Youth Voices Rising Writing Contest 2023 — Third Place, Essay
There are 336 million people living in the United States of America. 2 million of those people reside behind bars, incarcerated in our criminal justice and rehabilitation system. Many of them are falsely accused of crimes they did not commit or sentenced to harsher punishment than necessary. Studies show that the foster care system is a direct connection to the prison system. As the numbers continue to grow, we must eventually ask ourselves: why are so many of our men, women, and children being raised in cages?
When you think of a law-abiding and self-sufficient citizen, you think of someone who is stable within their housing, finances, self-esteem and ability to provide for their family. That is the exact reason why current and former foster youth transfer from one broken system right into the hands of another. The foster care-to-prison pipeline has such a high rate of success because adolescent youth and young adults lack those exact characteristics — stability and family.
This truth is not to discredit those who make it their mission to go above and beyond the statistics. There are many foster care participants who choose to go right, rather than left. They make a conscious effort to defy the odds and a conscious decision to break down barriers. Some are not that equipped. The barriers of loneliness, lack of confidence, lack of resources and lack of security keep them chained within the systems. They try to go right but only see left as an option. They try to find their place in society. Too often, their place is somewhere upstate, within a confined wall, wearing an orange jumpsuit labeled “inmate.” If we truly want to see more of our people sustaining a law-abiding and prosperous lifestyle, we must tackle the problem at the root. We must recognize that someone who has nothing, has nothing to lose.
Let’s begin with family. Family is the foundation to every human being. Family provides the necessity of love, belonging and purpose. Oxford Languages defines “family” as “a group of one or more parents and their children living together as a unit.” However, we know that family can be anyone and everyone who is united, sometimes sharing common characteristics. When a youth enters foster care, they are often taken from their family of origin and placed with people who already have an established family. As they are trying to navigate life, they are also trying to blend in with complete strangers. Studies show 35% of foster youth change placements, homes and “families” more than two times per year. After so many moves, how can someone obtain hope in stability? Moving from home to home has a ripple effect on the whole life of a child. Constantly changing schools and friends will negatively affect all children. We all know that kid who acts out in class because they are not receiving the attention at home. Well, more than likely, that is the same case for most foster youth. Once a child receives attention, even if it’s negative, a stimulation occurs within, provoking this child to repeat whatever action committed to receive the attention in the first place. Specialists label this as a behavioral health issue. Honestly, it’s mental health.
All foster youth have records. Whether that is a record of academics, placements, or conduct, it follows a youth around the foster care system. After so many poor records, foster homes are no longer willing to accept the child into the group home. Probation or YA placement, this child goes. The youth are washed away and left to raise and lead themselves. It is imperative to recognize and cater to the need of providing stability in our foster youth’s lives instead of brushing them off when they feel out of place and behave accordingly. An act of care and support could not only show our youth the true meaning of love, but also keep them from making a simple mistake that would lead them to jail.
The foster care-to-prison pipeline isn’t even that complex. It is actually very simple and straightforward. To provide context, picture this: a child is sent out of class for disruptive behavior and placed in detention. This causes isolation for the student to ponder on their thoughts and actions — not necessarily dealing with them, just punishment. This very student is four times more likely to reoffend, causing another period of isolation. After so many offenses, this child is now up for expulsion, being excluded from proper education.
Lack of education is a barrier to acquiring gainful employment. Many jobs require at least a high school diploma/GED. Only 50% of foster youth graduate high school, compared to 86% of the general population. Yet, our foster care system exits participants without completion of their high school education. We must help our foster youth graduate high school, graduate college and secure employment. This is vital to overturning the numbers.
There are, indeed, ways to help revitalize our foster care system. Beginning with representation, all youth should be appointed a union-style spokesperson who fights for the well-being of the child. This auxiliary should serve as the voice of the child in settings where vital decisions are made. CASA is a well-known organization who already does this. All children need this type of advocate to defend their living situation, the changing of schools and the maltreatment of the group homes.
Secondly, it is necessary for foster parents to participate in rigorous screening. The system should locate those who are compassionate, patient and understanding to the needs of a traumatized child. Too often than not, a child shows anger or attitude and is then asked to leave. Everyone has a need for love through the good times and the bad times. The identity of foster youth should remain confidential. Kids are being excluded in settings because of their family status. This leads to bullying, behavioral and mental health issues.
Lastly, the expectancy and push for students to graduate high school, go to college and obtain employment needs to be greater. The foster care system has great programs in place to educate students on the independent living process. It is absolutely vital to promote these programs not only to the students on track, but those totally off. Provide them with the right option.
It is time we gather at the group homes and placements, teach the troubled youth a trade skill, and encourage them to go to college because someone who has nothing and knows nothing, has nothing to lose.