Foster Children -- Our Second Family

Foster Children -- Our Second Family
All good parents know the drill: We wake up early, fix breakfast, get the kids off to school, soccer practice, an appointment with the math tutor and perhaps a visit to the doctor or dentist for a checkup. At the end of the day, we're exhausted from the demands of parenting. But we have completely overlooked the biggest part of our family, the almost 80,000 California abused and neglected children we all "parent" -- both individually and collectively -- when we bring them into our foster-care system.

For these children, taken away from their birth families because they were abused or neglected, there is often no soccer practice. The child-welfare system provides the basics, but sports equipment is an "extra" that is rarely available. Separated from all that is familiar, foster children have little opportunity to adjust to new surroundings, let alone polish their athletic skills. They also don't usually have the luxury of a tutor to bring them up to speed scholastically.

According to a 2003 review by the Little Hoover Commission, only 25 percent of children in the system for a year or more find themselves in a stable living arrangement, and with every change in school a child falls three to six months behind their classmates. Academic difficulties go unnoticed and records may be lost or incomplete. Not surprisingly, almost half of foster youth nationally do not complete high school, the Child Welfare League of America reports; California Youth Connection found that fewer than 10 percent of these graduates go on to higher education.

Health care is equally spotty. Children seldom enter foster care with a comprehensive medical history. Subsequent records, too, are often missing or poorly maintained. It is not unusual for youth living in foster care to encounter medical problems ranging from repeated inoculations every time they change schools to a lack of attention to basic health needs like dental and eye care and regular yearly checkups. While foster children have, by definition, suffered traumatic experiences, fewer than half of them who desperately need mental-health services receive appropriate care.

California's foster-care system has made progress recently, and we continue to look to our Legislature and leaders for positive change. As conscientious parents, however, it is time for all of us to engage. It is up to all members of our state "family" to reverse our less than successful way of parenting the most vulnerable children and youth in our community.

As a starting point, we must monitor children's care, if we hope to improve it. Social workers, along with judges and attorneys, educators, health-care providers and other professionals must develop sensible data-tracking systems and methods for sharing and accessing information. We need to arm ourselves with critical facts about how children are faring if we are to turn the corner and heal and protect our collective children.

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Gray, vice chairman of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, aptly observed: "There are a half million human beings who could lose their potential. How many future doctors, how many teachers, how many lawyers, how many public servants are in that group? Because of instability, neglect and abuse at the very beginning of life, because of no permanency and no family, we lose what they could become. That's a loss you cannot measure."

As responsible parents, we need to make it possible for more children to live safely with their biological families. We should revamp the federal-funding structure to channel resources into programs such as substance-abuse treatment, counseling, training, housing and employment assistance that can keep fragile families from falling apart. These changes are cost neutral; they simply reflect commonsense approaches that would enable us to use existing federal resources more effectively to support children and families in need.

We can also get involved on an individual basis one child at a time by becoming a mentor or tutor, giving foster youth reliable support from someone who holds high expectations for them and encourages them to see a better life for themselves. To mentor or tutor a foster youth not only benefits the recipient, but it is also one of the most rewarding endeavors in life, showing a young person that you care and can be relied upon, even through challenging times. Cost of mentoring or tutoring youth: An hour or two of your time each week.

Employers have the ability to offer foster youth a life-changing opportunity as well. By hiring young people living in foster care and training them for successful careers, employers provide foster youth with a critical start toward a lifetime of self-sufficiency. Cost of offering and promoting jobs or internships for youth in foster care: Insignificant.

Sometimes, tangible items can have tremendous impact on a young life. Foster youth often lack the funds to pay for an after-school computer class, musical instruments or art supplies. Items that most of us would consider basics, such as school backpacks or supplies for a science fair entry, also may be out of reach. Cost of donating to nonprofits benefiting foster youth: A tax-deductible contribution to fit your budget.

Most important of all, for those children who may not be able to remain with or return safely to their birth families, thousands of Californians are needed to open their homes and their hearts and become full-time foster or adoptive parents. The lasting commitment that results from creating a new home is one that can be pursued by couples, married or unmarried, single people and partners. Cost of creating a new, loving family by parenting abused and neglected children: Priceless.