To help children in foster care, awareness the first step

May is National Foster Care Month. You are excused if you have overlooked this fact, as it doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, being overshadowed on the calendar by Teacher Appreciation Week and Mother’s Day. In a way, it’s appropriate that the awareness month for children in foster care receives so little attention, because it is true that foster children receive even less. As a foster parent myself, I take some umbrage with that reality.

The statistics on children in foster care are sobering. Nationally, more than 400,000 children are in foster care, with that number roughly divided in half between the number of children entering the system and those preparing to exit. Of those, nearly a quarter are waiting to be adopted. In North Carolina on any given day, more than 11,000 children are in the foster system. Of course, as our overall population increases in the state, our population of foster children is projected to increase as well.

For children who pass through or become stuck in “the system,” the outcomes are not encouraging. The rates for high school dropout, incarceration, homelessness and unemployment are many factors higher for former foster youth than the general population, while lifetime earning potential and college graduation rates are dramatically lower.

In particular, youth who turn 18 while in care face a unique set of personal and societal barriers. Support from the state ceases, yet many times they are not prepared to face the world alone. These individuals are at the highest risk for homelessness and contact with the criminal justice system.

This is not to say that the future is bleak for all foster youth, of course. For those who land in a stable placement and either remain there or are reunited with their families, outcomes can be better than if they had remained in troubled homes. Supports for families involved with the child welfare system, however, vary wildly from county to county and state to state.

In Wake County over the past five years, we have been impressed at the level of family counseling and support provided to the birth families of our foster children. Some were ultimately successful, and the children were able to return, and some were not.

For children unable to reunite with their families, adoption is the only available route. Children in foster care are not “broken” or “damaged” – they are simply in a bad situation beyond their control. Nationwide, slightly over half of the children who go into care are ultimately reunited with their birth families, yet only 20 percent are eventually adopted. In North Carolina, there are more than 2,000 children waiting to be adopted from foster care.

This May is also the month in which the child I consider a member of our family will become our legal, no givebacks, bona-fide son. After more than two years of court dates, piles of paperwork, endless social worker visits and maddening delays, my wife and I are expecting the adoption decree to arrive any day. And while this is very exciting to my family, we know that even seemingly happy outcomes can be fraught. Our gain is, by definition, another family’s loss. This is a reality we do not take lightly.

In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Dostoyevsky writes that, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Nothing truer can be said of foster care. The idealistic images you conjure in your head about helping a child in need can be quickly erased by the day-to-day reality of raising children who come from very different circumstances and have many unaddressed needs you never considered. It’s always difficult, often frustrating and definitely exhausting. But those aren’t reasons to hold back.

For those who have considered adoption, now is the time for the next step. For those who have considered fostering, there’s no time like the present. But even those not ready for either can support foster youth by volunteering with a local child welfare agency or donating money to one of many organizations that assist foster and former foster youth.

But no matter the level of involvement, awareness of the foster youth, and the challenges they face, is always the first step.

Kevin J. Rogers, JD, is the director of policy and public affairs for Action NC and a lecturer of government and political science at William Peace University in Raleigh. He is also a licensed foster parent in Wake County.