Can you imagine being a five-year-old and learning that the world is violent as your body is battered and bruised at the hand of those who should love you most? Can you imagine waking in the morning at age 12 and facing a day without food or heat or adequate clothing and having to take care of your younger brothers and sisters? Can you imagine being a child of any age and lying awake at night realizing the monsters are real as you see the door open, knowing your body will be assaulted, and your soul torn once again.
These are the experiences of more than 700,000 of our children in this country each year. Children who are chronically neglected. Children who are physically and sexually abused. Children who have lost their childhood to violence, maltreatment and abandonment and who risk losing that most precious of human needs – hope. For 115,000 of these children, the abuse was so severe that they were legally and permanently removed from their family of birth, too often separated from siblings and community and are now on a journey through foster care.
In response and in an effort to protect our most vulnerable children, we have built quite complex government systems, rules and regulations that encircle them — child welfare, juvenile justice, educational, medical and financial structures. And yet, too often the very systems created to protect them result in roadblocks or barriers to effective permanency and ultimately to safe, loving and permanent homes. In fact, for 29,000 children last year, their journey was not only one of multiple residential and school placements, but it ended at age 18 by leaving foster care without a family or a permanent place to call home.
Without the safety net and support of families as older youth make the transition to adulthood, we know from multiple studies, and frankly, just common sense, that they will encounter significant challenges. Youth aging out of care are at much higher risk for being undereducated, under or unemployed, homeless, pregnant, involved with substance abuse or in and out of the legal system. Not because they cannot succeed, but because we have forced them into independence with scarce or nonexistent resources, support systems or training to help them thrive.
Now imagine this! For every child harmed, dozens of caring adults step forward to help as foster parents, mentors, volunteers, and adoptive families. For every story about a youth that reinforces negative images of foster care or adoption, those who know better speak up at their office, place of worship or community center to increase awareness children in foster care and their needs. For every lost or lonely or frightened child, each of us assumes the responsibility of working to protect not only their fleeting childhood but their hope.