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Policy & Practice

Foster Youth Need Love and Support, Not Institutionalization.

Written by
Guest Author Jacqueline McKnight
Social services deputy director for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
October 18, 2021
Photo Credit: Shingi Rice - Unsplash

For over three decades, I’ve worked tirelessly in child welfare to bring care and empathy to New York City and North Carolina’s youth. I feel my job is my mission; our nation’s youth are our present and future, and we have a responsibility to find and care for youth in difficult, challenging and even oppressive circumstances. I’ve worked with our youth for so long, I was confident I knew what they needed and adamant I had a firm grasp on what our child welfare system needs to do for them.

But then I had the privilege to be a part of a presentation on Away From Home, a newly-released report from Think of Us in partnership with The Annie E. Casey Foundation. When I first read this report, I felt my current mission with North Carolina’s youth take on new dimensions; I felt my sense of urgency be redefined. All of a sudden, I knew that my commitment to care needed reimagining and restructuring. 

That’s because Away From Home reveals something I hadn’t seen in full before; it reveals the devastating trauma and abuse perpetrated against youth by institutionalized group care settings. Our youth are taken from their families and separated from their kin and those they trust. Then, they are housed in what we have defined as care - a congregate setting that our youth share with many others. 

But as Away From Home documents, these congregate care settings almost completely fail to live up to the mandate of child welfare to provide a loving, caring environment.

You’ll have to read the report for yourself to hear the voices of our nation’s foster youth speak honestly and openly about the hurt they’ve experienced in our country’s group homes. But as a long-time child welfare worker, what has stood out to me most isn’t what’s going wrong inside our group homes; it’s what’s wrong about sending kids to group homes at all. 

In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where I work, we are blessed to have a youth and family service team that has done a tremendous job of keeping local families intact. Despite the fact that we are one of the biggest counties, our number of foster care youth is relatively low compared to other large counties with major urban centers. Through partnerships with our provider network, our local community stakeholders and key community figures like Dr. Allison Metz at UNC-Chapel Hill and our colleagues at Healthy Blue-Blue Cross Blue Shield, we are working to recruit and support kinship caregivers that keep youth from group homes. 

But our relative success at keeping families together in Mecklenburg County can’t distract from our failures nationwide. Far too many families have their kids taken from them because they are too poor to provide adequate care. Our child welfare system isn’t putting the voice of our youth first in defining such services; if it did, we’d all be working around the clock to find new ways to engage and support families struggling with things like poverty, housing, or behavioral health needs, rather than quickly taking kids away.

Even in Mecklenburg County, there’s more we can do. We still lack so many vital resources and services, especially those that would help us to proactively identify families in need and step in before any further intervention by the child welfare system is necessary. We have a robust network of community organizations, but our state-run child welfare system itself isn’t equipped at this time to put foster youth and their families first. 

I’m thinking about how little we do yet to help nurture pro-social activities in youth, things like sports, getting a driver’s license, and numerous forms of community involvement. We can, but don’t yet, help youth build for independence in their families. All of these forms of support and aid are crucial if we are going to prevent the family breakdown, isolation and institutionalization that Away From Home describes with such painful clarity.

I’m not pessimistic about our future, quite the contrary. We have so much work left to do that I am emboldened. I hope many more, both inside and outside of the child welfare system, share with me my firm conviction that we can do better for our nation’s youth. We just have to listen to them, attend to them, hear their voices and give them the support they need to flourish in the families, kin and community relationships they want and need to grow.