By Evan Ratke

Foster care has not escaped the unpredictable turn the world has taken in the last few months. In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, children and youth in foster care, and the adults who dedicate their lives to those youth, face more complications than ever. But many of these challenges aren’t all new. The current situation merely magnifies flaws that existed in child welfare prior to the pandemic’s onset and this, Foster Care Awareness Month, is an apt time to consider those flaws, says Chauncey Strong, a child and family welfare consultant and Lutheran Family Services of Virginia Board member.

“Child welfare isn’t well equipped to deal with these kinds of crises, not many industries are,” Strong says. “Helping youth with independent living skills and self-sufficiency is important, but I think this crisis is showing that we need to continue to focus more and more on finding families for kids. When a crisis hits, youth in foster care need caring and supportive adults in their lives.”

Strong, who was in foster care and adopted in his own youth, has a Master’s Degree in social work and more than 25 years of professional experience in child and family welfare. His experience includes serving as a regional director of treatment foster care and adoption for Lutheran Family Services of Virginia and, more recently, running his own consultancy firm.

“It’s a lot to experience, personally with foster care and adoption, and then more than 25 years in the field. I do a lot now with older youth in foster care, especially teenagers at risk of aging out of the foster care system. Aging out of care is a big deal, with risks for negative outcomes, so I get asked to work often to support that population.

“More and more, child welfare has found that long-term foster care doesn’t work for kids,” Strong says. “Kids don’t need to be in long-term foster care; they need to be in permanent homes, whether that’s returning to their biological parents, living with relatives, or being adopted,” he says.

For youth who don’t have permanent families and are at risk of eventually aging out of long-term foster care; are aging out; or have already aged out, the vulnerabilities are unending.

“If you’re already out of foster care, there’s a concern you might become homeless,” Strong says.

That concern is founded in facts. In 2014, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness found that, “11% to 37% of former foster youth reported having experienced homelessness and one quarter to one half experienced housing instability of some sort after aging out of the foster care system.”

Other reporting paints an even darker picture. According to national statistics reported by Foster Focus magazine, “Within 18 months of emancipation, 40% to 50% of foster youth become homeless…Nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.”

Beyond the plethora of hardships that result from not having a home, youth falling into homelessness often encounter significant threats to their mental health. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “61.8% of homeless youth reported depression, 71.7% reported experiencing major trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, 79.5% experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for more than a month.”

Part of Strong’s work has involved supporting youth on the precipice of aging out for life outside of foster care.

“For many years, I worked in a public child welfare agency and supervised the independent living program, where we focused on independent living skills. But we married that goal with a focus on finding family and helping make healthy lifelong connections for these older youth as well. The two goals don’t have to oppose each other.”

Such preparations for life after foster care can go only so far as the COVID-19 situation exacerbates child welfare’s preexisting weaknesses, escalating the danger for youth lacking a stable home and family to rely on.

“In a crisis situation, your best independent living skills will not suffice when you don’t have a place to live, and you don’t have food, and you don’t have family that you can call,” Strong says. “You talk about being isolated, you are truly isolated at this time, and despite all the services and resume skills and cooking skills you have, if you don’t have people to make that connection, then you’re missing the part that you need the most to sustain yourself during this crisis.

“Across the country, too many kids in foster care are aging out, and they don’t have a place to go. Now they’re homeless, or they’re back on somebody’s couch. We don’t even have a good safety net in place. It just shows that we need more than ever to connect kids to family and other caring adults.”

Devastating as these circumstances are, Strong knows finding answers isn’t getting any easier. That’s not to say he, like so many others, isn’t determined to seek them out.

“There are so many industries dealing with the realization of their shortcomings, but we’re dealing with children, we’re dealing with families. So what more do we need?”

Just as child welfare’s limitations are pre-pandemic in nature, the potential for solutions is reliant upon the pre-pandemic goal of pairing children with permanent families.

“We need to be better prepared to help kids find families sooner, so when crises hit they have people and relationships they can depend on,” Strong says. “These kids need people in their lives who can be there to support them, like I had when I was growing up. I needed somebody. I’m a well-adjusted adult, but thank God I had my family to help me move to that point.”

The speed at which children can find their way to a forever family is, of course, itself dependent on those possible forever families and the support they receive as they attempt to forge that lifetime bond. To these families, Strong has taken the insight he’s gained from his own story of finding his family.

“I always say that foster care and adoption will impact you for the rest of your life. The work that foster and adoptive parents are doing is just laying a foundation for these kids that will help them succeed for the rest of their lives.”

The commitment foster and adoptive parents have for the children brought into their lives is incalculable, and the debt owed to them by organizations like Lutheran Family Services of Virginia unpayable.

No amount of expertise and insight can foresee how the needs of youth and their caregivers will be addressed in this crisis or after, or how the shortcomings of child welfare will be reconciled. But Strong doesn’t believe these children and families will go unheard.

“I think this pandemic is an opportunity to really improve how we do things in child welfare. There’s always an opportunity in every crisis to learn, grow, and do better.”