Last month in Camden, New Jersey, President Obama said, “We can’t guarantee everyone’s success, but we do strive to give everyone an equal shot.” That is a responsibility that must belong to all of us, and a commitment we must all share, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.
Last month was National Foster Care Month. It provided us an important opportunity to highlight the many ways that President Obama and his Administration have worked to stem the often disproportionate, unfair, and heartbreaking challenges facing our foster youth, and to provide them the equal opportunity for success that they deserve. We want them to know they are not alone.
In January 2013, President Obama signed the Uninterrupted Scholars Act to give social workers much needed access to student records, helping them work more collaboratively with schools and educators to effectively advocate for foster youth. The President also championed increased access to funding waivers that allow states to embrace innovative approaches to child welfare and financing — including using federal dollars on prevention services to help stabilize families and prevent children from entering the foster care system in the first place.
In December of last year, the President’s Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Services issued a joint letter to state school officials outlining the eligibility of foster children for free school meals without a household application. The Department of Labor announced that they will develop a web-based tool for foster youth and the adults in their lives to provide easy access to all of the Department’s best youth employment resources.
Because we know that children in foster care are significantly more likely than their peers to be prescribed psychotropic medication — often times at ages and doses that exceed FDA-approved levels — President Obama’s most recent budget proposal encourages the use of evidence-based screening, assessment, and treatment of trauma and mental health disorders among foster youth. That includes $500 million for performance-based incentive payments to states through Medicaid, coupled with $250 million to support infrastructure and capacity building for child welfare providers.
And because both social science and common sense tell us that children are best raised by loving, caring families, not institutions, the President has proposed in this year’s budget thoughtful limitations on the use of congregate care or “group homes.”
When it comes to older foster youth, we know very few young people, regardless of their upbringing, are ready to be 100 percent independent at the age of 18. That’s why the President’s budget proposal would also allow child welfare agencies to use federal funds to provide services, including room and board, to young people that have aged out of the system up to age 23.
Earlier this month, we honored 12 extraordinary former foster youth as “White House Champions of Change” for their tremendous educational and professional achievements to not only better themselves, but to improve the lives of others in foster care. Seeing their determination to achieve serves as a reminder of what is possible when we remove barriers and give foster youth the opportunity they deserve.
In April, the White House expanded “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” to include young people in the Washington, D.C. area who are without guardians or whose parents are unemployed. More than 400 children participated across the White House and 17 federal agencies, and several private companies followed the President’s lead. Microsoft invited Girl Scouts to their D.C. office to learn about coding and careers in STEM. AOL and the NFL invited young people from Big Brothers Big Sisters to their corporate headquarters.
The fact is, helping more young people reach their full potential is more than the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do for our communities and our economy. If we don’t make sure our nation’s foster youth are safe, healthy, educated, and prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, we are not doing all we can to ensure that American businesses have access to the workforce they need to grow and compete in the 21st century global economy.
The statistics paint a heartbreaking picture for today’s foster youth. Only half of foster youth in America complete high school by age 18, and less than 5 percent will graduate from college. Within 18 months of aging out of the foster care system, 40 percent will become homeless, and 54 percent of young men will have been incarcerated, as will 25 percent of young women.
All children are born with bright glimmers of light in their eyes. And with every home change, or instance of abuse or neglect, that light dims. It is on each of us to engage and empower our foster youth, to recognize their potential, safeguard their dignity, and see them as part of the solutions we need — not as problems that need fixing.
This past month alone, we welcomed legislators, foundations, foster parents, service providers, government officials, advocates, and youth to the White House, representing nearly every state and several tribes, in our ongoing effort to identify and share solutions and effective strategies for everything ranging from access to after-school activities for foster youth, to cost efficient and innovative prevention strategies aimed at keeping families together.
I also gave the keynote address at the Children’s Home + Aid Champions for Children Luncheon on May 21, where I highlighted the importance of Obama Administration partnerships with first-class foster care service providers. I met a young man that day named Nathan. He described the deplorable abuse he suffered in a foster home, and how a caring social worker intervened and saved his life. Nathan is a recent college graduate, with a bright future ahead of him. Every child deserves that chance.
In President Obama’s second inaugural address, he told the nation: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal.”
That is an ideal that we can achieve in this country for all children, including our foster youth — and together, we will.