Care continuum workers know that early episodes of homelessness increase a child’s risk of continuing to experience homelessness throughout life. The foster care system tries to alleviate some of the damage but carries its own risks. Even in such an enlightened state as Washington, every year nearly 200 children run away from their foster homes.
It’s painful to think of the darker reasons why a child might prefer the streets, but some runaways take off because of a powerful need to find family members from whom they have been separated. In Washington, there is a rule that a runaway foster child should be represented by an attorney, to make sure that the compulsion to connect with a sister or brother does not become a punishable offense.
The four biggies
Writing for the Seattle publication Crosscut, Judy Lightfoot discussed the four main reasons why it’s so difficult for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. Health is a big factor, both mental and physical. A child with allergies, asthma, or any one of a hundred other ailments will face extra obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when a child is removed from a situation of neglect or even abuse, separation trauma still hurts deeply. It should come as no surprise that a displaced kid might suffer from panic disorder, depression, nightmares, or addiction proneness.
One of the experts Lightfoot consulted was Cacey Hanauer, director of Foster Care Transitions at the YMCA. There she learned:
Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents ‘don’t trust anyone agency-based,’ says Hanauer. ‘Just walking in the door is hard for them.’ Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.
Sadly, the foster care system is underfunded and in many ways dysfunctional. In this setting, it’s particularly hard to train young people to plan for the future. By its very nature, the system trains kids into passivity, because so much waiting is involved in every stage of their journey through it. For a child to try to change anything is dangerous, because complaints can be interpreted as a bad attitude. Attempts to be proactive and take responsibility for oneself can backfire spectacularly and bring down an avalanche of trouble.
Another thing that happens in the system is mobility from one foster home to another, for a variety of reasons either personal or bureaucratic. The placement might not be a good fit for the child or the foster parents, and some kids end up needing to be moved repeatedly. Even under the best conditions, it’s hard for a foster child to build a network of supportive adults and appropriate peers. Every relocation severs bonds and decreases the opportunity for a stable human community.
According to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, every year about 550 teens age out of the foster care system, and 35% of them end up on the streets within a year. For nearly a decade, the state legislature has worked at building rules to stem the tide of homeless young people spewed out by the system. Thanks to the Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws, most 18-year-olds are eligible for financial support and other state benefits until they are 21. Presently, about 360 youth are enrolled with EFC.
Care continuum personnel must also be aware of “the two-steps-forward, one-step-back” pattern followed by so many former foster kids. Their progress toward self-sufficiency is rarely linear. It seems that in Washington, at least, the bureaucracy’s consciousness has been raised enough to allow for flexibility and even fallibility.