Oftentimes in the foster care space, we tend to respond to lingering problems in the system by throwing money at them. Not enough attention is paid to a much more important currency in the lives of young people: human connection. Don’t get me wrong, financial equity is vital, and just last month in this column, I argued for more fiscal entitlements for people who age out of foster care. But for young people who experience foster care, it is equally vital that they have family (biological and chosen) and connection at the center of their lives.
Reflecting on my January column, in which I advocate for two major financial investments in the lives of older foster youth, I am reminded that there is more to policy than money. My response is how do we use foster care policy to create and maintain community and connection for young people in foster care? The question might be complex depending on who you ask. However, when we focus on maintaining connections and ultimately moving toward family unification, we will utilize child removal far less.
Once a child removal happens, for many families it becomes nearly impossible to regain custody, and even those who do, it requires a bevy of hurdles to overcome. Maintaining family unification should be paramount: Our response to a parent struggling to care for their child(ren) should almost never be removal, it should be connecting them with resources — monetary, yes, but also with people who can assist them with caretaking. I was raised on the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, not an institution or a bureaucracy.
A critical part of cultivating love and belonging is maintaining connections. The negative impact of a lack of connection is subtle, but has significant ramifications down the road. The consequences of neglect are depression, anxiety and developmental delays to name a few. Shuttling a child from foster home to foster home is traumatic and breaks established connections, it dwarfs the opportunity for a loving familial relationship of any kind. We should strive to keep the family together, and if that can’t be the case we should surround the child with their village regardless of their placement. I believe that a child’s aunt, godfather and even mentor should have visitation rights, as well.
A major part of whether or not foster youth will be successful is the number of connections they have, and more so, the quality and depth of those connections. Unfortunately, foster care often fails miserably in cultivating and maintaining these meaningful connections. A focus of cultivating community and familial connection needs to be prioritized. We need to create systems that reduce harm, and fostering connection is important.
In school spaces, the more students feel connected to their teachers, advisors and their classmates, the more they feel safe and do better in school; this is especially important to consider, as foster youth are more likely to be disconnected from schooling spaces because of the lack of stability foster care provides. When youth age out of foster care as adults, it is important to help them make connections and remain connected to those they have deep relationships with. Whether it’s a coach, teacher or pastor, if someone shows up in a young person’s life in a meaningful way, these connections need to be taken into account when thinking about placement.
Ultimately, there is a narrow definition of “familyhood” that is defined by the state that constrains our ability to create spaces of love, safety, and stability when the nuclear parts of a family system are compromised. Modern child welfare was developed by white people with an emphasis on individualism and the nuclear family. This lens has blinded the child welfare system from seeing the bigger picture when it comes to people who can be loving and supportive forces in the lives of children.
Our contemporary understanding of family is one-dimensional, drawing boundaries of family around biological, class, and heteronarmative standards. Whiteness perpetuates individualism, this individualism fractures our larger understanding of family and community, denying and actively starving one another of connection and love.
When looking at the research of the life outcomes (e.g., school and housing) of foster youth, we see that foster care is not a safe place; one could say there is no “care” for children in foster care. We need a policy that is aligned with the young people we are serving. Having to live through and experience foster care has real and serious consequences that do not always diminish when you emancipate.
In fact, it can be exacerbated as many foster youth leave with little to no safety net as the state fails to keep them connected to their family and community of origin. Maintaining family unity is incredibly important, and we cannot replace people with policy. We need to provide respite and tangible resources to create spaces of connection and love for people who have experienced foster care.