Children in the foster care system have typically already survived significant trauma or abuse, but as they grow older and approach aging out of the system, they face even more difficult odds. Children who reach 18 and adulthood in the foster care system without being adopted or having any family or mentor of their own have staggeringly high rates of imprisonment, homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse, and a myriad of other problems.
Children in the foster care system, or with a history of abuse and neglect, are at higher risk of being trapped in the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, the path by which the chances of an individual one day ending up in prison can be predicted based on factors present in his or her childhood, which make that child much more likely to end up incarcerated as an adult. Poverty is the largest driving force of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis, as defined by the Children’s Defense Fund.
In Texas, among all children, 1 in 4 (24.9 percent or 1,548,069) was poor. A baby is born poor every five minutes in the state:
o A Black baby is born poor every 32 minutes.
o A Latino baby is born poor every seven minutes.
o A White, non-Latino baby is born poor every 33 minutes.
o An American Indian/Alaska Native baby is born poor every 20 hours.
o An Asian baby is born poor every nine hours.
Other factors that significantly impact the odds of a child entering the Cradle to Prison Pipeline include lack of early childhood education, poor education received later, disadvantaged health care, experienced violence, and simply being a person of color. Children in the foster care system often experience one or more of these factors, as well as losing their birth home and parents, and dealing with the trauma of abuse or neglect. These children are desperately in need of a family to call their own. They are in danger of falling through the cracks and being lost forever without one.
Recently, Dr. Tracy Eilers, a friend of mine and director of The Heart Gallery, sent me the following information about a boy, Jarod, who is about to age out of the foster care system and has almost given up hope on a family to call his own. The prospects for kids who age out of the system are grim.
Dr. Eilers says, “18 isn’t a good thing for kids in foster care.” Sent out on their own with no one to care for them or teach them how to be an adult in the world, half of these kids end up homeless. “Week after week, we film segments for Forever Families… week after week, I meet the most amazing kids… and every second of every day I hope beyond all hope that we can make a difference in these kids lives… I don’t know if I have ever hoped so much as for Jarod.”
Last year at this time, Jarod was showing off his Junior ROTC uniform for his Forever Families segment. He was 15-years-old and only recently decided he wanted to be adopted. Jarod’s goal was to become a Sergeant, but he moved from foster home to foster home this year, and isn’t in ROTC anymore. The rest of year has been filled with just as many disappointments, and now his outlook on life is bleak. No 16-year-old should feel this hopeless.
Jarod came in to foster care when he was 10-years-old from his uncle’s house, where there were five kids, Jarod and his sister, and their three cousins. Jarod was the one who had to go into foster care.
He’s had a very hard time trusting adults, and who could blame him? Now he’s 16-years-old and repeating the 9th grade. In two years, he’ll age out of the foster care system. Foster teens on their own are at a higher risk of homelessness and substance abuse. “To me, it seems like it’s too late. For life, I guess. When I turn 18, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Jarod’s anger, frustration, and confusion have caused him to give up on adoption. His aunt was going to adopt him, but it wasn’t a good fit. They lived together for a month, but kept getting into fights. Now Jarod is in a shelter, where he says things aren’t going well.
“I got in trouble because I broke a door. I feel mad all the time. It’s not foster care; it’s not being adopted. It’s just when I turn 18, what am I going to do? Am I going to be on the streets? I don’t know what I’m going to do. I barely got an education. Ain’t nothing to do,” he said.
Jarod is out of hope. He feels he’s out of time and he has no idea what to do about it. Ask about his future, and he shuts down. Though Jarod seems to have given up on himself, he still has another year.
Many children like Jarod have new hope through the innovative initiative, The Heart Gallery. This program combines professional portraits by renowned documentary and portrait photographers of children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted with art show-style exhibits around the country.
Dr. Eilers, of the Adoption Coalition of Texas, led the formation of the Heart Gallery of Central Texas several years ago. The goal of The Heart Gallery of Central Texas is to elicit support for and interest in the lives of these children – and ultimately find each child and sibling group a “forever family.”
At any given moment, there are 500 children waiting for adoption in the Central Texas foster care system, all removed from their natural family due to abuse or neglect. The Heart Gallery process helps break down common misconceptions regarding adoption and promotes the idea that if you can provide a safe and loving home for a child, even if you are a single individual or do not own a home, you can still adopt.
“It’s extraordinary to know that in just the two years of the Heart Gallery program, over 60% of the children featured in portraits were adopted,” said Dr. Eilers. “This remarkable rate of success proves this effort has been effective in raising awareness for the kids and the Central Texas foster care system overall. Every year after the debut, we receive thousands of phone calls and emails from all over the country and we want that to keep happening.”
“Seeing these children in photographs as they laugh and play is a very powerful experience. We want to inspire people to learn more about adopting from the foster care system. Our whole purpose is to humanize these children, display their personalities, and give a glimpse into their souls,” explained Eilers.