Sunday, September 24, 2006

“Never again.” These were the words running through my mind on my 18th birthday as I rode away from my last group home. As a foster child who spent twelve long years in the system, I had bounced from residential group homes to foster homes, from mental health hospitals to lockdowns, enduring nearly 50 placements in all. I was the victim of sexual abuse, beaten countless times, given psychotropic drugs, placed in long-term isolation, and, through it all, denied a decent education. When I turned 18, I “aged out” of the foster care system, without a family of my own.

Sadly, I am not alone. There are approximately 517,000 children in foster care in our country, 118,000 of them waiting to be adopted. Each year, nearly 20,000 teenagers “age out” of the foster care system, just as I did. The reality of facing life’s responsibilities alone is paralyzing; often we are far behind educationally, socially, and emotionally compared to those who grew up in loving families. Only about half of us will earn a high school diploma, and 2 percent will earn a Bachelor’s degree. Unemployment rates top 50 percent, and, in many places around the country, one of the fastest growing populations among the homeless is former foster children.

When I turned 18, I made a promise to myself to make a difference in the lives of children in foster care. This promise provided me the motivation necessary to pull myself out of the deepest pits of despair, and to succeed in ways I never thought possible. After obtaining my G.E.D, I went on to earn my Bachelor’s in social work. This summer I interned with the National Council For Adoption, assisting in its mission to secure loving, permanent families for all children.

What can be done to help my peers still languishing in foster care? We need proactive federal and state governments, strong judicial leaders and efficient court systems, and aggressive community outreach. Federal lawmakers have appropriated billions to improve the foster care system, but while some progress has been made, use of these funds is often limited to those expenditures necessary to keep children in foster care. Relatively little money is available for prevention, rehabilitation, foster and adoptive parent recruitment, and post-adoption support services. Congress should allow states greater spending flexibility so they can target their foster care dollars more strategically toward the particular priorities and needs of their children in public care.

It is important to recognize the courageous efforts of the many dedicated and overworked judges, court officials, and social workers who strive to serve the best interests of abused and neglected children. Yet it is also clear that many family courts prefer reunification over adoption, even when there is no real family to preserve. In my case, after seven years and 29 placements, I found a foster family who wanted to adopt me, but the state would not terminate the parental rights of my abusive, mentally ill mother. As a result, I continued to drift from one temporary placement to the next, and was never adopted. It is understandably difficult for any judge to terminate parental rights, but the law dictates that it must be done at a certain point, in the best interests of the child. Delaying this decision allows children to linger in the system and decreases the likelihood that they will ever find a permanent family.

I owe a special thank you to the selfless foster parents who open their homes and hearts to abused and neglected children like me. Your loving care, even though we don’t always show it, impacts our lives in unimaginably positive ways. There simply needs to be many more of you. A renewed effort, backed by federal and state dollars, must be made to recruit foster and adoptive parents, and a call must go out to every stable family to consider foster and adoptive parenting.

Like many others, I am fortunate to be a foster care survivor. However, there is a stark difference between surviving and thriving. Policymakers must be determined and creative with the limited resources available, judges and court officials cannot be afraid to make the tough decisions and we must all help to find loving families who will cherish and protect children in foster care when their biological families are no longer an option.

Children in foster care deserve families and a chance to succeed in life. Thank you to all who are willing to help us thrive.

Jeff Lawson is a graduate of Walla Walla College and an intern of the National Council For Adoption.

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