Looking at the world through the eyes of America’s marginalized children can be heartbreaking. Engaging in conversation with youngsters who have been removed from their homes and placed in our public foster care system is an eye opening experience. Sometimes listening to foster care alumni speak about their life experiences can leave one feeling stunned. It can also be a catalyst. A Call To Action.
I was one of those people who felt stunned by the reality of our child welfare system. After becoming a foster parent 14 years ago, I met hundreds of children and youth in foster care. I had the opportunity to speak with young adults who had “aged out” of our child welfare system. They became important teachers, guiding me forward to Re-Envision Foster Care in America. Their reality spurred me into action.
First, they helped me understand that the overwhelmed and under resourced child welfare system that we, as a citizenry, have created is not working. They spoke to me about feeling different, less than, unworthy, and hopeless. They articulated why our hands-off approach – giving them over to a state agency to raise and only paying attention when something goes wrong – has created a foster care pipeline that leads directly to the next generation of poor and homeless Americans: 25,000 young people “aging out” of a system annually with no family and no place to call home. Most do not have high school diplomas and are at risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, teen parenting and lives of poverty.
In 2013 there are half million children and youth in foster care. They want responsible adults across the country to do the right thing. They want us to make sure they have access to the opportunities and resources they need to lead healthy and productive lives like their peers who haven’t been placed in foster care:
* Excellent educations in schools where administrators and teachers truly understand the impact of early childhood trauma and PTSD.
* Engaged community members who invest in their safety, health and well-being consistently throughout their childhood.
* Dedicated mentors who help them succeed in all areas of their lives.
* Stellar role models who help them re-imagine their life trajectories.
* Exceptional mental health services that help them heal from challenging beginnings.
* Compassionate and efficient child welfare professionals who help them reach their full potential.
* Progressive non-profit leaders who lead the way for widespread improvements in our foster care system.
* Visionary philanthropists who invest in foster care innovation.
* Outstanding legislators who create new public policies that ensure that all children in America have access to the resources required to develop into healthy and productive citizens.
The life experiences, courage, resilience, sincerity and poetic storytelling of our nation’s youth in foster care fuel the Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Movement. They inspire our national REFCA Roadmap. These articulate young people are eager to transform today’s reality – an America where most people think the only way to support a child placed in foster care is to become a foster or adoptive parent – to a fully engaged America where people around them have a broad spectrum of options they can choose from.
It is time to honor our children and youth placed in foster care. Our nation’s most vulnerable children need us to to come together from coast to coast and create a compelling new Menu of Engagement Options; a broad array of choices that offer Americans of all ages and backgrounds exciting new ways to become everyday resources to youngsters who may physically reside in our communities but who feel that they live under a different sky.
Imagine being interested in helping a child in foster care and being able to access an actual menu that would provide you with a dozen programs in your neighborhood that you could plug into – programs that invite you to spend a morning working in a garden, an afternoon reading stories or an evening in a cooking class with a child placed in foster care. You could host a birthday party, take someone to the movies or lead a winter coat drive. Imagine the possibilities! Currently I am teaching someone to drive and helping two young people launch a business venture. One friend underwrites summer camperships. Another runs our Camp To Belong MA horse program with her daughter, sister and friends. One lovely philanthropist donated money for our HEROES Youth Leadership Project.
To do this on a national scale we need to develop a Culture of Possibility. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus for American readers defines culture as the “customs, civilization and achievements of a particular time or people regarded collectively.” The Re-Envisioning Foster Care in America (REFCA) Culture of Possibility is a national community that simultaneously exists and evolves to fulfill its promise to our children placed in foster care. It is a creative human endeavor that calls for a “gleam in the eye” of its leaders, the courage to eschew limitations, wise investment of resources, and a shared leap of faith into an uncharted future.
Let’s tell our children in foster care that we are actively re-thinking, re-defining and re-imagining child welfare. Let’s show them that we are joining together to make sure that when youngsters are removed from their homes and placed in foster care, we will honor our promise: to keep them safe, provide them with a loving and supportive life-long family if they are not able to return to their parents, make sure that they are always connected to their siblings, surround them with compassion and understanding, and give them all of the resources they need to become healthy, productive adults. In short, that we will give them every opportunity to live an engaged, connected and fulfilling life.
Onward and upward!