In To the End of June, Cris Beam attempts to explain why the foster system is so troubled, and she leaves open the question, “What next?” To follow up, I invited David White of Fostering Great Ideas® to speak with me about how his organization (which is the parent organization of Care2Foster™) and others are addressing, “What next?”
David White has an MBA in Corporate Finance and an MSW in Child Welfare. After spending many years in the corporate world, he became the Director of Greenville County First Steps, where he focused on early childhood education and parental involvement. Later work as the Regional Director of Growing Home Southeast opened his eyes to the complications of the foster care system. Drawn to further addressing the needs of these most vulnerable children through community engagement, he founded Fostering Great Ideas® (FGI).
What do you think about Beam’s statement: “I didn’t know how we could be spending billions on foster children in the United States and yet see half of them with chronic medical conditions, 80 percent with serious emotional problems, and then abandon nearly a quarter of them to homelessness by their twenty-first birthdays”?
I don’t agree with Beam’s assertion that 80%+ of the kids from care have emotional disorders or that over 30% will be homeless when we leave them at 21. I don’t know where these numbers come from. They sound overly dramatic… There is long-term data focused on the 10% of youth who age out of foster care. The data states that five years after leaving care, 54% have a diagnosed emotional disorder and 30% have been homeless at least one day in their first year after care. For more statistics on foster care, check out our document, “Statistics on Foster Care”, and a study by Chapin Hall, “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 26″.
Why did you found Fostering Great Ideas?
I learned early in life that people deserve to be treated with dignity, a concept that guides me well. My early learning was spent as a privileged youth talking with homeless men, interning at a shower house and soup kitchen one summer. I spent most of my time just talking and eating with the men, learning that they may look tired and worn, but they are of the same stuff as I am (and you are) and deserve the same level of service and attention we would give to a king or a queen.
Speaking of a king, I grew up in Atlanta and absorbed the writings, the monuments, and the inspirations of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK’s presence is everywhere in Atlanta. I studied King’s work and tried to live by the ideals he espoused. His inspiration has stuck and has changed me profoundly. In small ways, at an early age, I preached about justice “rolling down from the mountain tops.” I could see King’s inclusive vision of dignity for all. I was hooked and began to inspire others in his way, in my small way.
In college at Vanderbilt, I continued my study on dignity. I spent most Saturday mornings in downtown Nashville, just talking with homeless men. I listened mainly. My dad began to worry for my safety, for which I simply replied, “These are my friends. I’m safe, Dad.” And so I was. While in college, I worked one summer in the U.S. House of Representatives. I loved the experience – finding change is possible if people in power talk to one another with dignity and respect. A light bulb went off, “I could change the world!”
Perhaps naive, but why not try! At 34, under the blessing of my dear spouse, I left a secure job in corporate finance and went out on a journey. My personal goal is for all people to feel of value in this world we walk in. We can all be better to each other. We can all change the world. That’s it. Let’s do it!
How did Fostering Great Ideas® come about?
FGI began with a conversation between Deb Bridges, a Social Services Director, and me. I felt our community could do significantly more to help children in foster care. The Director concurred and offered a pathway to do just that. She asked me to focus on the relationship that mattered most to the children in care, the relationship with their birth family. I held three community listening sessions in 2010 and found support was strong to launch family based programs. The nonprofit began in 2011, offering ways for children in foster care to feel valued and heard through relational support.
What is the purpose of the organization?
The mission of FGI is to improve the lives of children as they struggle in foster care. We listen to the children, hear their needs, inspire the community to break status quo, and provide simple, powerful solutions that make the kids smile. Visit the Great Ideas page of our website to read about some of the ways individuals and groups can partner with us to help the children in their communities.
In the epilogue of To the End of June, Cris Beam says that children in foster care who have someone who will stick with them and support them for the long haul do best. Have you found this statement to be true?
Yes. The seminal work on foster care, What Works in Foster Care?, reinforces this sentiment. I suppose we all want to know we are special to someone, right? We give children a sense of connection to their birth family, foster family, siblings, and – if a youth in care – mentors. We even focus now on aging-out youth, welcoming them into a college experience specifically for them.
What are some efforts in South Carolina to find adults to support kids in the system?
The foster care system is based on the concept of adults supporting children in the system. The issue lies in the words, “lack of enough,” as in lack of enough homes, clinicians, case workers, mentors, time with family to rebuild family… the list goes on. With this reality, children often lack feeling valued and cared for. It is no one’s fault. It is complacency and lack of awareness, two obstacles that FGI attempts to minimize.
Beam also noticed that as hard as we may try to change things, history tends to repeat itself. How have you seen this happen in your own experience with foster care?
There is a great 1 minute video on our website from an alumna of foster care. She says, “Why can’t someone just give you luggage instead of a garbage bag when you move. Something so simple!” And then, she cries. We should all cry with her. If we do cry with her, history doesn’t repeat itself. We offer solutions – one is 3,500 pieces of luggage over the last three years for children moving in care. It all begins with stopping for a moment and feeling what a child feels in care.
What are ways people are trying to stop this cycle?
The feds pay for clinical, behavioral, and independent living interventions and focus the states on best practice interventions. These are focus areas and are often related to issues of trauma, acting out, and aging out. Yet, these interventions are never enough. Children require so much more.
The feds also require each state to meet safety and permanency requirements, so children are in a better place while in care and leave care to a healthy, permanent home as soon as possible. Yet, states are often under-resourced and under-appreciated. So, again, that is not enough.
Faith-based groups engage in building foster home networks and supporting these systems through their volunteer network. They work with urgency and take on supportive roles that improve the well-being of children while in care.
Fostering Great Ideas takes on the role of asking “So, what is missing?” FGI develops community-led solutions that are entrepreneurial by nature, always finding the pain points and developing simple solutions. We like to say that we walk with a child in care from their entry through their exit. For a quarter of children, this exit is two or more years – a lifetime for children to be in the uncertainty that is foster care.
How do you see poverty playing a role in the foster system?
Poverty did not put children into foster care. When rampant drug addiction entered the picture, that is when foster care became flooded with children. When a family has addiction, the key way to prevent a child from entering foster care is for the birth family (kinfolk) to make a decision that is pro-child. They may have issues with the birth parent, but if they communicate amongst themselves for a pro-child plan, the child will not enter care. That is my position.
What are the most effective ways to address the issue of poverty?
Find the root causes. To me, they are: low expectations, minimal encouragement, and layers of subtle oppression. If we start with decisions that raise expectations, encourage, and break the layers of oppression, the chains of poverty will unshackle.
Are there any other overriding themes you have noticed while working with the system?
Yes! Most people in the system really care (a lot). Period.