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Kids in foster care need stability and consistency

By Terri Sorensen

As we reflect on National Foster Care Month and honor the incredible people who are foster parents, it’s important to not lose sight of those who are the most affected by foster care: our children.

The most recent stats show that more than 435,000 children in the U.S. are currently in foster care, and that number continues to rise, due in large part to parental substance abuse and the opioid epidemic.

Separation from a parent is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE), which can lead to long-term mental and physical health issues. Not only are children traumatized by the situation that led them into foster care, but sometimes they are then traumatized by the system itself.

Amidst the chaos of entering foster care, changing schools, changing households, court hearings, visitations and other appointments, children in foster care often don’t get the chance to be kids. As a result, they can struggle to gain the social-emotional skills needed to thrive and build positive relationships, let alone do well in school.

These experiences have devastating, long-term effects on a child’s overall health and well-being, as well as their economic success. One of the best ways to support children in foster care is to provide the stability and consistency of a caring, positive relationship with an adult they can trust.

That’s where Friends of the Children can help. We select the most vulnerable children ages 4-6 from the foster care system and high-poverty schools, and pair them with a full-time, salaried, professional mentor (a Friend) who stays with them from kindergarten through graduation – 12 ½ years, no matter what.

Many children who age out of foster care don’t have the support systems in place to help them move beyond their circumstances. However, youth in foster care with Friends have significantly better odds:

·85% of our program youth graduate high school, but only 58% of youth in foster care graduate high school.

·93% of our program youth avoid the juvenile justice system, but only 75% of youth in foster care avoid the juvenile justice system.

·98% of our program youth avoid early parenting, whereas only 80% of youth in foster care avoid early parenting.

In several states, we work with child welfare agencies to select children directly from the foster care system. Upwards of 40 percent of the youth we serve have experienced out-of-home placements, either through formal foster care or through informal placement with kin.

In Los Angeles County, which has the largest number of children in foster care in the country, we’re taking a more focused approach to child selection. We will be enrolling the children age 4-6 of parents who have been involved in the foster care system. This approach will provide intentional support to youth who age out of foster care, filling a well-known gap in L.A.

We empower our youth through social-emotional learning, to ensure they are equipped with skills to persist in achieving their goals and building the healthy supportive relationships they need to be successful in school, and during their transition to adulthood.

Because Friends spend 3-4 hours a week across all life settings – at school, at home and in the community—we’re able to see the whole child and advocate for them while they’re in foster care so that nothing slips through the cracks.

The Friends model is trauma-informed, providing connection to potential paths for healing families and youth. We train staff to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma. We respond by working to integrate that knowledge into our practices and policies. We also seek to actively resist re-traumatization.

Most importantly, we work with youth in foster care to support their identity outside of the system. They aren’t just ‘foster care kids’ in our eyes. They are individuals who are capable of doing great things. They are our future leaders. Simply put: they are the future.

Early findings from a third-party randomized control trial show that youth in the Friends of the Children program are strengthening relationships with caregivers and are on track for healthy development into their adult years. Parents with children in the Friends program have more positive perceptions of their children’s behavior and our youth are exhibiting more pro-social and less disruptive, non-compliant behaviors.

To truly see and empower these youth, we need to change the national narrative around foster care. We can’t just focus on getting children out of the foster care system and into permanent home situations. We have to address their needs long after they have left or aged out of the system.

We envision a country where we all share the long-term responsibility for the lives of children who experience foster care. We realize that this work will take years, but we also believe that change is possible.

Imagine if we could give every child in foster care a consistent, caring adult who walked alongside them for 12 ½ years, no matter what. It could change the face of the foster care system. This is our vision and we know it is possible. We have been giving youth a Friend for 25 years and we have the evidence to prove it can change the story for our most vulnerable children. Learn more at friendsofthechildren.org.