Guest Opinion: Helping foster youth

  • by David Ambroz
  • Wednesday May 24, 2023
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David Ambroz. Photo: Courtesy David Ambroz
David Ambroz. Photo: Courtesy David Ambroz

Standing at the center of New York City's Grand Central Terminal's main concourse bedraggled and rank in filthy clothes, I watched as the commuters ignored my pleas begging for "just a dollar, sir." I begged in the morning because people were more generous before they had a bad day. This day, though, the crowd parted a few feet in front of me, without even seeing me. As a homeless child, living with my family on the streets, we were invisible. Today, there are more than 100,000 children homeless or housing insecure in the same city where I barely survived. These children are part of more than 10 million American children living in poverty in 2019, with half of those in extreme poverty.

All around us as homeless children were other homeless children. We bedded down in corners of the city, among other children — usually with their mothers. In quiet corners of libraries, we slept. In bathrooms at fast-food restaurants, we bathed ourselves or did our laundry in sinks. Freezing, we children would ride public transit from one end of the line to the other to stay warm. At 5, 6, and 7 respectively, my siblings and I would always enter bathrooms together — to ensure we got out unmolested. These were thoughts we had as children — to survive another day.

At the Methodist food pantry, or the uptown Presbyterian Church's free meals, we'd wait in the long, long lines, absolutely aching for sustenance. There around us in line, the children were not lively. We children, deprived of sufficient calories, were shadows of the efflorescent "normal" child.

As the debate in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision rages — the ruling overturned the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade — children are already falling through the vast holes in our social welfare safety net. They, like my brother and sister, are roaming with no roof, not enough food — never enough food, fearful with parents that cannot care for them.

Outcomes for foster children are abysmal, with too few graduating high school, too many becoming young mothers that are ill-equipped to parent, and far too many becoming incarcerated. Today, more foster youth will go to jail as adults than will graduate college. By their 25th birthdays, 81% of males in the foster care system had been arrested and one in three incarcerated, according to a 2019 study. More than 30% of foster youth identify as LGBTQI+, triple our representation in the general population. Additionally, as the West Hollywood-based Trevor Project has reported, about 40% of foster youth identify as LGBTQ. The kids are not all right.

Surely, we can do better for the children we've taken away from their families. We know this, and have come together in the past — left and right — to bipartisan bills like the Chaffee Independence Act (1999) that for the first time provided support for foster youth emancipating out of the system.

At the front line of foster care are the foster parents, social workers, and the youth themselves. What if we recruited middle-income foster parents by allaying some of the main concerns of the middle class — retirement, college for their kids, and health care. Make foster parents county or state employees for retirement and health care benefits for life after a period of good service. Perhaps we can waive tuition at state colleges and universities for their own biological children. The numbers we are talking about are small, the impact potentially huge.

Foster youth are emancipating woefully unprepared to contribute to society. One of the main barriers is housing. In America, over 50% of homeless have experienced foster care. Let's build dorms at community colleges, so that foster youth emancipate into a vocational degree, two-year degree, skill-certificate or transfer student. The public owns the land, the institution, and these are the public's children. With dorms, we might have more than one student per room, and shared kitchen and bath facilities — dramatically driving down costs.

As I contemplate a post-Roe world, I wonder if both sides might agree that the very system which will see an onslaught of more unwanted children can be one thing we together might fix. This is not a Pollyannaish thought. Often, opposite political parties have come together to invest in expanding support for foster youth, their biological families, and preventing the need for breaking up families in the first place.

Foster Care is a boat with holes, staying afloat because of the diligent efforts of front-line social workers, foster parents, nonprofits, judges, and communities bailing water. Those efforts are not enough to keep these children, and future children, safe.

When I close my eyes, I can't see your political party. When you close your eyes, I ask you to imagine if you had to place your child in foster care. What does that system look like — let us create that together.

David Ambroz is a national poverty and child welfare expert and advocate, Emmy-nominated, and best-selling author. He was recognized by President Barack Obama as an American Champion of Change. He currently serves as the head of community engagement (West) for Amazon. He also served as a California child welfare councilmember, and helped author and advocate numerous laws and policies, including the extension of foster care to 21, Chafee Independence Act, efforts to protect LGBTQ foster youth, and policies to ensure access and success in higher education — including founding the Guardian Scholars in Los Angeles. After growing up queer, homeless, and then in foster care, he graduated from Vassar College and later from UCLA School of Law. He is a member of the Television Academy, board member of Equality California, and now lives in Los Angeles.

David Ambroz will appear with Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, at the Commonwealth Club of California Thursday, May 25, at 6 p.m. For information about online or in-person tickets, click here.

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