On any given day, there are more than 400,000 kids in the U.S. foster care system. Some of those kids are in the system for a few weeks or months, while others spend years bouncing from home to home.
To say these children are facing an uphill battle would be putting it mildly. More than 80 percent of boys in foster care get arrested and nearly half of all youth in foster care end up homeless before they turn 21. Less than 3 percent obtain a college degree.
All children in foster care have been exposed to some form — and often multiple forms — of trauma, such as severe neglect and physical or sexual abuse. Even being put in foster care is traumatic because it means the loss of a birth family and often friends, schoolmates, teachers — everything that is familiar.
Many children in foster care are too young — or too traumatized — to speak about the experiences that led to their time in care, let alone process them. If they are old enough to be in school, many have attended so sporadically or changed schools so many times that they are far below grade level. Many have gone hungry and learned to hoard food. Many are overmedicated, wrongly diagnosed, or completely overlooked.
But if you can’t offer your home as a foster parent, how can you help improve the lives of these children? If you’re not a social worker or judge, what can you do to advocate for them?
Foster youth need more than one or two adults in their corner — they need a whole village. So there is definitely room for you to help. Here are five ways to get involved in caring for foster youth without becoming a foster parent.
What you can do
Volunteer or give to a foster care agency: A simple Google search can lead you to a local foster care agency near you. Look into volunteering or options for online giving. Both are tremendously appreciated and help these nonprofit organizations continue the work of keeping children safe, reunifying families, and supporting foster parents.
Grant a wish: Through One Simple Wish, kids in care are able to submit wish requests through their caseworkers to this website. Donors can search wishes by age, gender, location, price, category, or urgency. The wishes truly are so simple: new shoes, a basketball hoop, a swimsuit, a duffle bag to take to camp. This is the sort of stuff you buy for your own kids without even really thinking about it.
Become an advocate in the legal system: Kids who spend significant portions of their childhood in foster care often have very little consistency or stability in terms of both housing and the adults they work with. Turnover is high in this field and the older kids get, the more often they tend to be moved. That’s where the Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organization comes in.
Support local foster families: Talk with your church or leverage social media. If you don’t know a foster parent in your neighborhood, start digging to find them. Once you find an individual or couple who is fostering, begin doing the same things you would do for a friend who just had a baby: create a meal train; offer to help babysit or clean; see if they need an Amazon wishlist created for books, toys, or basic items. Most importantly, encourage them and show up for them in times of transition. (Whether it’s a goodbye or welcoming a new child, the initial transition is always the hardest.)
Offer respite care: Respite care is essentially babysitting for foster families. It gives parents and children the chance to have short, regular periods of time apart in which they can rest and recharge. Respite is also used to provide crisis care for times when the child’s response to their trauma is seriously impacting other members of the family. This is also a great way to test the waters of fostering before getting into a long-term commitment.
Our experience: Getting attached changes lives
When our current foster son, D, came to live with us, he had been living in a psychiatric hospital, and before that, a shelter. D had endured severe neglect and abuse throughout his childhood, and as a result lived in fear and defensiveness. His behavior was regulated through multiple prescriptions a day. Instead of school, he attended an outpatient behavior program. He had difficulty connecting and trusting anyone. He had been labeled, medicated, and deemed a danger to himself and others.
But the silly, empathetic, kind, and helpful 13-year-old boy we welcomed into our family is nothing like the one we had read about on paper.
In his first week of living in our home, D saw me wearing my sweatshirt that says, “Get Too Attached.”
He pointed to it and asked what it meant. I recorded our conversation in my journal because I never wanted to forget it.
“What’s your sweatshirt mean?!” D asked.
“Well buddy, remember the other day when we started making your room feel more like yours?” I replied.
“Yeah, and I painted my own stuff,” he said with a smile.
“Exactly,” I said. “That’s because this is your home now and we want you to feel comfortable in this family.”
To which he replied, “Cool. What’s that got to do with it though?”
I told him, “We want you to know that we love you and it’s safe for you to let us love you. In fact, nothing you say or do will change our love for you.”
“Even if I’m bad?” he asked.
“Especially if you behave badly,” I said. “And, you know what? You aren’t bad. You’re a good kid. My sweatshirt is all about how we are going to love you, even if you don’t love us forever. Make sense?”
In typical teenage fashion, all I got in response was “mmhm.”
But 60 seconds later he muttered, “I hope I live with you and Mr. Eric forever.”
After just a few weeks in our care, D was not the boy we had read about on paper. He was medication-free, succeeding in a public school, and regularly telling us how much he loves us. We have formed a bond that has been therapeutic for all of us. We are seeing healing happen right before our eyes.
Foster parents can change lives, but they need support to answer the demanding call to open their homes to traumatized children. And these children, themselves, need a supporting cast of stable, loving adults — other than their parents — in order to overcome the obstacles they face. Is there a way in which you can stand with foster families?