The Weight of Being a Former Foster Youth in the Age of COVID-19

Former foster youth A.L. is profoundly shaken by what foster youth are going through as a result of efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic.

Former foster youth and child welfare researcher A.L. is profoundly shaken by what foster youth are going through as a result of efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s hard to process much of anything when you have friends packing as many of their belongings that they can into a single duffel bag until it is bursting at the seams, just like we had to do over and over again as kids, to leave their dorms or when they can’t pay their rent after being laid off, thanks to the coronavirus. Or the little foster siblings you grew up with left in precarious positions where you know no one will really check on them and you know no report will result in a home visit. More than anything, the emotional toll of knowing the injustices foster youth are voicelessly suffering in care is no small matter weighing on our shoulders. The system put into place to protect us continues to fail – and forget – us.

The memories of spending nights in child welfare offices when there was nowhere else for us to go have not disappeared from my mind. They are more present than ever now, I think, while I wonder if that is the fate behind closed doors for foster youth coming from exposed group homes, those being shuffled out by fearful foster parents, and as foster parents close their doors to new placements. Or the feelings of uneasiness, not belonging, that are ever-present at the beginning of every new placement or unfamiliar family, what can only be amplified by a 24/7 lockdown with people no more than strangers.

There’s something heavy that weighs on you when you know neither home nor foster care are a safe place, when you have experienced that firsthand. To know that investigations have been slowed to high-risk situations, whatever that means anyway, and that in-person caseworker visits for foster youth have been halted, you’re left with a looming question of how many more youth have to be forgotten until it’s too late.

I fall asleep with the awareness that there are kids out there like me who wouldn’t make it much longer if removal had not occurred – but what do you do when no one even comes to see you, when your mom doesn’t answer the phone either? I fall asleep with the consciousness that there are kids out there like me, going to sleep shaking-until-they-are-so scared of a foster parent. I just had to wait until the next time my caseworker came to visit to see bruises or locks on the refrigerator – but what do you do when there is no end in sight and no one to see the red flags? If there is one thing I’ve learned from fellow foster youth, it’s that my story isn’t a unique one. This is happening, and it’s not stopping for a pandemic.

We are doing our youth a disservice to pretend that a FaceTime conversation in the yard will ever be truly out of earshot of a caregiver, many of us who know the consequences of a call like that all too well, or that a walkthrough of the home via Skype is a viable means to investigate. Youth in hard places so desperately deserve the right to be listened to and protected if truly needed. Youth who have been uprooted out of their homes and away from everything they know deserve more than to live in perpetual and stressful uncertainty, and they certainly deserve more than a FaceTime call. Investigators and caseworkers deserve the right to personal protective equipment to make sure the most vulnerable among us are safe while we endure this crisis.

With no end in sight, at what point do no caseworker visits, no family visitation, no court hearings, placement instability, and the ramifications of all of those things put together become inhumane? Unheard and unaddressed, another generation is suffering the consequences of the brokenness and unpreparedness of the foster care system that so often forgets the humanity of those it is protecting – and we need to pay attention.

A.L. is a former foster youth who aged out after nearly eight years in foster care and currently works in child welfare research. By the numbers, she lived in 11 placements in two states, attended six different schools and was separated from siblings throughout her time in care before running away at age 17, thereafter experiencing homelessness until attending university.

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