Why the foster care system needs to change as aid expires for thousands of aged-out youth
Financial support for thousands of young adults in foster care expired on Thursday night.
Congress approved the pandemic relief money earlier this year for young people about to age out of the foster care system. It helped them pay for food, housing and transportation at a time of great economic uncertainty.
Back in July, Here & Now spoke with young adults who had just started living on their own without the safety net that many Americans have. Twenty-four-year-old Hillary explained how much the money helped her.
“I was able to use some of that emergency funding to buy a bed and dishes,” she says. “Basically I had nothing but a couple suitcases and an apartment.”
Foster care advocates like Sixto Cancel say the program was a lifeline for vulnerable young people that must be renewed.
Cancel spent much of his own life in foster care and now leads a non profit dedicated to helping foster children called Think of Us. He wrote an essay recently in the New York Times arguing for complete reform and a rethinking of how kids are treated after they’re separated from biological families.
“The system failed them. We were supposed to either be reunited or adopted, and those two things didn’t happen,” he says. “And so I feel like this is our actual moment to tell America in a way that’s in English like this is the failure of aging out. This is what actually happens to us.”
As a baby, Cancel entered foster care because of his mother’s drug addiction. He first realized the system needed to improve at age 9, when a racist, abusive family adopted him.
By age 13, he was couch surfing. Cancel says he had to stick a tape recorder to his chest and document the abuse to prove what he experienced. That’s when he reentered foster care at age 15.
The hardest part of moving from one home to another is wondering what’s going to happen in the future, he says.
“The worst part about being in some homes is that you get this notion that you’re really cared for, that you’re really loved,” he says, “and then you find yourself in a trash bag going to the next place.”
This cycle makes kids wonder if people truly care at all, he says. When he was 15, Cancel most feared being placed in a group home because of what he heard about them from his brother and other young people.
In his essay, Cancel writes that he could have lived with people who loved him, referring to kinship adoptions. In many cases, it’s the law that if there’s a family member or someone who’s close to the biological family that’s willing to take a child in, those people have priority.
But unfortunately, kinship adoption options were not explored when he reentered foster care as a teenager. The conversation at the time centered around aging out of the system at 18 or 21 then going to work or school, he says, rather than what family members he could have lived with.
At the time, Cancel says he knew young people in group homes didn’t feel safe. Years later, Think of Us collected the stories of 78 young people who had lived in institutions and found the same results.
The results of the study led Think of Us to call for an end to group homes and foster care, he says.
“Almost universally, we heard the real challenging experiences of living in these places that included sexual assault, being beaten by staff, feeling like they had to be in this survival mode against each other,” he says. “And some youth blame themselves for being in that group home.”
A narrative develops in the foster care system that if a child gets older and hasn’t been adopted yet, that means they’re somehow unadoptable and that nobody wants them.
The report finds that youth internalize blame for ending up in group homes, and develop feelings of shame and worthlessness, Cancel says.
He quotes one young person who participated in the study and opened up about the sexual abuse they experience in a group home: “I was in that facility because I was deemed to be dangerous to myself or others, but yet I was the one being abused and locked in rooms. I still carry that feeling of blame with me today. What we do to children in the system now lives on with them tomorrow and in the years to come.”
Cancel believes kinship adoption wasn’t explopred for many of the nearly 44,000 kids living in group homes in the U.S. today.
“Almost all the young people that we talked to said that they actually had a person that they would have want to live with, and we could have explored that specific option,” he says. “But unfortunately, the system did not explore those options.”
That brings Cancel back to his own story. If someone asked him about family members at age 15, he says he could have connected with his sister and his aunt — a foster parent living 58 miles away who he only met for the first time about three years ago.
When he walked into his family reunion — “every single foster kid’s dream” — he says he saw people who looked like him for the first time but also noticed two Mexican siblings who didn’t look like his Puerto Rican family members. Everyone said the kids were their cousins, which confused Cancel until he found out the siblings were adopted.
“For the first time I was like, ‘Wow, I really missed out on something big.’ ” he says. “And what I missed out on was actual family — who was always 58 miles away — who could have taken me in.”
After finding himself in a new place every two years in foster care, Cancel lost hope of finding a family and started preparing for life on his own once he aged out of the system.
“There comes a day where you kind of just accept that these Christmas movies, this kind of family portrait, that’s not going to happen for you,” he says.
Cancel believes he got where he is today in spite of his circumstance, but points out that many people’s contributions to society are thanks to the families and mentors whose love and care helped them succeed. Unfortunately, he says, that’s not everyone’s story.
Cancel advocates for an end to group homes and children being placed in foster care just because their birth families are poor. To help reform the system, kinship relatives and family friends willing to take kids in need to receive the same support as foster parents — health insurance for the child, a social worker, coaching services and a monthly reimbursement.
“If we provide those supports,” he says, “we’re going to keep young people in their families and in their communities.”
Jeannette Jones produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd and Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.