Roots and Wings -- What We Owe Children in Foster Care

The system for adopting children from foster care is badly broken. Look at any child aging out and you will see lost opportunities.
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It is said that the most important things we give our kids are both roots and wings. In a few short days, my youngest daughter will be heading off to college. As Samantha leaves the nest, I know that she has solid roots -- a family that loves her, a good education, and a strong sense of who she is. Having these roots will enable her to leave her comfort zone -- to make new friends, challenge herself academically, and survive the inevitable bumps in the road that all of us must survive in order to fully take flight. As I watch my daughter leave the nest, knowing she will blossom, I can't help thinking about the 30,000 children who will age out of foster care this year. Thirty thousand children my daughters age leaving foster care each year without any family. The technical term for this is "emancipation." The better description is "unconscionable failure."

I started working in adoption 11 days before Alexandra, my first child, was born. I vividly remember the moment when I fell in love with her. I was rocking her to sleep and felt a surge of love like nothing I had ever experienced in my life. At that moment, I realized that if I had to choose between her life and mine, I wouldn't hesitate. My daughter was literally the single most important thing in the world to me.

While I was experiencing the incredible power of the bond between parent and child, I became painfully aware of children who don't have that bond. At every step of parenthood I was aware that my children had something other children didn't. When my kids went to summer camp, I knew that my wife and I gave them more preparation and support than some kids get when they are permanently separated from their parents and their siblings. When my kids struggled academically, we made sure they received the help they needed. Meanwhile, other children bounced from foster home to foster home, and in the process, bounced from school to school, rarely getting the support they needed. And when my kids looked at life after high school their inner voice told them that they had a future. They mattered. They could do anything. And I thought about the children who turn 18 and leave foster care with no family, no support, and challenges that few of us could surmount.

I think about what it must be like to be 18 and have to live life without a safety net. One small mistake can be catastrophic. When my older daughter was 18, she and some friends drove to Montreal for New Year's. Their car died, stranding four girls hundreds of miles from home in snowy, frigid weather. Concerned parents mobilized, helping the girls find and pay for a hotel, locate a mechanic, and pay for car repairs. They survived and learned an important lesson -- that it is ok to test your wings. People can survive adversity. But what about the 18 year old without a safety net? Stranded. No money. No place to stay. Cold and scared. I've known kids who have traded their bodies for a warm place to stay.

In most states, children leaving foster care at 18 (or 21 in some places) receive a small one time payment -- in New York City it is $750, not even enough for a security deposit on a small apartment. It is not uncommon in some locations for a child welfare worker to drive an 18 year old to a homeless shelter for his or her first night of "emancipation." According to the largest study ever conducted of kids who had aged out of foster care, by their mid-twenties, only half of these young adults were employed. Nearly 60% of the men had been convicted of a crime. Two thirds of the women were receiving food stamps.

The great tragedy of kids aging out of foster care is just how unnecessary it is. The system for adopting children from foster care is badly broken. Look at any child aging out and you will see lost opportunities -- the 9-year-old whose worker didn't return phone calls from a prospective parent, the 12 year old who wasn't placed because terrific potential parents lived in another state. The 14 year old the state decided to prepare for "independent living" rather than focus on adoption.

Children come into foster care because a state determines there is abuse or neglect. When the state decides that child can't go home and terminates parental rights, that child becomes, in both a legal and moral sense, our child.

All children deserve both roots and wings. Until we fix a broken adoption system, we are giving these children neither.

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