Washington state has a foster care placement crisis, with nearly 9,000 youth in the system and only around 5,000 licensed foster homes, according to Treehouse. This is an issue that greatly affects the permanency, safety, support, and shelter of teens placed in the foster care system. When people think of adopting or fostering youth, they’re generally more inclined towards babies and young children. And who can blame them? Babies are generally cuter and easier to mold. But if we are short by nearly 4,000 licensed foster homes, and people are more likely to foster babies and young children, what happens to teens and other difficult-to-place youth in foster care?
Youth entrusted to foster care after being abused and/or neglected by their parents often end up bouncing between hotels, group facilities, and other emergency placements when there is a shortage of licensed foster homes. Recent reports from DSHS show that 75% of the children placed in hotels last year in Washington state were age 12 and older. Youth can also end up in group facilities for severe mental health problems or juvenile delinquency, not because they need to be there, but because there are no regular foster homes available.
Ideally, when the foster care system is working, a young person is placed in one placement where they stay permanently until they age out or reunify with family. When there is a shortage of foster homes, youth can end up moving frequently. Between 2012-2014 in Washington state, youth with three or more moves in their first year of care rose from 15% to 19%, per a recent DSHS report, though the federal standard states no more than 14% should experience that many moves. With each move, a young person’s behavior can get worse, often making it harder for them to find a foster family or group home willing to work with them. Studies show that youth in foster care that don’t start out with behavior problems are much more likely to develop them when they are moved around.
What’s worse is what can happen to youth in care upon aging out. Transitioning into adulthood is a difficult metamorphosis for any person, one that is made increasingly more difficult when youth exit care without supportive and trusted adults. When youth are shuffled between homes, trusting and attaching to anyone becomes difficult. According to Treehouse, less than half of youth in care graduate high school, less than one percent gain a bachelor’s degree, and one-third of alumni of care live under the poverty line. Instability increases alumni’s susceptibility of entering the criminal justice system, having unintended pregnancies, abusing drugs, and being unemployed, all things that cost taxpayer money.
I entered foster care at fifteen. My experience was that of constant moves because the only placements available were temporary. There was no point getting comfortable in a placement because I knew I wouldn’t be there for long. The only familiarity I felt was the constant dread of never knowing when my time would be up in a certain home or school. My next home was often in a different town or city, making my education disjointed. Even though statistically speaking, I shouldn’t have experienced much success, I graduated high school and was accepted to a university. I didn’t know a lot about the adult world and with no one to turn to, things crumbled my sophomore year. It was a perfect storm of circumstances, some completely out of my control, and regardless of how hard I worked, I couldn’t stop it all from unraveling. I went from a college student to a homeless person. Looking back, if I had a trusted and supportive adult in my life, maybe things would have been different.
Lack of placements for teens in foster care is an issue that needs to be addressed and there are ways you can help. If you have young people in your life, remember to be supportive in times of transition and understand the positive, lasting impact you can make by just being there. You can support or volunteer with organizations like Treehouse. You can help in a major way by becoming a foster parent, especially a foster parent for older youth in care. For more information, visit www.dshs. wa.gov/CA/fos/becoming-a-fosterparent. Change takes time. You may not be able to change the whole world, but we can change the world for one foster youth.