The holiday season is in full swing. Christmas and Hanukah are just around the corner. But before we say good-bye to the year, I want to cover a couple of topics that caused a bit of controversy this year with some readers, including foster parents.
Most, if not all, professions have a creed and an idealized version that people in them strive to achieve. For doctors it’s “do no harm.” Police are sworn “To protect and to serve.” In the foster care system, adults join the ranks of volunteers who are willing to become foster parents and give a foster child the care, love and stability they so desperately need. In every category there are those adults who do a good, even an outstanding job. Yet some not only fall far short of their mission but become the exact opposite -- an abuser, attacker and/or murderer. Let’s first talk about the good.
Good Foster Parents
Just in case you missed my column from last December, my position on foster parents is very clear - they are a critical component to the wellbeing of children who enter the foster care system. These adults go through an often-time rigorous process to become licensed foster parents. They can be of any adult age and background. Many are caring individuals who are willing to step into an uncertain situation with a child who may come to them dirty, bruised, hungry, scared and/or scarred.
Roughly one out of five children comes into foster care because of physical or sexual abuse. Being a foster parent means opening your heart and home to a child who may yell, scream obscenities, bite and kick, break objects, and even hit other children in the home. Foster kids may not allow a foster parent to hug them or treat them with affection. And every foster parent knows that at any moment, that child may be gone that same day due to absolutely no deficiency on their part.
Good foster parents also look for ways to improve the system so that each child can find the love and stability they deserve. For many of these adults, caring for a foster child can be a very rewarding and/or thankless job that rips out one's heart. Yet as Dr. John DeGarmo, foster child expert, says, “It’s supposed to hurt. That is exactly how it’s supposed to be. It is a wonderful gift.”
Make no mistake about it - foster parents are heroes, although most will say that's not so. However, without these selfless individuals, the foster care system would cease to function, and children who are hurt and scared wouldn’t have a chance to have their lives filled with love.
Bad and Ugly Foster Parents
However, despite these caring parents, statistics reveal that one out of three children placed in foster care is abused.
Let’s put into perspective the critical nature of this abuse that occurs once a child is in foster care. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that only about 18% of children are removed from their parent(s) due to physical or sexual abuse. By placing a child into foster care, the risk of that child being abused almost doubles compared to leaving them with their parents in the first place. This means that more than 40,800 children who were never abused now will be while in foster care.
The disturbing reality is that despite the thousands of caring adults who become foster parents for all the right reasons, fewer but still thousands of others are sexual predators and abusers, twisted people who have no problem with hurting little children. Some of these deviants are also adult family members or close friends who may, sadly, be selected by a parent to care for their child while in the foster care system.
During the year, I posted about foster child abuse on Facebook. I’ve often wondered how the public views certain words. For instance, if you read the word “abuse,” what image comes into your mind? Maybe you think of a teenage being slapped. Perhaps you picture a child being shoved. Your idea of abuse is based in part on your upbringing, so if you grew up in a family where people didn’t yelled, then being screamed at might be your idea of abuse. You may not have been in a family where an older brother would constantly punch you or an older sister would make your life hell. Those actions might be your idea of abuse.
Yet the abuse that thousands of foster youths suffer is much more extreme. To bring the word “abuse” to life, we posted the following:
“While you read this, a foster child as young as 4 years old may be getting hit, slapped, kicked, thrown into a wall, molested or even raped.”
Now, your idea of abuse may have immediately shifted once you read that post. There’s less room to wonder what the word “abuse” means because it’s spelled out. This post received both praise and criticism from former foster kids. One wrote, “You need to edit this, as a former foster youth I am offended by your description. I think that is salacious.” Yet another former foster kid had this to say:
“There's nothing wrong with the original post. I'm also a survivor of the system - I spent my entire childhood in foster care: 10 placements in 20 years - and I'm personally beyond done with this trend toward whitewashing the lived experiences of foster kids in the name of good PR. I appreciate Forever Homes for Foster Kids' openness about the darker side of the system that so many other foster care pages won't touch because it's not pleasant or inspiring.
Social media discourse on foster care focuses way too much on making non-fosters feel comfortable and self-satisfied. Maybe we need to start making the public feel more uncomfortable with the way things are for so many foster kids, so that they will be moved to change things instead of patting themselves on the back while kids are literally dying in care.”
That’s a reality check! While it may be shocking to hear about abuse in plain language, foster children need the public to wake up. Many have been or are being molested, sexual abused and/or raped.
Reckoning in Hollywood
Right now, there is a fire storm in Hollywood revolving around accusations of sexual harassment, molestation and even rape against workers, actresses and even actors. Both men and women are stepping up to tell about their abuse. You’ve probably heard about the many allegations of sexual abuse and rape brought against Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Films and an award-winning producer. But while his behavior has been an open secret in Hollywood for years, it took an exposé by the New York Times to break the story wide open.
Several of Weinstein’s accusers are some of Hollywood’s top stars: Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some actresses, such as Rose McGowan, had previously agreed to settlements for their abuse by Weinstein. Many celebrities and leaders have spoken out about the abuse; Michelle and Barack Obama issued the following statement:
“Any man who demeans and degrades women in such fashion needs to be condemned and held accountable, regardless of wealth or status. We should celebrate the courage of women who have come forward to tell these painful stories. And we all need to build a culture — including by empowering our girls and teaching our boys decency and respect — so we can make such behavior less prevalent in the future.”
The flood gates appear to be open, with other stars being named for alleged abuses, and some complaints have been leveled at politicians. But even with all of this information of abuse suddenly visible in the media, it seems it’s still NOT alright for someone to talk about the abuses of foster children. The actresses stepping up to talk about their abuse are some of the most financially and professionally successful adults in the world. Compare their position to the thousands of foster kids who do not have money, position or power, and who have learned from experience that they often cannot turn to adults such as the police, a doctor or teacher because their stories most likely won’t be believed.
Foster Care Abuse Attacked
This brings us back to Bad and Ugly Foster Parents. While my original Facebook post focused on the abuse happening to some foster children, many adults and foster parents joined in the conversation. Most expressed attitudes similar to this one, something that you would probably expect from a caring foster parent:
“I have been a foster parent for almost 7 years and I would never harm a child in any way. I do not understand how anybody could do that to a child/ren.”
A couple of other foster parents commented:
“What about all the foster children who are being loved, nurtured, clothed, & provided a stable home! Great selfless foster parents sacrifice their lives to care for children.”
“Please shine a little good light on foster care instead of negative, we need good parents and good homes to stop homes like you are always talking about.”
And included in this group of Good Foster Parents are views similar to this woman who wrote:
While I agree partially with you, this post paints foster parents in the worst light and this case, while very sad and never should have happened, is the exception and not the rule.
She was commenting on another Facebook post that had a video by a Texas news station about a foster parent who was convicted of having sex with his 15-year old foster daughter. The above comments from the foster mom may stem from a lack of knowledge about the prevalence of the abuse that occurs in foster care. Foster parents need to know about the statistics concerning foster care abuse.
Part of our social media focus is to highlight these sad realities in order to inform the public, government officials and foster parents as to facts which otherwise may never be seen or heard. The hard truth is that change does not happen when everything seems sunny and rosy. It’s only when the harsh realities are revealed that people take notice, and that notice can lead to change.
Then the Bad and Ugly Foster Parents started in with this salvo:
“Although those of us providing loving foster homes would not disagree that the system has many flaws, I can't help but feel that many of your posts are bashing foster parents. If you truly are about educating on the need for better foster homes, it seems you might pick your stories and comments more carefully.”
This individual and a few others started to voice an opinion toward talking about "selective" topics, meaning censuring dialogue on those topics and stories not deemed PC (politically correct) by themselves.
The opinion above is not unique, but this next comment really caught our attention:
“I am so done with this page and all of its inaccurate representations of the foster system.”
The person who posted this response and others like him ARE part of the problem. Too many foster parents, when they hear about those who are doing harm to foster children, take stories like the one I posted as an affront to their own good works. Worse are those adults, some of whom are not even directly involved with foster care, who go even further and publicly deny that these abuses exist. They don’t simply want the truth hidden. No, this adult and others like him want to paint the truth as false. Through their public denial, these people are victimizing foster children all over again because they are actively working to silence these children’s voices of pain by asserting that these abuses do not occur rather than the alarming reality.
Martin Luther King wrote, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." Whether a foster parent or not, anyone who is either quiet or, worse, publicly denies the suffering and pain of foster children as "inaccuracies" is someone who has, as Desmond Tutu wrote, "chosen the side of the oppressor."
Family Finding Solution
While there is no foolproof method to protect all children who go into foster care, one activity is vitally important – family finding, the process of identifying, locating and notifying relatives that a child is now in foster care. If given an option, many parents would prefer that their kids be cared for by a relative, even one living in another state, than having their child(ren) go live with strangers or in a group home. Family placement may only be possible if enough relatives are notified so that at least one will step forward to care for the child.
For nearly 25 years, Forever Homes for Foster Kids has successfully located family members of foster children when government agencies have failed to do so. To be clear, we work with foster care agencies; we are never in direct contact with the children.
Roughly eighty percent of our cases result in locating a parent, aunt, grandparent or other adult family member. Foster care agencies are then able to notify these relatives. This ensures that where possible, each foster child has at the very least a connection with their blood relatives. In the best of cases, relatives are found who will take in the child and give him/her a permanent, stable home.
Our mission is simple: To make a positive, lasting impact on the lives of foster children. One way to accomplish this mission is to highlight problems within the foster care system so they can be addressed and fixed so more foster kids can find sanctuary in foster care, not abuse.
As another former foster child wrote to adults complaining about the stories I’ve posted:
"You're griping about something minimal and taking away from the objective, which is that while you’re reading this, there is a kid that needs you."
Whether you are good foster parent or someone dedicated to helping these children in need, the health, wellbeing and even the life of foster children depend on our activism, not our silence.
How You can Help
During an interview with People magazine concerning the firing of Matt Lauer from The Today Show, Ann Curry said, "This is a moment when we all need to be a beacon of light for those women, for all women, and for ourselves."
So the question is, "Who will stand up, be a beacon and speak for all abused foster children?" I and thousands of like-minded foster child advocates, case workers, foster parents and concerned adults already do, but we need more voices. You are clearly someone who cares about foster kids because you are reading this column. I ask you to take the next step. Help get the word out to others about foster child abuse.
Go to our Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/familyfindingmx, then like, comment and share relevant posts. There is always a tipping point when change occurs. It’s happening right now for women in film and media who were sexually harassed and abused. Let’s build up a voice for foster children that cannot be ignored.
Together we can do more to make 2018 the year when fewer children enter foster care, family finding becomes more widespread, and the process results in more foster kids being placed with caring family members.
Let’s also work to attract more caring couples and individuals who are willing to become foster and adoptive parents. That would be a wonderful gift to give to tens of thousands of foster children next year for the holidays and beyond.