The Foster “Care” System: Emily’s Story

Every two minutes a child enters the foster care system due to a traumatic event such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, or sudden parental death in the household. They are ripped from their home and thrown into a new one with strangers who are now supposed to be their new family. Sometimes, this is the end of the story, but most of the time, the child continues to be moved from one place to another.

Let’s meet Emily, a former foster youth and now mother of three-year-old Emma. Emily was born in San Francisco and grew up on Treasure Island. She remembers the beautiful view of the Bay Bridge and running around to all the “cool secret spots” on the island. She was smiling as she reminisced about how she lived with her older sister, younger brother, and her mother. That smile quickly vanished when she started talking about her stepfather. Whenever Emily’s mother would leave the house, her stepfather would take advantage of that.

Let’s say she went out without telling him or didn’t clean something properly—that would result in a beating.

“He would hit me for nothing, and I was just a five year old kid, maybe four at the time, and the abuse went on until I was seven.” It was later found that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her older sister and also raped her.

Finally, the teachers at Emily’s school started realizing that the black eyes weren’t from an accident on the playground, but something much more serious. They called the police right away and Child Protective Services (CPS) came and took the three kids away to a foster home. In an ideal world, CPS would work to protect children by mending families and helping children find permanent homes through community partnerships. In practice, it usually doesn’t work that way: Families are torn apart as siblings are forced into separate foster homes; children may go through multiple foster care homes—and, consequently, schools—in a short period of time.

In Emily’s case, she and her sister were separated from their brother because there wasn’t enough room for him.

Once in the foster care system, there are different living situations a foster child can be placed. There are foster homes which are typically for children under the age of thirteen where the guardian will go through a background check and then receive a short and brief training. Every month the parents receive a stipend of a couple of hundred dollars for fostering the child. The government tries to make the process of fostering a child as easy and enticing as possible, which is why sometimes we see foster parents who unfortunately are only in it for the stipend.

Then there are group homes which typically house older kids, perhaps due to a stigma around raising teenagers. Emily explains how “as a foster kid, after the age of eleven, if you are bad, they’re not going to want you as much, so you will most likely be placed in a group home instead of a foster home. It all depends though, it’s hard to say, but sometimes let’s say the kid is fifteen, they could still have a chance to get into a foster home if they’re good.” As a foster child, you are branded and selected based on the way you act and present yourself. This process can be very harmful and dehumanizing on a young child.

Emily has lived in a variety of different types of foster homes, which vary based on how “at-risk” the child is. At-risk children—who may have more behavioral issues—are placed at larger homes, while typically, lower risk children live in smaller foster homes of around eight people.

One of the worst experiences Emily was when she was living in a foster home with another child who had prader-willi syndrome, which disables your brain from knowing when you get full. Because of that, this child had a specific diet where they would eat really small portions (For example, a quarter of a bagel for breakfast) and Emily was expected to eat exactly what this kid ate. The foster mom basically starved her. After getting turned down so many times, she started looking for food at night. One night, she found a pack of marijuana! She immediately called her case worker because she didn’t want to stay there anymore.

The caseworker must have told the foster mom that she would be arriving because when the caseworker came to the house, the foster mom had a scratch on her arm and blamed it on Emily. Emily had no idea what was going on and why she was accused for something she didn’t do. When she got moved to the next home, she found that the foster mom had destroyed all of her clothes with paint and glue.

When she stayed in the group homes, sometimes the other foster kids would steal her belongings, harass her, and basically “make her life hell” if you were an outsider and you weren’t their friend.

Emily was constantly on the run. At one point, her social worker and judge got tired of her running away so she was placed in a lockdown center. It was a location where she was monitored 24/7 by staff who made sure no one could leave unless you could prove that you wouldn’t run away.

The center eventually lost its funds and they said they would move her to Juvenile Hall in Arizona since it was closing down and she wouldn’t be able to complete her time. Emily ended up running away again.

She was seventeen and had been in more than ten different homes.

At the age of nineteen, she was imprisoned for a juvenile warrant. At this point, she was pregnant and homeless. When she got out, she received some help and applied to government funded programs and got back on her feet.

Now, she is housed with her daughter and is working full time.

The system provides foster kids a temporary place to call home, but what happens when they age out of the system? At the age of eighteen, foster children are expected to transition from being apart of this support system, to an independent adult. Fifty percent of foster children who age out of the system end up homeless.

While AB12 has extended foster care until the age of 21, not many people are aware of the bill and there’s a lot of criteria that comes along with it in order to qualify. Overall, we need more funding for more social workers and caseworkers to help guide foster youth, more awareness and more support overall.

It’s important to note that the only way a child can get into the foster system is through a report from CPS. Imagine young children who are being beaten or neglected that might not know any better or know how they can get help. Teachers and society in general should be more informed of warning signs and how they can help better this situation.

Emily says that if she could improve the system, she would start by creating child development classes that foster parents and guardians have to take. They can get certificates that qualify them to actually foster children. As of right now, all it takes to be a foster parent is a background check, fingerprint, and a quick training—which certainly is not enough! With this course maybe foster and group homes will become safer and happier places.

Emily recalls most of her childhood as traumatic but she also explains how the foster care system has supported her in many ways. It’s important to know that not all foster kids’ experiences are like the ones she described. There are many great ones out there.

Emily’s story is one story out of many. Let foster children voices be heard, so that we can better this system and stop the suffering.