Children in our U.S. foster care and adoption system are in crisis — sleeping in hotel rooms and repurposed jails for a lack of somewhere to go. They need individuals and families to stand up, and say “yes.”
In our Seattle area office each day, we receive multiple emails from the State of Washington that briefly describe children who need a place to go. For multiple reasons, some need a placement for only a few days, other need a long-term foster family, and others need an adoptive family. These emails overwhelm me with the sheer volume of need.
One recent Friday, I opened one email to find 57 children listed. We received eight more emails that same day, just like this one. They come every day. Every. Day.
According to the latest data released by the US Department of Health and Human Services, a child enters U.S. foster care every two minutes. Thirty children every hour. Every single day in the U.S., 720 children are unable to live safely within their families of origin and are placed into foster care.
Statistics are one thing, but a child — one with a name and a story — is entirely different. So, let’s learn more about one child from that email.
“Frank*” is a 7-year-old boy who needs a long-term foster family. “He is reported to be a thoughtful, sweet child who loves to read, play with Legos, draw and play outside,” the email reads. According to his state worker, he struggles with some self-harming behaviors and thoughts, and he needs a family who has the trauma-informed knowledge and skills to help him heal, begin to feel safe, and to learn how to trust caregivers.
Now, stop for a minute and imagine what the first seven years of Frank’s life must have been like for him to feel so hopeless that he thinks about hurting himself. We don’t know how long he has been in the foster care system, and we don’t know how many different families with whom he’s lived.
All we know is that he needs a family. Now.
The news isn’t so good for Frank. We have a crisis in our foster care system, which is true across the country but. There is an urgency, though, in Washington and Oregon, where Holt is working to recruit and prepare families interested in becoming a part of the solution to this crisis.
But right now, there aren’t enough families for the children who need them.
In Washington state last year, hundreds of children like Frank — children who urgently need a home — spent a total of 1,514 nights in hotel rooms, instead. Right now, if there is no foster family available to take in a child, like Frank, that child will hang out in the DCYF office all day, every day, until the workday ends, at which point he or she will spend the night in a different hotel room under the supervision of different DCYF staff members. This happens for as long as it takes to find a foster family willing to welcome him into their home.
One child we know of spent over six weeks in this state of limbo, from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Imagine if Frank, at 7 years old, was forced to spend weeks in such a state of chaos. He already feels so poorly about himself. Could this situation do anything to convince him otherwise?
In Oregon, the state is working on a plan to drastically reduce the number of nights children spend in a hotel before finding a more stable home for them. They are reaching that goal, but not in the way you might think. As a solution, the state has begun to house children in former detention centers, or have repurposed jails into residential care facilities when a foster family isn’t available — even for children as young as Frank.
This is why we come to work each day, driven to find a way to keep one more child from living in a hotel. To find families for children, instead of facilities made of cinderblock.
But our team is not only driven to find families. We are driven to learn and implement new, evidence-based models for working with children from hard places, preparing families to care for these children in a manner that meets their unique needs.
As every child in the foster care system has a history of complex developmental trauma, they need a different type of parenting. We work intentionally to prepare and assess applicants prior to the time they become licensed or certified foster parents and accept a child into their home. Once a child moves into their home, we walk alongside these families as they navigate the foster care system in their specific state. We visit their homes each month to help problem-solve, help them access services and identify ways to best support the needs of this child who is now a part of their family. Quite often, we serve as a liaison between a family and the state regarding a child’s legal status, information about permanency, a child’s history, or navigating relationships with a child’s biological relatives.
At our office in Seattle, most of the calls we receive are from families interested in adopting a child from foster care, and we are so thankful for them. In the U.S., there are more than 125,000 children and teenagers in foster care waiting for adoption. This number includes 1,600 waiting children in Oregon and 3,500 waiting children in Washington. They are most often school-aged kids and teenagers, and many are a part of a sibling group. The type of families needed by these waiting children are those who would be open to adopting siblings and youth who are often older than the image we often hold in our minds. They are older, yes, but they are remarkable and each of them desperately needs a permanent family.
At Holt, we also get excited about those families who reach out and are open to providing temporary foster care for as long as a child needs, until a permanent solution can be identified. Children living in Oregon and Washington need more of these families, so we are actively seeking applicants in Western Washington interested in foster care. We are exploring options for providing foster care in Oregon. Children belong in families, don’t you think? They shouldn’t be in hotels or detention centers. They need foster families who can welcome them home until they can reunite with their family of origin — foster parents willing to love them so unconditionally that they are willing to let them go. These children, regardless of age, ethnicity, or creed, desperately need parents willing to say “yes” for now, and — when needed — “yes” to forever.
No matter their path to permanency, these children need foster parents who can balance structure and nurture, who can create consistency in their lives, and who can continually ask how they can best meet the needs of this child, these siblings, this teenager who is right in front of them, and who is depending on them to walk beside them regardless of how their story develops.
This is so much better than a hotel room or institutional care, don’t you think?
For now, let’s remember Frank. As you may recall, there were 56 other children listed in that email, and there were eight other emails we received that day. New emails have arrived in our inbox every day since. I write about this challenge not because I enjoy the fact that we have such a significant problem right here in our own backyard, nor do I enjoy writing about children and their experience with abuse or neglect or the ways that we, as a society, fail them.
I write about these topics because the need is urgent.
Frank needed a foster family weeks ago, as did so many other children. Hopefully, his parents can receive the help offered to them, and he will be able to reunite with them soon. If that doesn’t work out, and if no other relatives are able to parent him, I hope he finds a foster parent (or parents) who can help him successfully transition to an adoptive family — or even become his adoptive family themselves.
At Holt, we are excited about building a domestic agenda to strengthen and preserve families, provide safe, supportive foster care for vulnerable children, and champion permanency for children through family reunification or adoption. I am excited to be a part of developing that agenda, and I know one thing for sure: Holt cannot become a part of the solution for vulnerable children in the U.S without the help of individuals and couples who step forward and say, “Yes.”
“Yes,” you can come live with me for as long as you need to. “Yes,” you can depend on me to amplify your story so others will know and might respond. “Yes,” I will invest in Holt programs to find solutions for America’s foster care crisis. “Yes,” you deserve better than to enter a system meant for your protection, only to find yourself homeless or living in a hotel room.
“Yes,” you deserve a family, and I’m going to help you find one.
Greg Eubanks | Senior VP for U.S. Foster Care & Adoption
* “Frank” is not his real name.