“You never get to feel safe. You never get to make friends. You are always anxious, because you never know when something is going to go wrong.”
That is how Mackenzie — who remembers being moved 26 times during nearly a decade in state care — said it felt being shuffled through a series of foster families, group homes, hospitals and residential treatment centers while child welfare workers struggled to find her a home that could meet her needs.
Once, when “CPS didn’t have anywhere else to put me,” her caseworker sent her to an unlicensed home, where she slept in the same bed as the parents. She was 15, she told Children’s Rights, and “clothing was optional.” Another time, she said, workers could not find room in a treatment center with high-level mental health care, so she spent “almost a whole month” in a hospital that was only supposed to keep her for three to five days. Later, she lived in a bedbug-infested group home with “holes in the walls.”
According to a recent LA Times article, “demand for foster beds exceeds supply by more than 30% nationally.” That means experiences like Mackenzie’s — though alarming — are unfortunately all too common for the 640,000 kids who spend time in U.S. foster care every year. Throughout the nation, kids are bounced between homes, sent far from their support systems, separated from their siblings and put in restrictive institutions simply because states do not have enough foster care placements.
“Imagine suddenly being stripped of every person you ever knew or loved, then moving over and over again and never finding somewhere that felt like home,” said Sandy Santana, interim executive director of Children’s Rights. “Foster care systems are putting thousands of our children through this right now. As a country, we should be outraged.”
“YOU DON’T BUILD SUPPORT SYSTEMS”
One former foster youth, Kristopher, told CR he was moved 25 times between the ages of 10 and 18, and went to roughly the same number of schools. He lived mainly in group homes and residential treatment centers, and felt it was challenging for workers to find him a foster family because he is gay. At 15, he said, he was moved to Houston, and although he lived in several different placements in the city, he stayed in the same school for a year and a half. Then the home he was living in was shutting down, and he was going to be moved away.
“I had a job. I had friends. I had people who knew my name when I went places,” he recalled. “I made a decision that these were things that were more important to me than going to some random emergency shelter for three months, then having to move again and again and again.” Kristopher said he left care for the streets of Houston and found he had to turn to sex work to survive. When he tried to donate blood for money, he learned he was HIV positive. “I shouldn’t have had to deal with those things … I should have been able to find a placement in Houston,” he said.
Kristopher, now 25, said he didn’t fully understand the impact of his upbringing until he got older. “When you need to know things like how to do laundry, cook something or get an apartment, this is when you call people you can count on, but when you don’t stay in one place long enough, you don’t build that trust with people. You don’t build support systems,” he said.
Turbulence and uncertainty in childhood can have consequences that last well into adulthood, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report that examines the effects of languishing in foster care. “Children who spend many years in multiple foster homes are substantially more likely than other children to face emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges. As adults, they are more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, and other problems,” the report states.
“I WOULD HAVE DONE GREAT”
It is critical for child welfare systems to maintain a full array of placement options, so when young people, like Kristopher and Mackenzie, must enter foster care, they can live in safe homes where they can thrive. As Kristopher told CR, “I think I would have done great had I gone into a family that would have been able to work with me to heal from the traumas I was having and was accepting of who I was.”
Through aggressive reform campaigns, CR is compelling child welfare officials to recruit more loving foster families so kids can have better experiences in care. The organization’s advocacy has already made a difference in the lives of children in states like Connecticut and Tennessee. In Connecticut, kids are moving through fewer placements, more are living in homes with families instead of in institutions and more brothers and sisters are together. In Tennessee, children are also moving less often, fewer are living in institutions and more are living in homes close to their own communities.
But the fight is not over. Earlier this year, CR launched a pair of reform campaigns on behalf of children in South Carolina and Arizona — two states where drastic foster home shortages are harming kids.
One 16-year-old girl named in the South Carolina lawsuit has moved through at least 12 placements in about eight years, including abusive foster homes. She wants a family, but instead is languishing in a restrictive group facility where she is held in solitary confinement if she misbehaves because, as her caseworker told her, the state does not have enough foster homes.
In Arizona — where Mackenzie is growing up — child welfare officials have admitted the lack of foster homes is so severe that some kids spend nights in state offices, sleeping on cots or air mattresses. In September 2014, the state had only 5,669 spaces in licensed foster homes available for the 9,418 children in care who were not living with relatives. One 6-year-old boy named in CR’s lawsuit has been in foster care for less than two years, but has already attended eight different schools and lived in 11 different placements — including a Spanish-speaking home, though he doesn’t speak the language.
“I HAVE PEOPLE WHO LOVE ME”
“It is heart wrenching to hear kids in foster care say they feel like trash,” said Santana, CR’s interim executive director. “But we know there are good people out there who are willing to care for them and play lasting roles in their lives. Child welfare systems need the resources to allow recruiters to go out there and find them.”
After years of instability and feeling “completely alone,” Mackenzie was adopted in November, at the age of 17.
“I never really had a home or somewhere to belong. Now I do,” she said. “I have people who love me and care about me, and I know that they will never leave me and they will never forget about me. I will always have someone to go to if I am hurt or scared or need help.”
THE RESULTS: CR Advocacy Leads to Change
- In 2000, foster homes were so scarce in New Jersey that some children lived in placements where others had been abused. But a recruitment effort has led to kids being placed with families that best fit their needs, and at times the state has had the capacity to serve more than twice the number of kids in care.
- Metropolitan Atlanta has significantly reduced its use of overcrowded foster homes. In 2004, more than 200 kids lived in homes with more than five other children, and some lived with as many as 11 other kids. By 2014, 98 percent of children in care lived with families that had fewer than two other foster children or five other children total.
- Placement stability for children in Tennessee foster care has vastly improved since 1998, when nearly a quarter of children went through 10 or more placements. During 2013, 93 percent of children in care had two or fewer placements within the previous 12 months.
Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: