Columns 2009

Give foster kids an education

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The state makes a lousy parent.  It rarely remembers your birthday and it almost never takes a turn having all the relatives over for the holidays. But if you’re a kid stuck in state custody, it’s often all you have in the way of a parent except maybe for an ever changing cast of foster parents.

This is not a condemnation of the state or its system of caring for children in its custody. Given the resources we are willing to provide for this service, and given the needs of the children who become part of the system, the Office of Children’s Services is pretty much doing the best it can.

The problem has always been that words are much cheaper than actual actions. So we make a big fuss about children being our future and then try to meet the needs of the future on a shoestring budget.  If you think about what it costs to raise a child from birth to maturity under the best of circumstances, you can pretty much quadruple that cost for a child coming out of a nightmarish family situation who may or may not be already damaged almost beyond repair. Quadrupling the cost is probable a conservative estimate.

For many of these kids, the future is predetermined way before the state is actively involved. Whether it’s because mom drank during pregnancy and brought the child into the world with ten strikes already against him or her, or whether mom and dad created such a hellish family life of physical, sexual and mental abuse that the child is totally screwed up before he or she is five years old, the result is pretty much the same. The child starts life at an extreme disadvantage.

Take that child and put him into a state system that tries to supply some stability but is often hampered by rules that require the child to be bounced back and forth between birth family and foster care multiple times before the state is allowed to terminate parental rights, and you have the recipe for total disaster.

Anytime a child comes out of this kind of background with his or her head screwed on right, still able to dream of a better life and future, mentally capable of grasping academic subjects and studying for a career in life outside of adult penal institutions, I must stand up in awe and wonder and applaud that child’s resilience.

There is a move in our state legislature to allow the state to provide graduates of foster care and family services a chance at a postsecondary education, complete with some funding to support their living needs while they get their education.  This is nothing more nor less than most families do for their children as they start the process of emancipation into productive adults.

But kids coming out of the state system usually don’t have a family willing and able to pick up the slack while they get that education. They have no one to turn to who can guide them through the shoals of applying for housing, putting a budget together, or getting a part time job to help meet expenses. These kids don’t have something as simple as an adult they can shoot the breeze with over the future and what’s out there for them.  You know, the kind of conversation you have with your kid while your driving them to the movies or school or sitting around during the commercials on ESPN.

The state has already started to try and meet these needs through transitional living assistance to young people as they age out of the system. That’s a great start. But it isn’t enough because once we wave goodbye to them when they turn 18, they are on their own at a time when most of us would have been hard pressed to make good decisions for our future without some continuing adult guidance.

That these kids survived despite what their birth families did to them is a miracle. That they can come out of the state system and still have dreams of a better future is astounding. That there is any debate at all that we should be doing all we can for them is mind boggling.