Though my foster mother was incredibly warm and caring, I was unhappy. The day’s upheaval had left me depleted and anxious. I wanted to be stay with someone I knew, not a stranger.
After a sleepless weekend, my wish was granted — I was brought to my uncle and his family. I found solace in the fatherly talks with my uncle, wandering along the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. He did his best to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my life, even arranging for me to visit with my beloved dogs.
Still, a cloud of uncertainty hung over my head. My uncle had just two bedrooms for five kids, a situation prohibited by department policy. We worried that because of this, I wouldn’t be allowed to stay. (Standards concerning sleeping arrangements are among the strictest licensing requirements for foster homes. Federal law allows non-safety licensing issues, like bedrooms, to be waived, but few states take advantage.)
I wasn’t. Two months after I went to live with my uncle, a social worker knocked on my uncle’s door and required that I leave with her. My uncle handed me a Bible, his eyes tearing, and told me I would be safe. My social worker drove me to an emergency youth shelter. I collapsed onto an unfamiliar bed with a graffiti-covered frame in a filthy room.
I spent the next two years bouncing between short-term shelters and foster homes. Time and again, I packed trash bags filled with my most prized possessions. I grew numb after growing close to staff and youth at these places, only to say goodbye within a few days or months. One of my worst stays was at a group home to treat my post-traumatic stress disorder. The home boasted unreasonably strict rules. Normal teenage behaviors, like swearing or slamming a door in frustration, could result in having things like visits with my family taken away. To make matters worse, we were required to meet with a psychiatrist who insisted on giving us drugs rather than therapy.
Sadly, my story isn’t unique. One in seven foster children — and one out of every three teens — will be placed in a group home. Young children, toddlers, and even infants are placed in group homes, despite research showing that this setting puts them at high risk of developing serious attachment disorders. Foster children in group homes face poor outcomes, like diminished educational attainment and increased risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.
A better solution? Foster children should be placed with relatives. Studies show that children placed with relatives experience greater stability and change schools less. They’re also far more likely to reunify with their birth parents.
Today, there is a national focus on putting families first, and on using evidence-based programs to keep families together. For example, Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams in Kentucky offer substance abuse treatment and family mentors to keep birth parents with their children. Evaluations of START outcomes indicate that about half the number of children who usually would have ended up in foster care are able to stay safely at home.
Now, the federal government is considering the Family First Prevention Services Act, bipartisan legislation that would reduce the need for foster care placements by providing families with time-limited prevention services like therapy or substance abuse treatment. It would connect kinship caregivers to better resources and services to take in their relatives’ children. And it would ensure group homes are providing the most vulnerable children with the care they need.
If the Family First Prevention Services Act had been in place when I was fifteen, my parents could have received the help they needed to keep me safe and at home and prevented me from entering the foster care system in the first place. And if I still needed to enter foster care, there would have been a greater focus on allowing my uncle to keep me in his home.
Senator Ron Wyden, co-author of the Family First Act, recently said, “The weight of the status quo is severe, and it falls heaviest on the thousands of foster kids living in quiet struggle.” I lived that struggle. And so did my foster sisters. Vulnerable children and families need the Family First Act more than ever. We owe them nothing less.