NPR recently had a story that reduced me to tears. Noel Anaya, a 21-year-old aging out of California’s foster care system, shared about his “divorce” from a relationship that has lied to him his entire life.
His relationship with the foster care system.
At just a year old, Noel and his five brothers and sisters were placed into foster care. It’s a system where the goal is always reunification with biological family, whenever safe and appropriate. When that can’t be achieved, adoption is considered the next best option.
Stability. A forever home. A lifetime of love and care. Something every child surely deserves.
Unfortunately for Noel, and for too many foster care youths like him, that promise was never fulfilled. He spent his entire childhood shuffled between various foster care homes, social workers, and lawyers who were all supposed to be looking out for his best interests, but who all came and went without any sense of stability he could rely on.
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In a letter Noel read aloud at his final foster care hearing, he stated, “Your gray hands just taught me how to survive in a world. We never learned how to love ourselves unconditionally. I've been with multiple foster families, I've been with multiple shelters. How does a person like me not end up with a family...”
He explained later that he used the term “gray hands” to describe the foster care system because of the lack of warmth and human compassion that existed within it. “Your grey hands can no longer hurt me, your grey hands can never overpower me, your gray hands can never tell me that you love me because it's too late. ...”
I earned my foster care license in 2013. At the time, my goal had been to work with, and eventually adopt, pre-teen and teenage girls. Older children in the system don’t have much hope of ever finding a forever home. They are looked at as damaged, broken beyond repair, and nowhere near as desirable for adoption as their much younger counterparts.
And the system is full of kids like him. Just floating. Just waiting. Just wondering if that promise of a forever family will ever be fulfilled.
I wanted to be someone fighting against that stigma. I was passionate about proving to these kids that they were worthy of love. That someone could want them.
Then… a baby girl was literally dropped into my lap. She wasn’t what I had planned or prepared for. “Everyone wants a baby,” I said. “Surely we could find her another home.” But her birth mama was intent on me being this little girl’s forever mommy. And once I said “yes,” I fell completely and totally in love with this child I was now entrusted to raise.
I’m still passionate about helping older kids in the foster care system. I still see it as my purpose, and as a very big part of my future. But for now, it’s just me and an almost-four-year-old living in my home—a situation most social workers will tell you is not ideal for then also taking in pre-teen or teen foster care youth. So I wait. Until my daughter is a little older. Until I can provide a little more. Until I’m in a position to fully commit myself to kids like Noel.
But even then, I’m just one person. And the system is full of kids like him. Just floating. Just waiting. Just wondering if that promise of a forever family will ever be fulfilled.
“I hope that you hear my words. And I hope that you listen to my signal of distress,” Noel read.
We are failing these kids.
We are letting them down at every turn. As Noel pointed out, part of the problem is a lack of funding and an influx of cases. There is high turnover because social workers don’t get paid enough. He acknowledged that his lawyer alone was juggling 130 other clients. But he also said that, “Little things, like when my judge Shawna Schwarz mispronounces my name, serve as a constant reminder that, ‘Hey, I'm just a number.’ I often come away feeling powerless and anonymous in the foster care system.”
These kids aren’t getting the support they need. They aren’t finding forever homes, or even experiencing the stability they need in long-term, safe, stable foster care settings. They aren’t being served as well as they should be by social workers who typically have a hundred other cases they are overloaded with. And they aren’t being set up for success as they age out of a system that has failed to show them what it means to truly be loved and cared for.
And while I can’t blame the judge, or the social workers, or the lawyers because I know this is a system that is way underfunded and way overcrowded, I can blame a society that isn’t putting a focus on these kids. A society that often seems more interested in fighting over a woman’s right to choose, than in fighting for the kids who end up in the system when born to families who aren’t prepared to care for them.
And that's just not right.
And until we, as a society, are willing to step up, to put our money into the system, to volunteer our time and our homes, and to fight for these kids who are already here, more kids like Noel (to the tune of 20,000 in 2015 alone) will age out of the system feeling as though they are nothing more than a number.
Who is willing to fight for them?