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I overcame aging out of foster care – not every kid is so lucky. Here's how you can help

In the United States, there are currently more than 400,000 children who are wards of the state. Due to abuse or neglect at home, they are placed in the custody of the government of the state in which they reside.

What does it mean to be a child in the foster care system? To put it mildly, it means you are up a creek without a paddle.

It means no normalcy or stability.

MY 8-YEAR-OLD'S DISCOVERY OF GOD IN HIS PASSPORT POINTS TO A SOLUTION FOR THE BATTLE AT THE BORDER

It means packing your meager belongings into a stylish black trash bag and moving to a new home every other month or even every other week.

It means you’ve probably only been to the dentist once or twice in your life.

It means your one meal a day at school will not be made with Mama’s love or include heart-shaped sandwiches.

It means you will most likely suffer sexual abuse, violence, and poverty.

And once you age out of the system, it means becoming an adult long before your peers, even if you’re still in high school. While other kids your age are obsessing about dating, summer vacation, or what college to attend, you’re working a second shift at Denny’s, covered in days-old ketchup because you don’t have access to a washer or dryer.

It means that when you get your paycheck, you have to decide whether to pay your rent, buy groceries at Walmart, or save money for a taxi to get to school so you can graduate.

What does it mean to be a child in the foster care system? To put it mildly, it means you are up a creek without a paddle.

I was nine when the Department of Children and Families started knocking on our door. I was ten when people began reporting the bruises and my reclusive behavior.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen that my five siblings and I were, finally, officially removed from our mother’s custody. At that point, I knew that graduating from high school was a life-or-death situation. It was my only hope of survival. I didn’t want to end up as a prostitute, like Mother always said I would, or dead in an alley due to an overdose – also something that Mother always threatened would be my fate.

Even though I had resolved not to give in to the cycle of poverty and abuse that had crippled my family, meeting the demands of everyday life was still an uphill battle.

I wanted normal. I wanted PTA meetings after school and barbecues after church on Sunday. I wanted a loving family.

When I aged out of the system at eighteen, I kept pursuing my dream of normal the best I could, with just what I had. I didn’t have the luxury of being irresponsible or carefree like my peers who were applying to colleges and making grand plans for their future.

The fact that I graduated from high school was nothing short of a miracle. College wasn’t an option for me at the time – not because I hadn’t given my very best to get there, but because I was a good girl who’d been dealt a really bad hand. I was trapped in a system that pushes children down rather than sets them up to be as successful as their peers who have had stable home lives and loving parents.

Eventually, I did overcome my hardships – with my own hard work, help from good Samaritans, and the love of Jesus – but not every child in foster care is able to do the same.

So who are these children in the foster care system? Allow me to paint a picture by sharing a few facts:

  • Children in the foster care system are 44 percent Caucasian, 23 percent African-American, 21 percent Hispanic, 10 percent other races or multiracial, and 2 percent unknown race or ethnicity.
  • While in foster care, children will experience an average of eight home and school changes.
  • Approximately 20,000 to 25,000 children a year age out of the US foster care system at eighteen. Twenty percent of them will immediately become homeless.
  • About half of those who age out will graduate from high school with a diploma or GED, and only 3 percent will go on to earn a college degree.
  • Within four years of aging out, 60 percent of the boys will be convicted of a crime, and 70 percent of the girls will become pregnant.
  • Nearly 50 percent of those who age out will struggle with substance abuse and unemployment. Thirty-three percent of boys and 75 percent of girls will receive government benefits such as food stamps to meet basic needs.
  • Twenty-two percent of aged-out foster youth battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which exceeds the rate of PTSD in the general population by five times. This surpasses the rates of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 12 percent of whom are diagnosed with PTSD.

There are plenty more grim statistics such as these to bring grief to our hearts, but I think you get the point. Aging out of the foster care system effectively swings a young person into other systems, such as prison and welfare. And by the way, the brokenness of foster care costs taxpayers $80 billion a year due to its egregious failures and consequences.

So why is this catastrophe allowed to continue?

The sad reality is that the cause of foster care reform is neither glamorous nor compelling enough to gain national attention or to merit a place on the priority lists of most of our nation’s leaders and politicians. In fact, our leaders have, sometimes knowingly, made decisions or created systems that only perpetuate the cycle of poverty and abuse for hundreds of thousands of children down through the generations.

How can we bring solutions to these problems? How do we take on what I consider to be the biggest civil rights crisis of our time on behalf of a minority who can’t vote, can’t rally in front of the White House, and have no viable recourse?

We fight for them, one issue at a time. And by we, I mean you and me. We can fight for the least of these – and we can enlist others to help.

I know the problems of the foster care system may seem impossible to fix, but fixing them is possible.

Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

  • Invest your time and finances by volunteering and contributing to legitimate nonprofit organizations that aid and advocate for foster youth, such as First Star, Together We Rise, Hope’s Closet, and Foster Closet.
  • Consider becoming a loving foster parent or adopting a child from the foster care system.
  • Partner with the Christina Meredith Foundation?to ensure that any youth who has experienced abuse or is in the foster care system receives basic necessities, education, trauma care, health care, and advocacy.

We each have our own battles to fight to make our world a better place. We also have a responsibility to help children in need.

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My hope is that you will engage in your passion and live out your purpose – and also prioritize taking concrete steps to help make life better for others.

Adapted from "CinderGirl" by Christina Meredith. Copyright © 2019 by Christina Meredith. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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