On Foster Care: Why Foster Care Reform Must Happen

On Foster Care: Why Foster Care Reform Must Happen
"Let me stay in a home with loving parents that care for me," writes Antoinette, age 14, in her poem, "To the Judge." "I want to be somewhere where I can live life as a child, in a better situation. Can you find a home that is truly good and where the people will help me?"

In California, we are responsible for 80,000 children who, like Antoinette, are living in foster care with little say about what happens to them next. Nationally, more than 500,000 foster children are waiting for a safe and permanent family. Courts play a critical, often life-changing role in the lives of youth who enter the child welfare system -- deciding whether children should remain in foster care or can safely return home; where they will live, how often they will move and when they will leave the system.

As part of the May Foster Care Awareness Campaign, a powerful collection of art and writing by youth calls attention to the need for them to have a greater voice in the court decisions that leave a lasting imprint on their future. The booklet, "My Voice, My Life, My Future -- Mi Voz, Mi Vida, Mi Futuro," features moving poetry and artwork, through which foster youth describe their experiences and their hopes for the future. Twelve-year-old Cierra poignantly recounts in her poem: "My life wasn't the best, but I feel like I have to get this off my chest. ... I have no family, I am all alone."

In 2004, the nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care recommended that children and their families have a direct voice and representation in court to safeguard the best interests of the children and to improve their outcomes. This month, advocacy, governmental, judicial and public-interest organizations are joining together to encourage the community to become involved and better support these vulnerable children. Many youth in foster care don't experience the life a child should have. Some children stay in foster care for only a few weeks or months while their parents get their lives back on track, but thousands of others cannot safely be returned home or cannot find permanent adoptive homes and, as a result, "grow up" in foster care.

Consider these sad facts. Almost half of foster children spend at least two years in the foster-care system, and nearly 20 percent spend five or more years in foster care before exiting for a safe, permanent family. On average, foster children move through three different placements, frequently with little or no warning. About 19,000 older youth "age out" of foster care each year without a permanent family to love and support them.

Nationally and in California, there are reform efforts under way to improve safety, permanence and well-being for youth in foster care and to move youth more quickly from foster care into safe, permanent, loving homes. Indeed, the Pew Commission report identified a practical set of reforms at the state and national level, including more flexible child welfare financing, to allow public officials to tailor appropriate responses to families in crisis and divert children from the foster-care system in the first place.

We also need to enhance accountability, communication and coordination among all parts of the system -- child-welfare agencies, courts and schools -- that too often don't talk to each other. We need to make sure that children and families have a strong and effective voice in court proceedings, and that courts are staffed by well trained professionals with adequate tools and information to consider the cases before them.

In California, the Legislative Select Committee on Foster Care and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care are bringing judicial, legislative and governmental leadership together to ensure safe, secure, permanent homes for California's abused and neglected children. In addition to supporting these reform efforts, there are also many opportunities for individuals to step up and make a difference in the lives of foster youth -- one child at a time. This May's Foster Care Awareness Campaign challenges our entire community to engage -- whether as foster parents, mentors, tutors or simply donors of gifts that enable foster youth to celebrate their birthdays and other milestones. Children have been described as the "living message we send to a time we will not see." For our community's foster youth, that message is all too often one of failure and despair. We can, and must, do better to change that future.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles and of Home At Last, a national outreach and education partnership, supported through a grant by the Pew Charitable Trusts to Occidental College, which seeks to encourage implementation of the court reform recommendations of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. To view the booklet depicting the foster children's art and poetry, "My Life, My Voice, My Future," go to www.fostercarehomeatlast.org.