WASHINGTON – Sex trafficking, homelessness, teen pregnancy, abuse and a life without family: Foster children often face these realities. After they leave the foster care system, it can be even worse.
These realities are a result of the current funding structure of the foster care system, officials said. The Senate Finance Committee is working with advocates to change that.
Federal funding is available to support foster care, but not to prevent children from entering the system or to help children after they leave the system as adults.
A proposed bill, the Family First Act, would change the funding structure. The bill would provide federal funding to prevent children from entering the foster care system and extend funding to young adults after they move out of the system.
“We had to figure out why we have so many problems in the system, and the reason, we found out, is because the system is just overwhelmed with foster youth,” she said. “The system isn’t built to serve that many foster youth.”
A report by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System released in July, says that over 415,000 children were in foster care in 2014. Of those, 264,746 entered the system that year.
Celeste Bodner, executive director of the FosterClub and National Foster Care Coalition board member, said being taken away from their families is traumatizing for children. Although society thinks foster care saves a child, the reverse is often the case.
She gave an example:
“Let’s say there’s a single mother, and her kids are going to go into foster care because she’s living in housing that’s not safe – maybe she has broken windows or there’s no heat. Currently, what would happen is the kids would have to get removed in order for federal dollars to be reimbursed to the state,” she said.
Under the Family First Act, states would be able to use federal money to make the house safe again, rather than remove the kids.
When a child in the foster care system enters adulthood without having been adopted, it’s called aging out. The child’s caregiver is no longer given money to provide for the child. Children age out at 18 or 21, depending on state rules.
We’re finding a lot of grim outcomes of foster youth transitioning out
The AFCARS report said 22,392 children aged out of the system in 2014.
The Family First Act would give financial assistance to those young adults to help them succeed after foster care.
“We’re finding a lot of grim outcomes of foster youth transitioning out because most foster youth don’t have permanency, they don’t have a supportive adult helping them with this transition,” Hinsz said.
One of those “grim outcomes” is sex trafficking. Hinsz said sex traffickers target teens who are transitioning out, and young adults get involved as a means of survival.
“They know where the group homes are, and they know that foster youth are vulnerable during that transition and they’re very savvy people,” she said.
Sex traffickers are manipulative, and Bodner said trafficking is a lot more subtle than someone might think. The traffickers promise stability.
“The young person believes it’s somebody who cares about them to start with, and that’s super attractive to a kid who’s had broken relationships and abandonment in their lives,” she said. “When you’ve had so much relationship loss, sometimes you don’t know what healthy relationships look like.”
Homelessness is another “grim outcome” former foster children face.
At age 17, 16 percent had experienced homelessness. According to a report by the National Youth in Transition Database, 19 percent of 19-year-olds in foster care reported they had been homeless at some point from 2012 to 2014.
Their education is just kind of like the last thing that everyone’s focusing on
Hinsz said it’s rare for foster children to go straight to college or even finish high school on time.
“Foster youth in K-12 education are very mobile because, every time they move a foster home, they usually have to switch schools as well. And every time you switch schools, you’re pushed back academically by six months,” she said.
The average number of moves for a child in foster care is 10
, Hinsz said. According to the same report by the National Youth in Transition Database, 55 percent of 19-year-olds who aged out of the system had a high school diploma or GED certificate.
Nationally, the 2012-2013 high school graduation rate was 81 percent, according to the Department of Education.
“Their education is just kind of like the last thing that everyone’s focusing on,” Hinsz said.
Bodner said teen pregnancy is another problem in the foster care system. Young girls sometimes get pregnant on purpose to create a family for themselves.
“If they don’t have permanence, and they don’t have people to love them in their lives and they don’t have people to belong to, a great way to solve that problem is to create your own person,” she said.
The National Youth in Transition Database found that from 2012 to 2014, 12 percent of 19-year-olds reported having given birth to or fathered a child, and 7 percent of 17-year-olds had a child.
Nationally, the teen birth rate is 2.4 percent of girls 15-19 years old, according to thenationalcampaign.org.
The Family First Act would also improve congregate care, or group homes. Foster children are meant to stay for a short time to receive specific services, such as behavioral counseling.
“The trend that we’re seeing is foster youth are being placed in congregate care facilities not to receive services, but because there’s a lack of placement options for them,” she said.
In 2014 there were 23,233 foster children in group homes and 32,955 in institutions, according to the AFCARS report. A group home cares for 12 or fewer children at a time and an institution cares for more than 12.
Congregate care facilities are licensed by states, but there is a lack of oversight, Hinsz said. Young people tell her they suffered in congregate care.
“I hear about a lot of abuse. I hear a lot about neglect, a lot about not just abuse from the adults but abuse from the other kids in the home and just limited funding to even provide for basic things like clothing and regular food,” she said.
She said they sometimes don’t get enough food, and the refrigerators are locked.
Reporting abuse in foster care is hard for children and teens, Hinsz said. If they were put into foster care because they reported abuse in the first place, they often see that as punishment and are less likely to report it again.
“The Family First Act actually includes much more oversight in congregate care facilities, which is hopefully one step towards improving the conditions that we’re hearing about from all of our foster youth,” she said.
Congress has been working on the bill. The Congressional Budget Office has not yet released a cost analysis.
“What we’re hoping is that it gets done before the presidential election because if it doesn’t get done by then, then we’re on rocky territory because we don’t know what the next administration will look like,” Bodner said.
Reach reporter Tia Rinehart at tia.Rinehart@scripps.com or 202-408-1490. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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