Who is responsible for foster care children residing in virtually every zip code across America? The answer might surprise you. It’s not your local children’s services agency. It’s not your governor. It’s not Congress or Health and Human Services. It’s not the president.
It’s us. You. Me. Your neighbors. My friends. We pay the taxes. We vote the decision-makers in. And most important, we decide what we stand behind and are willing to fight for—not just when a child in foster care dies, but over the months and years it will take us to fix our very broken foster care system.
I was a month out of college in 1994 when I started my career in child welfare. Armed with only a little black pager and notebook, I spent my days knocking on doors and checking on abused and neglected kids in all corners of Cincinnati, Ohio.
For the next two decades, I immersed myself in the world of abused and neglected children, determined to help right the wrongs they endured. I’ve touched the lives of hundreds of vulnerable, invisible children; first as a caseworker and later as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).
In 2009, I wrote Invisible Kids: Marcus Fiesel’s Legacy, a book dedicated to Marcus in hopes that through words and my experience, I could educate readers about the issues facing very young children in foster care and empower people to help. Since then, after traveling the country training national audiences on topics related to infants and toddlers in foster care, I’ve come to understand this truth: the child welfare system is fundamentally broken in every state across the country.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- More laws will not fix this. The more red tape we slap on this system, the more likely the very children we aim to protect will get wrapped up in it. We must shift our mindset so that a child’s right to safety, stability, and an ongoing connection to at least one loving, responsive adult caregiver trumps all else.
- More training will not fix this. We can provide the best training possible but when one-third of the frontline staff leaves every year, it won’t matter. It’s like putting beads on a string with no knot at the end.
- More quality, loving foster homes will not fix this. Countless good foster families quit out of frustration over the way the system functions and the way it treats them.
- More money will not fix this. It will help, but not enough unless we invest and extend our support, encouragement, and practical help to frontline staff doing a very difficult job and to the leadership managing them.
Here’s what will fix this:
- Sustained public interest. It will take more than three seconds of our attention to thoughtfully address the critical issues facing children and families. Anything else is a knee-jerk reaction that has no lasting impact.
- More transparency. We must know what is happening behind the closed doors of the child welfare system. If we don’t know, we can’t help craft solutions or meet needs.
- More common sense. Preschool foster children should not be put in taxis with drivers who don’t speak English and driven to their weekly therapy appointment—even if it saves money because the taxi is covered by Medicaid.
- Quality, loving relationships. All children must have a stable, ongoing connection to at least one loving, responsive adult caregiver. Such a relationship mitigates trauma and helps them heal, grow, and thrive (and really doesn’t cost anything in terms of dollars). This is a basic need. It should be a right as well.
If you feel outraged and powerless to help, it’s time to join our team and Step Up and Fix This very broken system.
Recently, we mailed a letter to 600+ elected officials including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, all of Congress, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell, all state governors, and all 2016 presidential candidates. We asked them to break down the walls of confidentiality and elevate a child’s rights above all else.
Please help us build a collective voice for children by signing our letter and sharing with others. Names will be forwarded to our country’s leadership.
Fixing the system is not beyond our reach and it’s not rocket science. What it will require is a piece of each of our hearts to stay present and engaged. The solutions are right in front of us. Just look in the mirror.