I entered the foster care system with my sister after our parents were incarcerated. While the separation from our parents was hard, she and I stayed together, which was not at all common at the time. I was 10. As young Black kids, we were placed in white families. People often stared at the family constellation. It was even more difficult to hear the guardians indicate “these are my kids [their biological children], and these are my foster kids.”
Other aspects of my life were normalized. I was in track and field and choir, and I worked as young as I could. I wanted to feel like I fit in, like I was doing what my peers were doing. It wasn’t until now, when I look back, that I realize how much I wanted to mute my foster identity. I wanted to look like everybody else. Now, aged 50, I am coming full circle — I am loud and proud about my foster identity.
Foster Advocates started in Minnesota in 2018. I was on the board of directors, and assumed the executive director role in July. Foster Advocates is a foster-led nonprofit organization focused on policy and system changes that directly impact fosters in Minnesota. We recently launched our Minnesota Promise Campaign, which takes us into different regions of the state to learn about the insights, concerns, and wishes from fosters outside the Twin Cities. That information will go into a comprehensive report and will inform future legislative policy agendas.
I went to college, went to graduate school, and had my son as I started working. I needed those skills because I had no other options. My wish for fosters who come after me is that success should not be based on luck — what family you ended up with, who your caseworker was, or the natural grit that you have.
Non-foster peers have family to turn to when something goes wrong. Many fosters do not have that. How do we get the same chances to produce the same outcomes?
We are especially happy that this past legislative session lawmakers voted to establish the role of an ombudsperson for foster youth in the state of Minnesota. Right now, we don’t know how many complaints, issues, and concerns are falling through the cracks because there isn’t a centralized place for them to land. Having that container is going to make a huge difference.
Misty Coonce will be the state’s first ombudsperson for the Office of Foster Youth. She has been involved in adoption services and advocating for youth in foster care, and is a former foster youth. Her role will be to establish a complaint process, investigate complaints, make recommendations to the governor and legislature, and attend court hearings if a youth in foster care requests it. She reports to the governor.
Four Big Needs
Social security benefits often go to a child after the death of their caregiver. Currently, when a foster is placed in care due to the death of a caregiver, the state takes those funds to pay for the foster care system. It is hard not to feel like this money is being stolen from fosters.
Foster Advocates fought hard to pass a bill to reclaim foster survivor benefits, but it did not pass last session. Instead, there will be a study over the next couple of years to figure out how much it would cost the state and counties if everything we are asking in the Survivor Benefits bill were made into law.
Fosters are critical in helping us shape solutions. Our approach would require child welfare agencies to: apply to be the representative payee for the child while in care; notify the young person of eligibility and the amounts received annually; establish and manage a trust that will be made available to fosters at 18 years old; repay fosters past stolen funds.
We also hope to have easier access to records. If you are under 18 and need an adult to cosign for documents about you, it can be difficult to have foster guardians offer that support. There is a certain control that comes from “owning” someone’s information. And if you move into a different home, a different county, it is not always easy to know where the records are being kept. It slows down the process considerably for securing health care, getting a job, getting into school. Foster Advocates works with a lot of youth to navigate records systems that are difficult to access even for non-foster adults.
Much of what we do is try to improve awareness of the many issues fosters raise, but we also want to see multi- agency accountability for how broken the system is — the willingness to believe there is a problem and fix it. People often simply push you to another agency for answers to problems.
Another concern is that when a foster gives birth while in care, there is a very high possibility that her baby will be taken away. The foster parent might not want to also care for a baby, so that baby might get fostered out to another family. Subsequently, that baby gets adopted by another family without the consent of the birth mother. We have fosters we’re working with right now who have had children taken from them under the guise of it being “temporary.” The idea is that after a foster turns 18 you can be reunified — but often they have no idea where the child actually is.
That happens far more than anyone would want to imagine. That’s a heavy one.
My own foster experience led to homelessness after I turned 18, which is common — and can easily lead to incarceration, or being targeted by sex traffickers. We would like to see dedicated funds for youth as they transition into adulthood, through age 26.
Alternatives to Foster Care
We hear from our fosters, and from organizations that focus more broadly on child welfare and permanency, that we can’t ignore kinship care. We can’t ignore the fact that there are people in a child’s life who may not be related, but could become good guardians. Everyone that I lived with, they were all strangers. There is bias, particularly around Black and Brown families, about whether other non-related “kin” — who would take in children they have known for the child’s entire life — are suitable. There are extraordinary steps needed to get through the licensing process. Often that placement need is imminent, so they “temporarily” place a child. When a kinship family is identified and waiting for an approved placement, too often they are then told that it’s best to keep the child where they are because they’ve now become “attached” to the family.
Permanency could look like being adopted, or reunification with family. A 16- or 17-year-old foster who is clear that they do not want to be adopted needs advocates to fight against agencies that want to have a permanent conclusion to the story. Some fosters don’t want that.
Surviving the foster care system shouldn’t have to be about luck. When we’re removed from our families, the state promises that they’re going to do a better job than any alternatives. For many fosters, that is not what happens. Ultimately, my north star is: how do we collectively, as an organization, and society, really center and care about kids, even if they aren’t ours?