Writers' Fortnight 2019: Foster Care: Friend or Foe?
By Nimisha Iyer, Grade 9, East Campus
David digs the fingertips of his trembling hands into the wrinkly edges of a trash bag. His nail pierces a hole through the thin plastic, poking into the skin of his palms. The house before him looks hazy, he blinks and tries to adjust his eyes to the late evening. Maybe this is the one, he thinks, maybe this is the one where I will stay.
David is not alone. There are over 81,000 children in the UK foster system who are flung onto doorsteps with merely a trash bag containing their belongings, wondering how long before their feet met a new pavement.
Being a Foster Child
Imagine you are in the centre of a room with thin strings holding your arms, your legs and your face. These strings are further connected to various corner’s of the room representing your families, friends, houses, schools, belongings and memories.
Now juxtapose this with that of foster child. They have just two strings attached to them. One connecting to their turbulent past, and the other connecting to a trash bag. The trash bag in David’s clutches contained just two photographs of his innocent childhood.
When we reach a bump in life or a period of trouble, our strings help us stand on our own. For foster children, the two flimsy pieces of thread crumble and allow them to fall.
Foster children usually come from abusive backgrounds. Households driven to the brink by crime, drugs and murder. The situations witnessed by these children at impressionable ages are nightmares crawled into reality. With unstable childhoods, they are often isolated, influenced to wrong behaviour at young ages.
David, a foster child, was pushed into the foster system at an early age of six. His mother was a drug addict and his father was abusive. His family came from poor economic backgrounds. This tough situation forced David to be the sole breadwinner at an young age. His mother taught him to steal from the local supermarket to fend for the family.
Though wrong, David never learnt the difference between moral and immoral behaviour. Always applauded for stealing, it reinforced as positive in David mind. Later as a foster child, his foster parents faced the negative repercussions of this upbringing.
“He stole from everyone in school, he even stole from the shop next to school,” Paul, one of David’s foster fathers helplessly recounted.
They attempted to instill new values in him and teach social etiquette. It is said we are all born a clean slate. Growing up in violent backgrounds is enough to taint this. As foster parents, the task of tidying a tainted slate takes conviction and strength.
Like Paul and his wife, there are 55,000 foster families across the UK. Most of these are good-hearted people, wanting to benefit the community. Many are oblivious to the difficulties of fostering a child. A lot of foster carers do foster caring as a full time job, the UK government does provide a fee of around 11,000 pounds a year to support them.
These foster carers provide additional strings to a child life. Additional hands to hold them tight when the ground begins to shake. Though moving to multiple houses may have multiple effects of neglect on a child, these may provide more strings.
If hopefully most foster parents care to their children as much as Paul, they continue to worry about the child even as they move on to adoption or further foster homes. When David moved out Paul initially wasn’t allowed to visit him.
Paul continued to visit social workers and David’s adopted family to find out how the boy was growing up. Finally when David was seventeen, Paul got to meet him.
With a celebratory tone Paul exclaimed “We got to see him again at the age of seventeen, he looked back fondly at his time with us”. David continued to be in touch with Paul until David joined the army. Though Paul wasn’t thrilled about the job in an army, he was proud of David’s accomplishments.
A Failed System
Not all stories end as happy as David’s.
“A huge proportion of foster children end up in the criminal justice system, end up in prison, end up homeless,” Paul states the unfortunately true facts.
Each social worker in the foster system handles 3-4 times more cases than the recommended seven. This means one person is in charge of 21 – 28 cases. Even if each case may take an hour a day, there are not enough hours to tend to all. This is highly stressful and combined with low pay cause turnover rates of 20%. The faster a child settles in the system, the more workload is taken off the workers.
Out of all the children who enter the foster system as teenagers only 6% graduate from high school. A life of being neglected, unwanted and pushed around doesn’t leave much room for self-improvement and studies. This appears to be a failing system.
Even though 6% sounds abysmally low, at least 5,000 foster children may have their slate rewritten compared to none.
If we imagine all the foster children stuck in a pit. By giving them ladders to climb out, we can ensure that their lineage have a better platform to stand on. Even if it’s just 5,000 to start with, over time it reduces the number of people in the pit.
Plan for Action?
The solution to this would be to find homes for all these children. The government may house these children however the cost would be four times more than foster care system. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the foster care system is required. However it needs foster parents. The UK currently hit a record number of 90 placements everyday. This needs to grow. We musn’t pressurize people to adopt or blame those who don’t foster children. However the system is flexible and adaptable to foster parents needs.
Paul narrates on how taking David was an amazing experience, despite many difficulties and challenges. Paul continued to foster children after David left, but he was a carer for shorter durations.
The foster system needs more volunteers. Anyone with the heart and stability to take a child, even just for a weekend.
“If you can help a child, you don’t have to spend years repairing an adult.”