There are currently 402,000 children living in foster care in the United States, 14 percent of which reside in institutions or group homes. Stunned by a broken foster care system in need of flaw diagnosis and creative reform, non-profit organization Together We Rise is pioneering a movement to provide foster children with the multi-layered support and guidance necessary to succeed as an adult.
In 2013, more than 23,000 of these foster children turned 18 years old and aged out of the foster care system without being adopted into permanent families. Additionally, research suggests that children who age out of the foster care system without being adopted into a forever family often end up unemployed, homeless or incarcerated.
A Broken System
The foster system is hindered by layers of incompetence including poor placement methods, inconsistent educational support, and minimal federal funding. 55 percent of foster children are placed in three or more homes before they’re adopted by a permanent family. The constant shifting between homes takes a toll on a child’s education (33 percent of foster children change elementary schools five or more times) and causes the child to fall behind in academics.
Consequentially, nearly 25 percent of youth aging out of the foster system do not have a high school diploma or a GED. Friendships also suffer. It’s difficult for a foster child to develop companionship without the proper time allowed to learn competent social skills.
Abuse isn’t uncommon as well. Claudia Felder, a former foster child, told National Public Radio that five of the six foster homes she lived in were physically or sexually abusive, as was her original home (before she ended up in foster care in hopes of escaping the abuse).
A recent study indicates that 60 percent of sex trafficking victims recovered during a 2013 FBI nationwide raid from over 70 cities were found to be children from foster care or group homes, which has led some advocates to label foster care as a child trafficking pipeline.
Clearly, there are a myriad of problems in the modern American foster care system. While a lack of developmental consistency in all forms (physical, social and emotional) is a problem for foster youth, it is not the problem for foster youth. So, what is the problem? A lack of action on the part of those outside the foster care system.
Together We Rise
In 2008, Together We Rise (TWR) was founded by college students when they discovered that the nine-year-old cousin of one of their classmates was living in a car. The organization was denied help by government agencies due to Federal regulations stipulating that those aiding in the foster care system couldn’t be under 21 years of age.
Despite being too young to become foster parents, the organization found other ways to pick up the pieces of a broken system and demonstrate that people outside the foster system can take action and make a difference.
TWR operates with simple yet effective means of improving a foster child’s self-esteem and helping them to develop the independence needed to thrive as an adult. For example, when children enter foster care they are given two trash bags to carry their personal belongings in when moving to a home.
Knowing that all children deserve proper luggage, TWR created a “Sweet Case” program where people can donate a duffel bag packed with a pillow pet, hygiene kit, blanket, coloring books, and crayons to foster children. To date, TWR has provided over 15,000 Sweet Cases and the children have loved every single one of them.
Another initiative created by TWR is providing foster kids, who are about to age out of the foster system, with bicycles (being that the cost of owning a car is so high today). Not only do TWR members get to deliver the bikes to foster youth themselves, but they’re also privileged with the opportunity to help the kids build their bicycle as well.
Building the bike helps the child develop a sense of responsibility and self-confidence. Not to mention providing the child and volunteer with companionship.
TWR member Gianna Dahlia tells MiLLENNiAL of kids who age out of foster care, “They age out at 18 years old and there’s no support system for them . . . I feel like these kids want to succeed but they don’t get the assistance. I think us focusing on them can really make sure that they succeed.”
Ultimately, TWR member Danny Mendoza believes that the most important asset for improving American foster care is raising awareness of the public’s ability to contribute, even in the smallest of ways. “We need to change the way people are approached and focus on sharing positive stories,” Mendoza says. For most of these kids, connecting with someone who cares makes all the difference in their lives.