From age 9 to 18, it was somewhat of a ritual: scan my bedroom, identify all the things I felt I couldn’t live without, pack my backpack to the brim, and head off to the other side of Belmont, Mass.—my mom’s house. After three days there, I’d do the same thing, but this time, I’d be on my way to my father’s. As a kid, I viewed this back-and-forth as a terrible inconvenience—I’d inevitably leave a textbook at one house and then need it for homework the next night at the other.
But after working as a paralegal at Children’s Rights for almost two years, and becoming acquainted with the stories of young people who have endured childhoods spent in foster care, I now realize just how naïve my assessment of that time really was. What was an “inconvenience” to me—having not one, but two families in the same town, and not two, but four parents who cared about and supported me—is something that many youth in state care might envy.
In college, my peers and I frequently reminded each other to check our privileges. At Children’s Rights, while reading testimony of youth who’ve been abused in group homes or speaking with emotional parents struggling to reunite with their children, I have daily opportunities to actually do so. It’s impossible not to be disturbed by the disparities in privilege and safety often caused by social and economic forces outside of children’s control.
Children don’t—indeed, can’t—consent to being born. It’s a choice others make for them, and they can only trust that we’re welcoming them into a place that’s, at the very least, safe. Child welfare systems exist because some children find themselves the victims of maltreatment by those who made that choice on their behalf. The fact that abuse and neglect then often occur within foster care systems, compounding children’s trauma, is reprehensible, and is why child welfare reform is so urgent and necessary.
Public institutions such as social services agencies can only be as effective as engaged citizens care to make them. Although we vote for our legislators, we do not vote for the administrators who ultimately run the institutions that are so vital to keeping kids safe. As a result, it is easy for these agencies to become “black boxes” whose inner workings are only brought to the public’s attention when something goes horribly wrong, such as the death of a foster child.
Fortunately, our teams at CR continue to achieve swift and concrete reforms for the kids who rely on these systems. Over the past year alone, our case in South Carolina has secured a set of tangible changes for its foster youth: no longer will kids in the Palmetto State have to sleep in motels, state offices, or detention centers while waiting for an appropriate home to be found. And in Texas, foster care reform has catapulted into the spotlight as a legislative priority for the upcoming session, with Judge Janis Graham Jack’s December 2015 ruling in M.D. v. Abbott adding force and urgency.
Recently, CR has been taking a closer look at the unique needs of specific groups in state care, including LGBTQ youth and those who are involved in the juvenile justice and foster care systems simultaneously. These youth may face a higher risk of abuse in care, limits on visitation with loved ones, and a higher likelihood of vulnerability once they age out or exit state care. For instance, studies have found that almost 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and that many of these youth were previously in foster care or in homes that rejected them.
Physical and psychological well-being shouldn’t be a matter of luck. They shouldn’t be a product of what family a child happens to be born into, what neighborhood he happens to be placed in, what political party is in power, or what religion her foster family practices. They should be a given. This is idealistic, sure, but shouldn’t it be what we aim for? Law and public policy are some of the best tools we have to chip away at the injustices kids face, and Children’s Rights wields them to make sure the playing field is level for all children.
What I’ve learned from my colleagues and from foster parents and former foster youth all over the country has solidified and strengthened my resolve to pursue a career in child welfare. The past two years have proven to me that there are few causes more important than protecting the most innocent and vulnerable among us—kids. They need as many committed advocates as they can get. So please do your part to lift them up and fight on their behalf!
Published on May 17, 2016 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.