for them, and who could also provide a safe environment."
"I believe the call to action is community responsibility to our children," says Ledesma, of the National Program Director of AdoptUSkids.
She explains, "the key is to treat foster parents well -- to provide support for them to parent children who have been traumatized."
Montiel, and others like him, are making a difference in the lives of foster children who need support. But more needs to be done, he says. "There isn't a lot of emphasis to help teens -- not a lot of funding when they leave, when they age out. We are missing support," he explains. "There are programs, but I wish there were more." Learn more about how you can help foster kids at AdoptUSKids.