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This IS Our Problem: Fixing Foster Care in America, My Part (And Yours)

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Last night it was bitterly cold. The heat in our office building hadn’t been working so the staff and I worked most of the day with our coats and hats on. We thought the conditions were impossible, brutal, unbearable. We complained to management. We complained to each other. And then, just as I was about to head home to a delicious meal with my family, my cell phone rang and I was suddenly reminded that even the worst conditions I have ever faced are the best conditions some children can imagine.

It was a social service worker, a friend of mine, calling to ask if I could wait a bit longer for a group of caseworkers to come to our facility. They had just abruptly removed 4 children from deplorable conditions. Their mother was nowhere to be found. The kids needed pretty much everything; from clothing to shoes to comfort items. Of course, I agreed to wait.

In situations like these, it’s the waiting that is sometimes the hardest part. I wonder what I’m about to see. I wonder how bad it will be. I wonder if these children will be crying. I wonder if they will be scared. I wonder if I will be able to hold it together so I don’t make them feel even worse.

I opened the door twenty minutes later to three caseworkers. One was carrying a baby. One was carrying a toddler who was not wearing any shoes or socks. The other 2 children walked in on their own; 5 and 7 years old. Immediately, the 7 year old made eye contact with me and I could see she had been crying. She looked up at me and almost began to cry again.

I knelt down and took her hand and told her my name. Then I asked hers and she whispered it softly. Then I asked her if she would like to go look at some toys. Immediately, her face changed. She smiled a bit. “Yes!”

Over the next hour and half the caseworkers and I split our time between walking the children through our toy closet, helping them choose their favorites, and attempting to find enough clothing in the right sizes to get the children prepared for their first night away from home.

Beneath her dirty clothing, the baby was covered in feces. It took two workers to clean her up. One of the men came out and sat down, head in his hands, and said “How can people do this?” For me it’s always so hard to see that type of raw, vulnerable emotion, especially from a big, strong, tough-looking guy. I didn’t know what to say to him.

When the group was ready to leave, the 7 year-old girl turned back and gave me a hug. I held her as tightly as I could. I wanted to take her home.

It was then I started to think about my own kids; 7 and 8 years old. Their biggest worry of the day was doing homework. They were waiting at home for me with their amazing, attentive, super supportive dad. They were playing games in their playroom. I didn’t feel guilty for this joyful loving home I have. But I did feel like I wanted to get back to sharing it.

So I will. I am hopeful that in the coming months my home will be reopened to accept foster children like the four amazing kids I met last night. That is the part I want to play in this solution.

But that may not be your reaction and that is totally OK! There are dozens of ways that you can also do something super amazing to ensure these beautiful, innocent children get the love and support and hope they need. Because they need all of us in on this.

To be honest, I don’t even care why you decide to help. Just do something other than read this, feel bad and go on with your day. Do it to be a good example for your kids. Do it to better your community. Do it because you can…because you had a loving family, or you didn’t have a family at all, but you are here and healthy and able. Do it because if you don’t, who will?

Let’s just all come together and loudly and proudly make a commitment that we will be one part of the very big village we know it takes to raise a healthy, happy child.

Below are some of my favorite ways to get involved but I want to hear more. Join me in using #MyPartOurVillage and tag @OneSimpleWish on Twitter.

Here are 5 ways to get started in doing YOUR part:

1. Grant a wish!
It’s a simple, direct and beautiful way to share some joy with a child impacted by foster care and abuse and neglect.
2. Consider becoming a CASA.
Court Appointed Special Advocates are amazingly dedicated volunteers who act as a voice for a child in court and are a stable source of support for kids who need it.
3. Read Foster Focus Magazine
Learn more about what is going on with foster care in America and the inspiring kids and adults who are working hard to fix it.
4. Consider becoming a Foster Parent.
All you need to know is here. And you can email me too!
5. Tweet about other foster care or children’s rights organizations that you support. Tell us what you do and how to do it. Don’t forget to use #MyPartOurVillage and tag@OneSimpleWish so we can share your ideas!

Please remember that whatever you choose to do, one way or the other, it will matter.

Follow Foster Care Kids Need Love Too on Twitter: https://twitter.com/FosterLoveToo

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Church hopes to match kids with foster families

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WAYNESBORO — Sonya Payne remembers her best birthday ever.

It was in 2010, the day she legally adopted her foster daughter Ariel Simone Payne, 16.

Ariel wasn’t the first child that Payne has fostered. In fact, Payne estimates that she’s legally fostered 40 children since 1993, and taken in over 70, even if only temporarily.

“That’s why we call her superwoman,” said Ariel’s adoptive sister Taimonique Payne, 15 and a half years old.

Payne decided to become a foster parent while working with battered women, and seeing the effect it had on both the women and children.

“It was too much,” Payne said. “I told my husband, we have to do something to help these kids.”

She read about her first foster child in the newspaper in 1993 and the rest is history.

Even with families like the Paynes, there are still local children in the foster care system that do not currently have homes and are at risk of aging out of the system, which severely affects their chances of success once they become adults, said Jennifer Eccles, foster parent and member of the mission team at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro. There are 163 kids in foster homes locally, but 14 that don’t have somewhere to call home.

That’s why the church decided to hold a summit about foster care, with a panel of foster care workers, parents and adopted teenagers, to inform the community about the need for more participation in the foster care system.

The summit was Sunday afternoon and about 25 people attended, Eccles said.

“The church feels very strongly that we have a calling to help these kids in our community,” said the mom of six. “They need families.”

One of the main focuses of the summit was on the need for care for older children and children with siblings, specifically, Eccles said. Removing the stigma that older children come with more problems is key.

“This is not about bad behavior,” Eccles said of why children end up in the foster care system. “It’s because of abuse or neglect.”

Both Ariel and Taimonique spoke about being adopted and what they would tell other foster parents if they could.

“Never give up on your adopted kids,” Taimonique said. They may have difficult behavior and difficulty adjusting, but never to give up.

For more information about foster parenting call Jennifer Edson or Heather Hudnall at Shenandoah Valley Social Services at 540-245-5800.

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Meet Lisa Foster Care Kids Need Love Too Member

We want to thank Lisa Sternberg a member of the Foster Care Kids Need Love Too Family! for sharing her story. Meet Lisa, 27 years ago this day, DEC 20th 1986, five days before Christmas, I became a foster kid. I entered the “system”, set to be another statistic. The cards stacked against me, set to fail by society standards. Just another kid with a messed up life thanks to the sickness of a father. And it sucked…. a lot….and it hurt….still does. I spent years holding my breath waiting for life to go back to the way it was before, not understanding then that that life would have destroyed me even further than it already had. I almost gave up, I was ready to fail, I was ready to let the cards fall, I was part of the system…..
But what the system and the cards and society didn’t know is that there was this seed planted in me, long before anyone knew my name. I had this power to be an overcomer. I had this strength that no one else saw in me but God. I ran from Him, hated him, tried everything I could to destroy his creation…me. I drank as a teen, long before sixteen. I smoked. I attempted suicide, more than once, more than twice, more…, I was raped, I was promiscuous, I did drugs, I did all the things the world was telling me would make me feel better…and if I did them I would be normal, loved, not a number….all lies. Truth, God was there thru it all, waiting for me to fall.
Even thru all the turmoil I tried to put my best face and foot forward, and I had goals. I have traveled a lot and seen enough to feel life. I graduated high school with high honors and a full scholarship to College (from the system DCFS). I served my country (GO ARMY). I have a good life and great friends. I finally stopped being mad at God and let him have my life, he had it all along, and I just had to realize it would be better if he was in control. But perhaps the best thing I have ever done and the greatest lesson in life is the fact that I gave life to three beautiful children who will, God willing, never have to say on this day….I became a foster kid. Please support our movement. It takes a brave person with courage to share a sadden story. send your monetary donations to our cause https://www.wepay.com/donations/fostercarekidsneedlovetoo “Drawing Success” for the youth of our nation Happy Holidays!

Program aims to help teens, young adults moving from foster care to independent living

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A new partnership between the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Big Brothers Big Sisters is bringing together caseworkers, employment counselors and mentors to help teens and young adults moving from foster care to independent living.

The journey is rough for many: Nationwide, about 81 percent of males previously in foster care are arrested by age 24; 48 percent of the females become pregnant by 19; and 22 percent have experienced homelessness.

“The statistics for children who leave foster care without being adopted are dire, and that’s putting it mildly,” said Benjamin Johnson, Job and Family Services spokesman. “We know we can do better.”

The initiative, which is to start immediately, will use federal welfare money to serve about 300 young people in eight Ohio counties.

A total of $1.8 million is available this year; about $2.6 million could be spent in 2014 and $2.5 million in 2015. As many as 1,300 young people in Ohio age out of foster care each year.

The effort is a pilot project that first will operate in Cuyahoga, Lake, Summit and Hamilton counties, and as a collaborative effort in Montgomery, Preble, Clinton and Green counties. Although Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio will oversee the mentoring, Franklin is not among the pilot counties.

“We’re certainly hoping that we’ll get some really positive results, and we’ll see it expand throughout the state,” said Mary Palkowski, spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio.

The program — “Connecting the Dots from Foster Care to Employment and Independent Living” — aims to connect vital services that, too often, remain fragmented and out of reach for many current and former foster youth.

For those still in care, the initiative is to offer mentoring, educational supports and work readiness training. Older teens and young adults are to receive improved independent living and employment services so that they can make the transition to work, vocational training, college and independent living.

Portions of the grants will be used by local Workforce Investment Boards to handle the employment component.

The funding is in addition to the $5.9 million per year in federal money that Ohio currently budgets for independent-living services for foster youth.

“For too long, children leaving foster care have had few places to turn and few people to lean on, but that is about to change,” said Michael Colbert, director of the Department of Job and Family Services.

Experts estimate that providing better support to the 24,000 young people nationally who age out of foster care could save more than $5.7 billion over their lifetimes.

La. foster care system to undergo new initiative

Louisiana unveils new 'Faith in Families' initiati...

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Lasting connections for foster children is one of the new goals for Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, Secretary Suzy Sonnier said Thursday in Alexandria.

A new initiative the department is rolling out, called “Faith in Families,” looks to safely reduce the number of children in foster care, decrease the amount of time children spend in the system and ensure that each child has a permanent connection when they leave foster care, Sonnier said.

“Children deserve strong and loving families. This initiative will bring positive and life-changing impacts to children in our foster care system,” she said.

Last year more than 7,500 children were in the foster care program in Louisiana, according to DCFS statistics. About 3,710 were discharged from foster care during the year and about 3,180 children were placed in foster care in 2012. There are currently 4,031 children in foster care across the state.

Additionally, DCFS plans to work aggressively to improve permanent connections for youth on the verge of aging out of foster care.

DCFS, Sonnier said, “will work to identify family or other community members who can provide lasting relationships for young people ensuring that no children exit the foster care system without someone to call family.”

Research shows that children who age out of foster care without a permanent connection face significant challenges including homelessness, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse issues and involvement with the criminal justice system.

“Life-long connections are key to ensuring that these children have a place to live, stay in school and make positive decisions about their lives going forward,” Sonnier said.

The initiative sets the following goals to be met by 2015:

» Safely reduce the number of children in foster care by 1,000.

» 95 percent of all children returning home will not return to foster care.

» 85 percent of children will exit foster care within 24 months of entering — either through reunification with family or adoption.

» 50 percent of those in foster care will be adopted within 24 months, exceeding the national standard of 37 percent.

» 75.2 percent of children will be reunified with their family within 12 months, achieving the national standard.

» 85 percent of all children will exit foster care in a permanent placement — adoption, reunification, guardianship.

» All children exiting foster care will do so with permanent connections.

“DCFS’ over-arching focus is to keep children safe,” Sonnier said. “We will build partnerships with a variety of organizations that can assist us in accomplishing our mission, use existing best practices and tools and drive performance to continue to improve the way we provide services.”

The new initiative follows a record year for DCFS in adoptions. Last year, DCFS saw 652 children adopted by 468 families. Today, there are 638 children who are immediately eligible for adoption.

DCFS features profiles of foster children eligible for adoption on its website, www.dcfs.louisiana.gov.

Be Inspired with Raquel: Adoption is about love, not skin color

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Love is colorblind. This also is true for adoption.

While it is important for a child to know his history, that knowledge doesn’t translate into who he is or how he should govern his life. His history doesn’t define him; the love he receives does.

By choice, I don’t have children — but if I someday decide otherwise, I’m totally open to adopting a child outside of my race. I don’t believe there is anything such as “black love” or “white love” — there is just love. The same type of love God gives to us all regardless of skin color or ancestral past.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen more parents adopting babies and children of different races. I’ve seen it in everyday working folks as well as celebrities. The issue has prompted some discussion of whether it’s right or wrong for a white couple to adopt a black child; for an Asian child to be raised by a black family … or any combination of nationalities.

For me, it isn’t a question of right or wrong, but one that pertains to the well-being of that child. We don’t know the backstory of these children. We don’t know the alternatives they are confronted with in relation to orphanages, foster case or homelessness. What’s wrong with a family of a different nationality opening their home, arms and hearts to children that need love?

I am an American who happens to be of a certain ethnicity, but before any of that I am a human being, which bridges all gaps and connects us all to a common theme: God.

I don’t believe the question should be about whether a parent can successfully raise a child of a different race. Instead, the question should be about whether the parent can successfully love a child … period. Clearly, some of society is focused on a small piece to a very big puzzle.

Growing up in a family that shares some of your social and ethnic concerns is important. I understand the point made that a white mother can relate to the trials and tribulations facing a white child better than a mother of another nationality might. I can relate to the fact that a black child can better empathize with the black experience by way of parents who look like her and have a comparative story to share.

I understand these well-intended points. But, if you look at today’s teens and young adults, many of them are unaware of their heritage and historical backgrounds. Many of them are accepting of all nationalities and they see themselves as Americans — and this phenomenon is partly due to a big shift in our culture.

Actually, I think interracial adoptions could be a good thing for the children, because they are being reared from a different perspective, leaving behind some of the self-imposed limitations some races have passed from generation to generation.

If I were a child without parents, living with uncertainty and the odds stacked against me, I’d want someone to take me into their home and love me, feed me and grant me a somewhat normal childhood. I would want someone to give me an opportunity to attend school and become something great. It wouldn’t matter if that person was Chinese, Japanese, American or Sudanese.

As I previously mentioned, knowing our history and where we come from is important, but in order to even care about our background, we’ve got to be loved. Love helps us identify with groups, communities and the world, but that love must start within and most of us are able to get that process going by way of a loving parent, no matter her genetic makeup or skin color.

Many Homeless Adults Start their Journey in Foster Care

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Foster care placement is one of the childhood risk factors, which predicts adult homelessness. A mother with a childhood history of foster care is far more likely to become homeless than one who has never entered the foster care system.

Darlesha Joyner is one such mother who comprises more than 6,500 District residents without permanent homes.

“I’m tired and frustrated,” said Joyner, 22, who entered Maryland’s foster care system at 14 years old. Her 18-month-old son rested on her hip with his legs akimbo. “My issue is not only with living in the shelter but even before. I don’t want to be here.”

Since January, Joyner, a mother of two, has lived in the old D.C. General Hospital, which was repurposed as a family shelter in Southeast. Recent reports indicate it houses 284 families with nearly 600 children, more than half of them under the age of 12.

Joyner experienced a series of losses over a short time. At four years old, her mother died. Her father followed at seven. One grandmother died when she was 10 and another at 14. Since the age of seven, she was bounced around by family members, living from house to house, until she entered foster care, the native Washingtonian said.

“My family said I was hard headed,” said Joyner who has a learning disability. At 18, she emancipated herself by leaving the foster care system, got into domestic violence situations, lived in hallways and slept outdoors.

She joined several persons who testified at Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham’s public oversight hearing on D.C. General’s services and management onsite at the shelter on Feb. 28.

“These children are wards of the city and we have special responsibility for them,” said Graham, chair of the Committee on Human Services with oversight authority over D.C. General. “In the process, we become their parents, and we should anticipate their needs when they’re emancipated.”

One woman revealed she was a foster child from 2 to 21 years old, and now lives at D.C. General.

The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the city’s child welfare agency, reported in 2008 that more than one-third of the youth leaving the system at 21 did so with “few or none of the supports and resources … to ensure sustainable independent living.”

This vexing national problem of foster care becoming a breeding ground for future homeless adults isn’t new.

The 1994 Green Book from the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, reported that mid-1980s surveys indicated significant numbers of homeless shelter users were recently discharged from foster care. The book provides data under the committee’s jurisdiction.

Children “age out” of the system when they’re discharged from government care, between 18 and 21. As young adults, they’re forced into pseudo independence with little resources to assume adulthood.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA), a coalition of youth-engaged organizations and residents found that 40 percent of D.C.’s homeless youth were in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.

“Young adults, under the best circumstances, don’t turn 18 or 21 years old and magically become rational, self-sufficient adults; and a history of trauma, abuse or neglect further impacts their social-emotional development,” said Maggie Riden, a DCAYA senior policy analyst at a council oversight hearing. “To achieve lasting stability, this population needs an array of supportive resources … not defined by age, but by scope of need.”

Young people in foster care leave placements due to conflicts, or they seek more familiar surroundings, Riden said.

But, to Ressurrection Graves, reasons for leaving are more ominous. She said national evidence-based studies maintained that 20 to 30 percent of children in foster care are sexually abused, which leads to early emancipation.

“Child sexual abuse has its own set of traumas, which are linked to adult homelessness,” said Graves, a child sexual abuse expert and survivor, and a homeless mother for three years. Due to her traumatic experiences Graves, who was raised in the D.C. area, will launch in August a nonprofit that offers alternative shelter solutions for those seeking transitional housing.

“The trauma of being removed from the home causes disruptions, and those build over time,” said Nicki Sanders, a Columbia, Md., social worker. “Children in foster care move on average about seven times. They have new schools, rules to follow, values, academic and social challenges. There’s instability in the life of a foster child on a consistent basis, in many cases.”

This cycle will probably continue for Joyner’s children. Her three-year-old daughter is in foster care.

“Our child and family welfare system continues to be a pipeline into homelessness and instability for hundreds of youth each year,” Riden added.

 

Troubling spike in foster children prompts budget shortfalls

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The number of children in foster care in Haywood County is on the rise, a depressing sign for Department of Social Services workers whose first goal is to keep a family together.

“Growing up in foster care or growing up in an institution is no way to grow up,” said Ira Dove, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Dove presented his case to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday, requesting additional money to pay for the increasing costs of running foster care.

 

The commissioners agreed to give DSS $342,113 to cover a budget shortfall between now and the end of the fiscal year in June brought on by increase in foster kids. The federal government will reimburse the county between 60 percent and 66 percent of that cost.

Despite efforts by the DSS to keep children in the same home as their parents, the number of children in foster care rose 53 percent during a 12 month period. There were 102 kids in foster care in October 2011, and by October last year, there were 156 kids in the program.

Part of the problem is children kept entering foster care last year quicker than they left.

“We didn’t move a lot of kids out of foster care last year,” Dove said.

The number has come back down, with 109 Haywood County children in foster care as of this week, but the spike caused DSS to burn through its budget allotment before the year was up.

Haywood County is not the only county in the state seeing such an increase. Jackson County’s foster care population doubled, and Swain saw similar increases to Haywood.

Dove said he could not name a single correlating cause of the statewide rise in foster children. It is usually a combination of factors, he said.

In most cases, the parents of foster care children have substance abuse and/or mental health problems. In more than 30 percent of cases, the child was physically and/or sexually abused. Nearly half of the time, there is a history of neglect and no stable housing.

Both Haywood County commissioners and Dove indicated that a rise in prescription drug abuse may have influenced the number of cases moving through DSS.

“It appears the foster care population grows and fades with the (popular drug of the day),” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Some parents with drug addictions end up in prison, leaving children without a guardian. Chairman Mark Swanger postulated that the increase might be a result of concerted efforts by police to crack down on prescription drug abuse in Haywood County.

“It’s ironic the more effective law enforcement is the higher foster care costs we have,” Swanger said.

Dove assured the board that DSS tries every other option before separating a child from their family. The first strategy is having social workers visit the family regularly and work on rectifying issues affecting child safety.

If the child cannot remain with a parent, DSS searches for other family members willing to care for the child. But it can be difficult to track down relatives living outside North Carolina or, in some case, convincing them to take the child.

“Those kids have some pretty significant traumatic issues,” Dove said.

If the in home program is ineffective or willing relatives cannot be found, the child is placed in foster care.

“This is the last resort for us. It’s not where we go first,” Dove said.

Although the department goes through several steps before resorting to foster care, Dove told commissioners that he would not be happy until the program was not needed.

“As long as there is one child in foster care, we can do more. We can do better,” Dove said.

DSS is in need of volunteers willing to take in foster children. To start the process of becoming a foster family, call DSS at 828.452.6620.

Support Safe Housing for All Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

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Imagine a world where your child is forced to leave your home at age 18. You can no longer provide the love, support and roof you worked so hard for throughout your child’s life. On his or her 18th birthday, your child must instantly transition into adulthood with little more than a suitcase of their belongings. Would your child be ready?

This is the reality for too many of the nearly 10,000 children and adolescents who have been removed from their families and placed in the foster care system because of abuse or neglect.  They enter the foster care system in a time of crisis only to be kicked out at age 18, unprepared for the crises to come.

It is unacceptable that in a society where approximately half of all youth live with their parents until age 24, we expect those who have experienced PTSD-inducing childhood trauma to be the ones surviving completely on their own at age 18 – with no family to fall back on when things get rough. And what happens to these youth? Study after study demonstrates that they end up homeless. In its most recent annual survey, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated that one of every eleven youth from foster care will experience being homeless.

The Mockingbird Society, in collaboration with community partners, foster parents and legislators, is laser focused on reversing the longstanding pattern of Washington discharging youth from foster care into homelessness.  This pattern is not unique to Washington. In fact, it is a national epidemic.  The NAEH has rightly identified stopping foster care systems from this practice as a key strategy for ending youth homelessness in America.

In 2006, Washington established the Foster Care to 21 pilot program thanks to forward-thinking legislators. This program allowed up to 150 youth to remain in foster care to age 21 to pursue their post-secondary education.  The evaluation results are consistent with national research as well as what most parents and grandparents might say: youth who had safe housing and other supports did significantly better than those who were literally on their own.  Not only did they reduce their negative behaviors such as stealing, early parenting, and reliance on public assistance, but they also increased their academic achievement, gained valuable work experience, and began the successful transition to healthy adulthood. In fact, for every Washington tax dollar invested in this service, our community received a return on investment of $1.35.  Ensuring youth have safe housing to utilize as a foundation for achievement makes both fiscal and common sense.

Thanks to the bi-partisan support of our Legislature, we have made great gains ensuring foster youth have the opportunity to remain in foster care to age 21.  Currently, youth who pursue their secondary or post-secondary education are eligible to remain in foster care to age 21.  But certain populations don’t get this support.

Now, we are asking our elected-leaders and community members alike to provide this opportunity to those youth who need it most. Current proposed legislation (Extended Foster Care HB 1302/SB 5405) would extend this support to the remaining youth who are not able, or not yet ready, for the educational track.  This includes youth who have serious medical issues including cognitive or physical disabilities, youth who have significant barriers to employment or academia, and youth who are working part time but still unable to afford full independence.

Earlier this year I testified in favor of HB 1302 with a courageous young man with a seizure disorder which would have qualified him for Extended Foster Care had this legislation been in effect when he turned 18. He modestly said that his condition made things more complicated after leaving care, and that pursuing his education or employment was not a realistic option for him at 18. Soon after his testimony he had a minor seizure, right in the hearing room. Are we really going to kick youth like him out at age 18?

Imagining a world where we cannot provide our children the support they need to be successful, independent adults is a nightmare. The moment the state decides to remove a child from their home, that child becomes our collective responsibility as a community. As parents, our care and support guides our own children safely into young adulthood. Our commitment should be no less for youth in foster care.

I call on legislators and community members alike to fulfill this responsibility and support Extended Foster Care, House Bill 1302 and Senate Bill 5405.

Foster Care System Faces Problems

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More than half a million children are in foster care in the United States today — roughly double the number who were in foster care in the mid-1980s, according to the Child Welfare League of America.

“Having thousands of kids in foster care is a cause for concern because it’s at an enormous financial and human cost,” says Carrie Friedman, who runs the the CWLA’s national database of child welfare statistics. The number of children in foster care nationwide fluctuates between 550,000 and 600,000, according to Friedman.

In 1980, about 500,000 children were in foster care, but a series of successful reforms, starting with that year’s Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, dramatically decreased the number of children in foster care. But in the early 1990s, with the advent of crack cocaine and an economic recession — the numbers went back up, Friedman says. “Nationally, we saw a dip and then a rise, and now the numbers are staying flat.”

Advocates Urge Strengthening Communities

Child welfare advocates say the foster system is in need of changes so that children spend less time in foster homes, with foster families who are more competent. Young adults who have grown up in foster care also need more help in making the transition to independent living, the advocates say.

Another problem is that today more and more children are going into care as victims of violence or sexual abuse. “Kids are much more disturbed than they ever were,” says Max Donatelli, director of care management at Baker Victory Services, a nonprofit that provides services, including foster care, to children in the Buffalo, N.Y. area.

Some advocates also argue for greater efforts to strengthen the impoverished communities where foster children often come from. When communities break down, foster rolls grow and the cycle feeds itself, they say. Because of the connectedness between the health of communities and the safety of kids, many experts recommend child welfare agencies look to rebuild old-fashioned safety nets.

“The key today is to build a stronger neighborhood to protect kids,” says John Mattingly, senior program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md., where he studies state and national trends in childcare services.

In places like Cleveland, where Mattingly worked for years, a history of poor foster care is part of a more complicated picture, he says. “Cleveland still has serious problems, made worse by drugs and unemployment.”

Cleveland was also where Antwone Fisher, the man whose life inspired Denzel Washington’s new movie, spent years in foster care. Mattingly, who has met Fisher as an adult, believes his difficult years in the foster care system might have been avoided if child welfare authorities had been more aware of his extended family in the city. “What’s so tragic about his story is that Antwone used to walk by his paternal grandfather’s house every day. The first thing child welfare workers need to do is to find these kids’ relatives. That’s why neighborhoods, particularly knowing who’s in the neighborhood, are both so important.”

Despite difficult circumstances, foster kids can be great achievers, advocates say. As well as Fisher, basketball star Alonzo Mourning and actor Victoria Rowell were both foster children. Mourning and Rowell now advocate for foster kids.