Last night was the second-season premiere of my favorite guilty pleasure tv show, Life Unexpected. I started watching the show because Shiri Appleby, who I absolutely loved in Roswell, stars in it, but I continued watching the show because of the unique situation the characters find themselves in and how the foster care system factors into it.
Here’s the show in a nutshell: Cate Cassidy (Shiri) and Nate “Baze” Bazile (played by the super-cute Kristopher Polaha) have sex one time in high school, Cate gets pregnant and gives the baby up for adoption, and they don’t see each other again for sixteen years, until their daughter Lux shows up, asking them to sign papers that will help emancipate her from the foster care system that she’s been in since birth. Of course, because it’s television, Lux is able to live with Cate and have both of her parents playing an active role in her life, but the shortcomings of the foster care system is something that is never skirted around.
For example, when Lux was born, Cate was told by a social worker that she would have no problem getting adopted, but after three years and numerous surgeries to fix a hole in her heart, Lux saw her chances of being adopted plummet because most people want to adopt babies. She spent the rest of her years before reuniting with Cate and Baze in and out of foster homes, where her foster parents were either abusive or completely insouciant to her existence, and girls’ group homes. Now I know that these details are probably injected into the storyline for dramatic effect, but I also absolutely believe that this could be a sugar-coated version of the plight of a lifelong foster child.
I’ve been researching foster care statistics and here’s what I’ve learned: most children that enter foster care do so temporarily because of parental neglect or abuse, but slightly more than half of those children are later reunited with their parents; of the 794,000 foster children who experienced abuse in 2007, nearly 60 percent suffered from neglect, while 10.8 percent suffered from physical abuse and 7.6 percent from sexual abuse; nearly 20,000 foster kids “age out” of the system at eighteen, and these kids are much more likely to be homeless, unemployed and/or incarcerated.
After reading these statistics, I feel like the the foster care system, like most government-run systems in the U.S., are good in theory but not very pragmatic. I would even go as far as to use the word “flawed.” For one thing, non-relative foster care is an incredibly bizarre concept. It’s like prospective parents get to have these kids audition for them as their children without all the irrevocable legal responsibilities, and if they decide they don’t like them, they can just send them back like an undercooked steak, and no harm no foul. It completely removes unconditional love from the equation, which is really what parenting is all about, and replaces it with unfeeling bureaucracy.
Also, how weird is it that foster parents get paid by the government to temporarily take these kids off their hands? There has to be a better way to go about it. I’ve heard of so many instances where lower-income parents will take in a foster child just to get a monthly check, and then the child is brought into a sketchy living situation where their basic needs aren’t being met because their foster parents are pocketing all of the money for themselves. And it seems like this situation is fairly widespread, which makes me wonder how far social workers actually look into the foster child’s situation to not be able to see past a facade that is hiding neglect. In addition to having stricter guidelines for who can and can’t be foster parents, social workers should occasionally drop in on the foster home unannounced instead of always scheduling visits, so that they can better tell if there’s a disparity between the home life portrayed on scheduled visits and the home life that is a daily reality. And find a way to make the government money actually work for the foster kid.
As for all the kids who age out, the system has to start caring about the welfare of the child beyond foster care. It reminds me of the healthcare system: healthcare does not cater to the needs of the patient, but rather concerns itself with making sure its processes run smoothly and efficiently. If I were to make reforms to the foster care system, I would mandate a program that gave foster kids past the age of twelve extra help and resources to do well in school, pursue higher education and find jobs so that if they do age out of the system, they won’t be left unprepared and hopeless. The attitude that these kids aren’t the government’s responsibility once they’re out of foster care needs to be abolished so that they can have a fighting chance at standing on their own two feet in the real world. There has to be an element of care and regard for the child as an individual, and not just a number in the system, in order for that to work.
I definitely wouldn’t get rid of the foster care system all together, because there are a lot of kids who have positive experiences in foster homes and who end up being adopted through foster care, but I think someone (more important than me) needs to re-evaluate what the purpose of the foster care system really is, and then adjust the system to fulfill that purpose. With so many foster kids not being adopted, being put into unsuitable foster homes, and aging out of the system, it’s clear that foster care is not operating as well as it could, and should, be.
What are your thoughts on the foster care system?