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American Child Welfare Ruins Lives, Here’s Your Receipt

There’s one way to enter the child-welfare system and make it out in one piece: luck.

The choice was obvious, at least to 18-year-old me. Either stay inside the New York City child-welfare system for some extra college money I didn’t trust would be there, or get the hell out and claim a terrifying bit of freedom.

I first landed in the system a few days after my fifth birthday and my mother’s second overdose—she didn’t survive that one. As for my father, he never made the trip with us over the border and, even then, I knew damn well I’d never see or hear from him again. So I entered foster care a five-year-old undocumented immigrant who could speak all of a few words of English. The next 13 years were spent going through about a dozen placements of variant misery and a couple of uniformly neo-Dickensian institution stays, so trusting the system to back up its promised college stipends and scholarships required an optimism that I’d long since beaten out of myself.

And so I went through some motions with a disinterested child-welfare drone that made the dream of teenaged liberation mine. Liberation that came with all the attendant realities of being a dumb kid supporting himself with no support system. A private scholarship to my first-choice college was waiting for me, but that mostly meant I was one bad semester away from losing the support that made not just college a possibility, but basic survival. Without it, my only housing option would have been a homeless shelter—it’s an easy tumble down society’s ladder when you don’t have anyone or anything. Still, compared to most anyone who ages out of America’s myriad child-welfare systems, my exit is exceptional only because of how obscenely lucky I was to have somewhere to go.

NOT THAT AMERICA’S NETWORK of child-welfare systems deserves much fairness, but any broad statement on the outcomes of youth who age out, it needs to be said, does rely on some conjecture. That’s because when a youth, typically one between the ages of 18 and 21, ceases to be the child-welfare system’s concern, no one bothers keeping track of what happens.

Every year about 25,000 young people age out of federally-mandated child-welfare systems responsible for their care and then disappear into the general population to fend for themselves at an unfairly young age. The concept of “aging out” is best understood as a system failing to find a real solution for a problem it is responsible for. A child is removed from their family and it’s on the system to either resolve the issue that led to their removal or find them a new home. The children who end up aging out are the remainder of a busted equation.

The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago (more commonly known as the Midwest Study) is as close as anyone has come to a comprehensive, longitudinal, and methodologically-sound statement on the outcomes of youth who age out. The study focused on a sample of 732 youth who aged out of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa foster care and tracks their outcomes across a broad range of measures. Even a cursory glance at the data makes it clear that our “go figure it out” solution for youth who go unadopted and without family reunification is plainly inhumane.

At the age of 26, 31 percent of responding participants had either couch surfed or been homeless since their last interview (which are typically every two years), while 46.8 percent were currently unemployed. By comparison, the general population rate for unemployment stands at 6.7percent. As for homelessness, while different methodological measures abound, the general sense is that the homeless make up less than one percent of the population at any given time. The study also includes data on four-year college graduation rates (2.5 percent), annual income (79.4 percent report a total income of less than $25,000) and, perhaps most depressing of all, social support networks.

More than 17 percent report having no one to loan them money, and 9.1 percent report having no one to help them meet their goals. This isn’t just sad, it’s a bulletproof indictment of a system we are all obligated to help pay for. While those who age out represent a small minority of the some 400,000 youth being served by child-welfare systems at any given time, broadening the scope only sheds light on the traumas that make the adult lives of this subset a near-impossible challenge.

THE MOST OBVIOUS GOAL of a child-welfare system with regard to the children it serves is to secure them a safe, stable, permanent home whether it be via family reunification efforts or foster care. Experts generally agree that family reunification via child-welfare services is the ideal as it circumvents the trauma of childhood separation from the birth family, but the theory often does not align with the practice. The easy, institutionalized demonization of birth families in these systems is where it all starts to go wrong.

At 78.3 percent, neglect is by far the most common reason why children enter care, but the category of neglect is broad and most often symptomatic of economic hardships ranging from food insecurity to homelessness. Addressing those hardships via government services such as job training, housing assistance, and parenting classes could offer a suitable framework for keeping families together, minimizing trauma to the child, and avoiding the significantly more expensive solutions of ongoing foster care and pursuing adoption. But that’s not the system in place.

The average time in foster care for children is 22.7 months, and 30 percent of the current foster-care population has been in care for more than two years. This long-term exposure to foster care also exposes kids to the worst trends of the system. A report covering five state foster-care systems by the Government Accountability Office, for example, found that 35 percent of children in care are prescribed psychotropic medications, compared to just 10 percent of other children. Children in care were also more likely to be prescribed multiple medications, as well as medications with potential health risks. The report also found greater incidence of controversial practices such as prescribing five or more concomitant medications and prescribing medication to children below the age of one. Long-term separation from the birth family, exposure to powerful psychotropic medications, and the inherent instability of foster care is perhaps not the best route to helping children in need.

THE MEDIA PORTRAYAL OF child welfare often focuses on just two kinds of stories: one-note tales of horrific abuse and soft-focus adoption homilies. By concentrating on a small minority of child-welfare stories, the media is complicit in the public’s misunderstanding of the broader issues at play.

Take the infamous murder of New York City seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown by her stepfather after years of sexual and physical abuse as well as extreme neglect. The city’s Administration for Child Services came under heavy fire over its failure to properly investigate initial reports against the Brown family, which predictably led to calls for reform legislation. However, the legislation passed by city politicians focused mostly on stricter sentencing for child abuse and neglect, while failing to pursue comprehensive systemic reform.

Recent cases such as the murder of four-year-old Myls Dobson make clear that the city’s system remains in disarray and will likely go through the same cycle of misguided legislation. This mobius strip of reactionary politics plays out in every state and further entrenches a collective ignorance of what’s truly wrong with these systems. When all the public hears about is extreme individual cases, both good and bad, there’s little chance of any public push for useful system-wide reform or even a greater understanding of the everyday issues of child welfare.

But here’s the truth about American child welfare: It’s about luck. Enter the system and maybe you’ll land in a decent home or back with your birth family, but you might end up cycling through placements and institutions for years on end. Maybe you won’t be recklessly prescribed mind-altering drugs, but no promises. And maybe, when it’s all said and done, a promising, healthy adulthood awaits, but who are we kidding? Like the 97.5 percent of youth aging out who will never make it through college, you’re probably screwed. Society has rigged the game against you.

Sharing even the basics of my story is embarrassing in light of that. My time in care was hardly unique after all; it’s only my outcome that’s uncommon. The thriving survivor’s guilt that comes with it is still there, making everything hard to make any real sense of. Whenever someone comes to learn about my background, they always feel compelled to praise me and make assumptions about my character—as if the rest of those kids who aged out were made of the wrong stuff, as if I am some ideal to be held up at the expense of others.

All I really know is that for as well as my life has turned out, it’s still not a fair life. I can’t imagine how all those versions of me without the same streak of luck would feel.