There is a quiet crisis playing out in our nation that most women don't know exists. We all desire that every child in America grow up in a stable, loving, safe home. Unfortunately, that isn't happening for tens of thousands of little ones.
May is National Foster Care Month - an important time to remember that not every child goes to sleep at night in a permanent home. In a nation that compassionately cares for "the least of these," the shockingly high number of children languishing in foster care, waiting for a home they can truly call their own, should cause each of us to take action.
The data is shocking. There are approximately 400,000 children living today in the American foster care system, of which about 100,000 are in need of an adoptive family. The vast majority of foster children are in safe placements, but they are still desperately in need of the stability and security that only a loving "forever family" can provide. There is no substitute for permanency, whether with a biological family or an adoptive one.
On average, more than 250,000 children in the U.S. enter the foster care system every year. While more than half of these children will return to their parents, the remainder will stay in the system.
One out of four foster children is available for adoption, but sadly, each year more than 20,000 children age out of foster care (around the age of 18) without being adopted. The outlook for foster youth who age out of the system is dire. Studies show that one in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system, and over one-fifth will become homeless at some time after age 18. In addition, only 58 percent obtain their high school diploma by age 19, compared to the national average of 87 percent for non-foster youth.
One foster youth from Iowa who participated in the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care "Kids Are Waiting" campaign summed up the prevailing sentiment among foster children like this, "I don't think they (people) understand how it feels not being able to say 'mom' and 'dad.' … going through foster care, you don't get to say that, you know, that often. And if you do trust somebody enough to say that, who knows how long they'll stick around."
Another former foster youth from Colorado said, "If you jump from foster home to foster home to foster home, if they just randomly move you … like they did us, it's just like, it throws you completely off balance and then like if you were feeling secure then you are completely insecure because you don't know where you are at or who you are with."
In the African-American community, this foster crisis is disproportionately magnified. According to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, African-American children make up 28 percent of the foster care population, although they only represent 14 percent of the general U.S. child population. In some states, the disparity is magnified. In Maryland, African-American children represent 32 percent of the child population but 65 percent of the foster care population.
These numbers aren't just statistics. They represent real human stories that are living in your backyard.
Caring for the orphan should be a natural and necessary extension of the pro-life movement. Adoption is a healthy, safe alternative to abortion for women experiencing the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy. The pro-life community is becoming more aware of the plight of the foster orphan, but more must be done.
The faith-based community can help address this crisis in multiple ways: through adopting, fostering, helping those that do, or encouraging your place of worship to get more involved in caring for foster children.
The process of adoption and foster care seems daunting at first glance. We've all heard bits and pieces of various adoption and foster care stories that make the process seem very intimidating. You may have heard that adopting costs thousands of dollars - but in reality, adopting from the foster care system can cost nothing at all. Adoption and foster care nonprofit agencies and local social services offices all around the nation regularly hold free information sessions on the fostering and foster-to-adopt process. You leave those sessions both with a better understanding of the process from start to finish and more empowered to make the best choice for your family.
Let us be clear. Not everyone is called to adopt or foster; but we can all play a role in caring and advocating for those vulnerable children who have no voice, whether it be through mentoring, helping a biological parent reform their lives and reunite with their child, providing support to foster parents or adoptive women, volunteering with an organization that serves foster youth, or mobilizing your place of worship to act. For example, churches should observe Orphan Sunday, the first Sunday of November, as a day to explore ways for the congregation to serve and care for orphans in our communities and around the world. Hopefully one day, Orphan Sunday will be as common as Mother's Day or Father's Day in the church. (To learn more, visit OrphanSunday.org.)
Advocating politically for reform of the foster care system is also needed. States should more aggressively embrace reforms that support permanency. The system should encourage foster teens towards adoption, rather than remaining in the system for monetary reasons or free tuition. Social workers should be empowered to focus on placing children in safe, permanent families, rather than wasting thousands of hours and taxpayer dollars on unnecessary paperwork. State judicial systems should not force children to remain in "limbo" for years in the foster system with the hope of parental reunification that isn't materializing or progressing.
The federal government can play a role, too. Specifically, the IRS should not burden adoptive parents in regards to the Adoption Tax Credit. On top of the intimidation of conservative 501(c) groups, it appears that they have harassed adoptive parents, too! According to the Taxpayer Advocate, 69 percent of all adoption credit claims during the 2012 filing season were selected for audit. This is an unnecessary hassle for families who are already navigating a tedious adoption process.
In the state of Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell is modeling what states can do to reduce the number of foster care orphans. Early this month, the Governor announced the "Virginia Adopts: Campaign for 1,000," a robust public awareness initiative to match more than 1,000 children in foster care in Virginia with 1,000 adoptive families. There are about 4,000 children in Virginia's foster care system, of which 1,000 are available for adoption and waiting for a family who will give them a forever home. We applaud Gov. McDonnell, Cabinet Secretary Janet Kelly, and their team for using the power of the Governor's Mansion to find stable loving homes for the state's most vulnerable children, and we hope other governors will follow his example.
We can all follow Gov. McDonnell's lead. We must all raise awareness within our own social circles about the quiet crisis occurring right in our neighborhoods. And those of us in the pro-life community should be the first in line, waiting with open arms to love and serve orphans and vulnerable foster children in need.