What Sort of Parent are You?

Pitching Foster Children’s Issues in an Era of Financial Conservatism and Program Cuts 
As I conduct my advocacy work for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, I am often faced with the challenge of trying to convince socially conservative legislators, staffers, and wonks that it is in their moral, economic, and political best interest to support positive outcomes for foster children.  In an environment where big business continues to spend billions of dollars on lobbying to protect and promote their issues, I am at a distinct disadvantage.
What I do have cornered is the moral high ground, and I have learned some effective tactics to leverage that.  My currency? Guilt, shame, and “family values.” This is how I often spin it:
How many children do you have?
What kind of parent are you?
How are your kids doing?
Many will answer these questions intuitively — perhaps you have three children, or are one of three children. You are a loving parent who sacrifices for your child, who works to provide your kids with every educational and other advantage, and one who prepares from early on for your child’s financial and educational stability.  Or you were fortunate to have had parents who did so for you. Your children are thriving, or if they aren’t, you are doing everything possible to give them the best chance to do so.
But your family is actually larger than you think — much larger. Every child who is removed from his or her home and placed into foster care each year (over 500,000 nationwide) becomes a ward of the state. This means that the biological parents temporarily lose the right to care for and make decisions for their children, and the state takes over that role. Perhaps you live in California. As a taxpayer, you are one of the legal parents of the over 68,000 children in foster care in the state.  You probably never considered this before and feel shocked and overwhelmed at the idea. Good. Imagine how they feel.
The children who live in foster care have done nothing wrong. Quite the opposite. They have been abused and or neglected by the very people charged most intimately with their care and well-being— their parents. This is a devastating experience with serious and far-reaching emotional and practical consequences. Once they are placed into state custody, they depend on the state (which breaks down to each and every taxpayer in a state) to take care of them, provide for their needs, protect them from harm, and plan for their futures. That’s what parents do. Yet, as well as you might be providing this to your own biological children, you have overlooked your responsibility to do so for the many foster children who are counting on you.
When these youth leave foster care to forge independent lives, their prospects are grim. A recent study reveals that by age 24, 22–33% of foster youth are not connected to the labor market. At age 24, foster care alumni who are employed earn less than half, on average, than their counterparts who have no history of foster care. Although most foster youth express a desire to attend college, only about 3% of foster care alumni have earned a four-year degree. Many studies have found that former foster youth experience homelessness at high rates — some estimate that nearly half of foster youth will have been homeless by age 24.  Many foster youth experience chronic health problems as a result of the abuse and neglect they endured before their entry into the foster care system and up to 85% of foster youth experience mental health issues. Further, recent studies have found that less than one-third of foster care alumni are employed full-time at age 24.
These children in foster care are not “somebody else’s” children. They are our children. Yours and mine. They have nobody else.
It is all too easy to shirk our responsibility for these children. Somebody else had them and failed to take care of them adequately. You have your own kids to worry about. This is their problem, right?  Wrong. If your heart is cold to the sadness and pain of these children, perhaps your wallet is a better listener.  Think again about your own children or childhood.
What would happen if you did not provide your children with proper medical care and treatment? They would endure worse illnesses, increased need for medication, more frequent and longer hospital visits, and probably a greater chance of acquiring a serious and chronic physical or psychological condition. Who pays for these increased medical costs? Yes, you, the taxpayer.
If you didn’t encourage your child to graduate from school and/or attend college, and save for those expenses, what would happen? Job prospects and earning potential are greatly diminished. Chances of relying on public support are much higher. The costs of unemployment, underemployment, or poverty are passed along.  To whom? Right again — to you, the taxpayer.
If you weren’t there to support your children as they transitioned to adulthood — by providing them with a place to live during school vacations or during the summer, and then while they saved up for their own place, they would face a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness and ending up either in a shelter, in an ER, or on public benefits. Who does this cost? You got it- you, the taxpayer.
These are the tactics that elicit the greatest understanding and support in this very difficult economic and political climate. Politicians in Washington, DC not only don’t want to hear anything about spending or, heaven forbid, “investing”, they aren’t interested in hearing about anything that doesn’t reduce the deficit or slash spending.  I try to address that mentality in this way: If you take a long-term view of the economic impact of our collective bad parenting, it is clear that not only is it morally wrong to treat these children so thoughtlessly, but it is fiscally irresponsible as well.  Let us work towards reducing the deficit and slashing spending by minimizing the huge financial drain that these children will present us with if we do not provide them with the tools and resources to become responsible and self-sufficient adults.  The 5.7 billion dollars that are spent on the needs of this population once they leave foster could be greatly reduced if we simply committed to being better parents.
Whether you are driven by moral or fiscal considerations, let’s take responsibility for these children who are relying on us to parent them well. We owe them no less than we owe our own children, and they deserve not to be penalized any further for their own parents’ mistakes.
The first step towards doing the right thing by these kids is by answering the questions presented at the beginning of this piece and acknowledging that we ourselves are neglectful parents to the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care, that our kids aren’t doing well, and that we must do better. I must confess that I am not at all sorry when I bring a legislator, staffer, or pundit to tears by framing this issue in such stark terms.  If it is true that the heartstrings are a direct line to the purse strings, let us usher in a flood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amy Harfeld has been an advocate, educator, and public interest attorney for over 15 years. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she served after graduating as a Teach for America corps member in Los Angeles, where she taught 7th grade and coached basketball. While in Los Angeles, she obtained her secondary teaching degree from Cal State LA. After getting a front line view into the myriad social injustices faced by at-risk children, she decided to pursue social justice through the law. She obtained her JD from the City University of New York School of Law. While at CUNY Law, she published an article on juvenile and human rights in the New York City Law Review, clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and completed several public interest internships. After graduating, Amy prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases for New York City’s Children’s Services. She was then hired to pioneer a legal services program for formerly incarcerated parents at the Fortune Society. From 2007 to 2010, Amy served as the Executive Director of First Star, a national child welfare non-profit in Washington D.C. Currently, Amy works as a consultant, directing national policy for the Children’s Advocacy Institute and the National Association of Counsel for Children, and working with the ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk.
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