Walk a mile in my shoes

HOW THE PANDEMIC AGGRAVATED THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM

Art by Palina Kuzmina

Text by Anna Hickey and Karlene Salas

“I have a floral print suitcase that I have kept under my bed and carried through different homes,” said a Palo Alto High School student, who goes by the name _fostertoivy_ on Instagram. Though she may seem like any other student, she has a childhood not many others share: she’s been in the foster care system for more than five years.

Foster to Ivy says the suitcase was her mother’s when she immigrated from South India. “This piece represents how I have lacked stability and had to live my life from a suitcase,” Foster to Ivy stated in a message to Anthro Magazine.

According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, on any given day, over 437,000 young people are living in the US foster care system, and the number has been rising. More than 69,000 of these youth live in institutions, group homes, and other environments instead of with a family.

To better understand the inner workings of the foster care system and its interactions with the online education and social constraints of the pandemic, Anthro magazine interviewed two different organizations that help foster youth. 

Operations pre-covid

Help One Child is a Bay Area church-based organization that provides resources to all types of families involved in the foster care system. Help One Child assists families with foster youth, adopted youth, families where the parents are not the child’s guardians, and even families at risk of their kids being sent into foster care.They provide weekly support groups, tutoring for youth, and respite care, where the organization takes care of the youth for a night or two to give the family a break.

I have lacked stability and had to live my life in a suitcase

Foster to Ivy

Judy Holmes, director of family services of Help One Child in Los Altos, works closely with children and families impacted by the foster care system, whether they are a foster family, a  kinship family, or parents who are at risk of losing their custody rights. “Whether they need volunteers, information, or resources, I’m kind of their go-to person,” Holmes said.

San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates, or SFCASA, recruits and trains volunteers who provide advocacy for foster youth. CASA organizations are widespread, but this one is specific to the Bay Area. SFCASA focuses on finding the interests of the youth and helping them pursue their individual passions, providing them with information and resources about their rights as foster youth. The organization also focuses on providing the youth with access to necessary mental and physical health care.

The interim executive director of SFCASA, Paul Knudsen, said that SFCASA provides “very extensive training on everything from youth development to cultural humility,” and “the special rights of youth in foster care, particularly around education” for the volunteers. 

“We had 17 staff, serving 313 youth,” Knudsen said. They were able to serve so many foster youth because of their volunteers. “Our volunteers do all the direct service so actually as staff we rarely see the youth or their families.

Adapting to the pandemic

Nearly everything in the world has been forced to change as a result of the pandemic, and the foster care system is no exception. 

Due to the pandemic, Help One Child has to operate remotely. Although Holmes used to work closely with foster families and youth, now “It’s usually over the phone,” she said.

However, Holmes said if necessary, she would conduct home visits to families herself. “If we do have a family in need, I would actually go out and do a home visit with the family to meet them, meet the kids, and see if the kids have high needs or not to match them with the right volunteer.”

Holmes said that Help One Child is developing a respite program because they found a lot of families are needing some time off for a night or two from parenting during Covid. “Every kid that comes into foster care has trauma because they have been removed from their biological parent or parents.”

According to Holmes, Help One Child had to hire contractors and part-time workers because they needed more help transitioning to working remotely. Because Help One Child does not receive any government funding, it relies mostly on donations from private individuals, churches, and private grants. “We could never run our programs without our volunteers,” Holmes said. “We only have two or three full-time workers, and we work with hundreds of families in different counties in the Bay Area.”

Although receiving enough funding might be an issue for Help One Child because it is not government sourced, SFCASA does receive government funding. Regardless, SFCASA was not equipped to deal with different challenges that the pandemic brought.

Knudsen said the biggest struggle the foster care system is facing during quarantine was that homes were not prepared for the youth being at home 24/7 since many foster parents have jobs outside of their homes. “The system just wasn’t set up to handle the current situation. Even in the summer, there used to be camps and other opportunities for youth so they wouldn’t be home 24/7 and none of that existed this year.”

We could never run our programs without our volunteers. We only have two or three full-time workers, and we work with hundreds of families in different counties in the Bay Area

Judy Holmes, Director of Family Services for Help One Child

Foster to Ivy, who receives assistance from CASA, said “Covid lockdown has made it more difficult for me to access support from my CASA court advocate, social worker, and academic coach.”

SFCASA volunteers also had to adapt in order to help foster youth. “Our volunteers have had to find creative ways to stay in touch with youth, and if they are younger youth, that can be a problem,” Knudsen said.

He said that normally, volunteers need to build relationships with youth by working together for a few years. However, especially during the pandemic, establishing that connection can be especially challenging.

Importance of education

In addition to dealing with struggles from their pasts, foster youth must grapple with current challenges. Today, one of the biggest challenges involves education.

According to the National Foster Youth Institution, children in foster care are far more likely to change schools during the school year, to be in special education classes, and to not receive passing grades than their counterparts. High school dropout rates are three times higher for foster youth compared to other low-income children and only about half graduate from high school.

With Paly being her fourth school in four years, Foster to Ivy said that switching schools frequently makes it difficult for her to perform at her full potential. 

“In my time in high school so far, I have been to eight foster homes and four schools,” Foster to Ivy said in the caption to her first Instagram post. “Every time I had to move, I was only given a week of notice to pack and prepare for the transition. It didn’t matter what the reason was. … It was never my fault.” 

Our volunteers have had to find creative ways to stay in touch with the youth

Paul Knudsen, Interim Executive Producer of SFCASA

In order to help with the educational gap, Help One Child offers tutoring for foster youth. “Since volunteers can’t come in person anymore, we’re doing a lot of virtual tutoring. Now that school has started, volunteers have risen. There are a lot more volunteers involved because a lot more kids need virtual tutors.”

Though the school has always been difficult for Foster to Ivy due to her multiple placement changes, this does not stop her from pursuing her educational goals. Her Instagram name, Foster to Ivy, refers to her dream of going to an Ivy league school for graduate school — not an undergraduate college. “I want to stress this because Paly has a reputation for being extremely competitive when it comes to the college admissions process and I do not want to contribute to this stress nor do I want my intentions to be misinterpreted.”

“My dream is to become a judge and work with troubled youth who may have fallen down the wrong path.” Foster to Ivy said, “Not of their own wrongdoing but because of multiple external factors.”