How Foster Care Works In The United States

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Fostered or Forgotten is a Teen Vogue series about the foster care system in the United States, produced in partnership with Juvenile Law Center and published throughout National Foster Care Month.

“When I leave my foster parents’ house, the whole weight of the world is on my shoulders to provide for myself,” Lanitta Berry, an 18-year-old senior at Rocky River High School outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, tells Teen Vogue . “If I make one wrong move, then a lot of stuff can get messed up, so I’m mentally preparing myself for the long run.”

At 13, Lanitta was twelve weeks pregnant and worried about her safety and that of her unborn baby . Lanitta says she stayed with her older sister for a few days, and then she entered into the foster care system, first staying in a shelter for teen moms for over a year, and then moving into a foster home with her baby, Violet, where she has been ever since.

“I think it’s best that I stayed in foster care and my life has been better,” says Lanitta. “If I would have gone back, I don’t know what would have happened honestly.”

Across the United States, around 437,500 children like Lanitta are in America’s foster care system, according to the most recent figures. Some children enter into the child welfare system as the result of either abuse or neglect. After a report comes in to the child welfare hotline, an investigator will examine credible cases. If the investigation finds that a home is unsafe for a child and that the risks are too severe to be addressed while the child is in the home, that child will be sent into foster care.

Once in foster care, children are either placed with relatives, with foster parents, or in group care, which places youth in government-run or contracted facilities. In 2016 over 17,000 young people aged out of foster care without the state finding them a family to live with. Foster care in the United States is made up of a vast network of federal, state, and county child welfare systems, which are plagued with problems, including a lack of funding and resources, a shortage of foster parents, and accusations of race and gender discrimination.

The lack of sufficient funding and support has led to alarming statistics concerning the well-being of foster alumni. According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, an organization committed to helping those leaving foster care and now part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than one in five former foster youth become homeless after age 18. One in four young people become involved with the criminal-justice system within two years of leaving foster care. Seventy-one percent of young women who age out of foster care become pregnant by age 21. Just 58% of foster youth graduate from high school by age 19, and fewer than 3% complete a four-year college degree by age 25.

“Foster kids aren’t readily visible in our communities. They’re politically powerless. There’s no lobby advocating for foster kids in a big way,” Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights, an organization that uses the court system to bring about change in the child welfare system, tells Teen Vogue . “The lack of attention, public will, and political power means that in times of crisis or in times where governors need to balance budgets, the child welfare system sometimes suffers the brunt of that and gets less funding.”

In large part due to more surveillance and what some believe is racial discrimination against black families, black children are overrepresented in foster care and face significantly worse outcomes during and after their time in the system. About 75% of all reported cases are for neglect, a much more subjective determination than abuse, where biases along lines of race and class can play a role.

“What we’ve seen in the system is that African-American kids in particular get reported more often because of a lot more surveillance in poor communities than in rich communities. A lot of these referrals come from law enforcement, schools, and hospitals,” Tracey Feild, director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, tells Teen Vogue . Once they’re in the system, children of color, especially black kids, are more likely to stay in foster care longer, reenter the system more often, and be placed in group care. They’re also more likely to age out of care without finding a permanent family than white kids in foster care.

Foster youth, particularly those of color, also face significant stigma in their daily lives. “I think it’s a blessing but also a curse to have foster care in my life,” Lanitta, who is African-American, says. “When people interact with me in the foster care system, they probably look at me as another case number, or as, ‘Oh, that’s another pregnant black kid in care,’ instead of, ‘Oh, that’s Lanitta, and that’s her daughter, Violet.’ “

Girls) in foster care are also disproportionately vulnerable to sexual abuse, and [LGBTQ youth](https://www.hrc.org/resources/lgbt-youth-in-the-foster-care-system are disproportionately vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.

Mark, 26, says he remembers being mistreated by his foster parents for his queer identity. “I didn’t come out. It just happened that my foster mom found out through social media and then it was a big ordeal. It was a fight rather than a coming out celebration,” Mark, who grew up in California, tells Teen Vogue . “I would be grounded just for being queer. My foster parents would make little remarks like, ‘You’re not going to get a good job.’ ‘You might die sooner.” “

The foster care system offers little support when youth age out of care at 18 or 21, depending on the state. Currently finishing his masters in social work, Mark struggled to finish his associates degree while homeless for a couple of years after he aged out of a housing program in California for former foster youth. Lanitta’s daughter, Violet, is now four, and they will live together in their foster home until Lanitta graduates from high school. This fall, Lanitta will attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and with the help of a scholarship for former foster youth, will have to provide for both herself and Violet while studying full-time.

It’s also difficult for foster youth to graduate high school and prepare for adulthood when they are forced to move frequently with little warning or support. Even under such difficult circumstances, some foster youth attend college and find scholarships to fund their educations. Jackie Robles, an 18-year-old freshman at Cal State University, Long Beach, managed to graduate high school on time and apply to 13 colleges, even though she was transferred to several housing placements after leaving her grandma’s care at age 16.

“I’ve gone to a school in another state, I’ve done online school, and I’ve been in a continuation high school. I had to switch high schools at least five times,” Jackie tells Teen Vogue . “Because I went to so many schools, my transcripts were just a mess and I wasn’t getting the credit for some of the classes I already took.”

According to advocates, the best way to solve America’s foster care crisis is to fund preventative measures to keep kids out of state care in the first place. States also need to invest in developing greater numbers of staff and foster parents from a wider set of racial backgrounds and geographic locations. While serious challenges remain, there have been some significant victories in foster care advocacy. The Family First Act, signed into law in February, provides incentives for states to keep kids out of foster care, and to favor family homes over group facilities. Lawsuits have also helped bring reform. Children’s Rights has pursued lawsuits to help overhaul foster care in states including Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

The young people Teen Vogue spoke with are committed to advancing the rights and visibility of foster youth. “Every time I have a chance to speak out, I do, because one thing that Americans don’t understand is that every problem that we see is systemic. Every single problem that we see is connected to each other somehow,” Lanitta says. “People say, ‘Youth are our future, our prosperity.’ But what are we doing to make sure that all youth have a great foundation and they can be built up in a healthy manner?”

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Related:How Foster Youth Shadow Day Helped Me Find Peace

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