The Connection Between Poverty and Foster Care - Thyme Is Honey

Did this post make you uncomfortable: how race and poverty intersect with foster care

Did this post I shared on Instagram make you feel uncomfortable? Okay, let’s talk about it.

But first, I want to preface this by telling you where I am coming from by sharing this content. I am not an adoptee or former foster youth. I am not actively involved in the foster care system and have no past experience with foster care. So, why then, do I feel like this is something I should write about?

Because I am interested in being involved in foster care. And as part of that, I’ve spent the past 4+ years learning about the system and all its complexities. When I expressed to a friend (who I also consider a mentor) that foster care was something we were considering, she gently suggested I take a step back and spend some time in private groups learning directly from adoptees and former foster youth about their experiences. You see, she knew my intentions were good, but that like most people — I wasn’t going into it for the right reasons or with the right perspective. And after years of shutting up, sitting down, and learning from the people most impacted by this system I can tell you that she was absolutely correct.

I think it’s important to frame my perspective this way, because in preparing for a potential role in fostering I have chosen to learn from the voices that are often most silenced — former foster youth and adoptees. It’s their voices and experience I choose to learn from, and this has given me a perspective and approach that doesn’t always align with mainstream “foster care” culture, which tends to center the opinions and experiences of foster parents.

What I could have done Better

I recognize that this tweet is perhaps not helpful for opening up dialogue on this topic. And I take responsibility for that. As I’ll explain in this post, I think that had to do with the fact that I originally read it in a setting where people were commenting on it and providing analysis, and my audience is not necessarily going to offer that on an Instagram Story post. It’s important to know your audience and your medium, and I can do better with making sure that what I’m sharing does a good job of making my point in a constructive way. This has been a valuable learning experience for me in remembering to frame things in the perspective of my average Instagram Story viewer and how they might interpret my content.

Get Uncomfortable

I saw this play out in vivid detail yesterday in my Instagram inbox. While messages of support and gratitude came from former foster youth, parents who have had to deal with CPH, and even former or current foster families —- it also filled with messages mostly from CPH workers and foster parents defending themselves and arguing against the point made in the image.

Listen to me on this one — foster care and adoption are complex. There is no way that a single tweet could encompass all of it. I’m not even sure I can give this topic justice in a blog post that has no actual restrictions on length. What I do know, is that it’s a better use of my time to try to lay out some of what I’ve learned and provide you with resources so that you can begin the work of unpacking this yourself — rather than expend energy going back and forth with you in DMs about how much you get paid to take care of foster children. Because, honestly, the average amount of foster parents make is the least important part of that post.

One of the exercises that often takes place inside the groups I am part of, is the practice of unpacking a post, quote, or article. When you unpack something you peel back the layers of it, kind of like an onion, to get to what it actually addresses or sheds light on (or what harm it causes). Over time, and with a lot of practice, you get good at this. Whether it’s about race, or adoption, foster care, income inequality, police brutality etc. The more exposure you have to a topic the better you get at deconstructing that content. I realize that sometimes I might share stuff and not realize that the first impression or “face value” of it might not be getting my point across accurately to people who aren’t also doing the work to unpack it.

And I think that’s the case with this post, because the quote shared in this image is not that powerful at face value, it’s when you unpack and recognize the systemic aspects of poverty that this tweet becomes really powerful. The difference is taking it literally versus looking at it analytically.

Foster Care Income

The most common argument I got was that $39,000 is far from accurate. I’m not going to go back and forth about it, because like I said it’s not the important part of the post and I feel like people focusing on this is a deflection. It’s an average, and the post doesn’t even state a geographic location (average in the US? the world? Some other country?) or whether it’s talking about one child or multiple. Is the author talking about straight-up cash or also including all the resources that foster parents are given access to that the child’s family may have never had access to before (healthcare, treatment/therapy/counseling, food stipends, clothing stipends, transportation reimbursement, tax credits, caseworkers, etc)? As I’ll point out later, as little as $7,000 has proven to help lift people out of systemic poverty.

And before you say that they all have access to the same resources (food shelves, free healthcare, free counseling, etc), pause, because it’s really important not to assume that everyone has an equal ability to ask for help and seek out resources. This is important, and I’ll come back to this later in the post.

Think of the foster care system as a whole and all the money that is spent on upholding the system, when that money could instead be put into community resources that might prevent children from ever being separated from their family in the first place. Our focus should be on funding prevention.

I also want to point out that saying you only get $700 a month, or $150 a month for your services as a foster parent is not the winning argument you think it is. What you’re telling me, is that not only are we as a society failing these children and their families by not providing ample resources for them to survive, but we then continue to fail them by also not providing ample resources to support them within the foster care system. Even $100 a month going directly to families or resources to support them could be the difference between children staying with their family or being placed. This should not be about the exact amount of money, but rather understanding that funding should be repurposed to prevent kids from going into foster care in the first place.

This is also an act of centering. Instead of doing the work to unpack the intent of the post and focusing on the dollar amount, you are centering the experience of foster parents, when the focus should always be on centering the experience of the children in foster care.

This also has racial implications, because foster parents tend to be overwhelmingly white, while foster youth are disproportionately people of color. Centering your opinion as a white foster parent while silencing the voices of adoptees is a manifestation of white supremacy.

The Poverty x Foster Care Connection 

It’s easy for people to take the post at face value, “CPH workers do not look at someone’s bank account and remove their children when it zeroes out.” Sure, you’re partially correct on that one. But ask any parent going through a divorce how much financial security is weighed when determining custody and you’ll find that the courts are more than happy to take a peek at your finances when they decide if you are fit to parent — and this finds its way into the foster care system, as well.

But thinking that this post is simply saying that people with less money lose their children is inaccurate. It’s talking about the systemic ways poverty leads children into vulnerable situations, or puts families into positions where they are more likely to have an encounter with CPS or the ways the cycle of poverty will prevent a lot of parents from being able to get their children back.

Some parents have drug problems, you’ll say. Yes, but have you done the work to understand how socioeconomic status increases the likelihood of drug abuse?

Some parents are in jail, you’ll say. Yes, but do you understand the very intimate link between poverty, chronic stress, and the prison-industrial complex?

The chronic stress that comes along with living in poverty drastically impacts our physical and mental health. So even when a child ends up in foster care after losing a parent to cancer, that, too, can have roots in poverty.

Even things that look like abuse or neglect (poor hygiene, ill-fitting clothes, not having school supplies, missing school) are often signs of poverty that get mistaken for abuse or neglect.

These are all very real reasons why children are removed from their homes, and all of them are rooted in income inequality and the impact it has on our health and lives.

Poverty x Race

Children of color are overrepresented among foster youth. For example, African American children make up 33% of the kids in foster care, but they make up only 15% of the population. 

That is upsetting on its own, but when you also consider that federal studies have shown that child abuse and neglect is actually lower for Black families than it is for white families….you’ve gotta raise your eyebrows and start asking some hard questions. But most importantly, you need to be studying the intersection of race, poverty, and the ways the child welfare system undermines families instead of supporting them.

Unpack It

When you read this post and feel uncomfortable it is probably because you feel partially complicit in this system or the structures that uphold it. Just like white people feel uncomfortable when faced with their role in upholding white supremacy. Or people who want to argue that “not all cops are bad”. Yes, some good people get wrapped up in police work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are working within a racist system.

That said, none of this means that we don’t need good people in the foster care system, despite its many flaws. And this should not be seen as a demonization of foster care. This is about wanting foster care to be as progressive and helpful as possible. There will likely always be a need for foster care, but providing better community services would vastly reduce the need. I think one of the most important things you can do as a member of the foster care community is to advocate for ample community care that supports families, and that is what this Tweet is really about.

This is the cross-road that Josh and I are personally at in our journey to parenthood. Trying to decide if we can be involved in this system and fight for the right thing: family reunification. It means choosing this route as a way to be involved in children’s lives while also wanting to abolish the need for foster care at all.  Being a good person working in this system definitely means understanding the complexities of this post and also means listening to the voices, opinions, and experiences of foster care youth.

There are people who will read this and it won’t quite click for them and they won’t ever do the work to move beyond this point. Just know that I understand, I was there once too. I sat in stubborn discomfort for at least a year (sometimes I still slip back into that). For those of you who are willing to learn more and unpack this, here are some resources to keep learning. I’m sure there are better ones that speak more directly to this topic, but these are ones I have personally found helpful:

Listen to this podcast episode: “The Toxic Intersection of Poverty and Stress” with neuroendocrinology researcher Dr. Robert Sapolsky.  These are some of the takeaways from this episode that I think are relevant to this post/conversation:

  • Living in poverty causes chronic stress, and being stressed puts people at a higher risk for falling into poverty. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break free of.
  • When we make it difficult for people to access resources (paperwork, going to a physical location that requires transportation, drug tests, various other requirements) we add to their stress, exacerbating the stress/poverty loop and making it less likely that they are able to escape the grip of poverty. (this is why it isn’t accurate to say that families have the same access to resources as foster families — because their chronic stress makes those resources harder to access).
  • Chronic stress causes our brain to atrophy in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, long term planning, and good decision making. This is one of the many reasons poverty increases the likelihood of drug-use or incarceration.
  • We can see the impact of stress on children as young as 5 years old. Children in low socio-economic environments often have stress hormone levels in their blood twice as high as kids in more stable homes. This begins impacting the development of their frontal cortex, which can impact what types of decisions they will make for the rest of their life. 

I hope the episode helps you understand that poverty is systemic and that many of its effects can be genetic and passed down from generation to generation within a family. Then reflect once again on the foster care system and ask yourself if you truly believe that poverty does not play a direct role in children ending up in foster care. Doing the true work of foster care means working to end the cycle of poverty.

Read this book: The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the current surgeon general of the state of California. This book is short and easy to read but gives you a really interesting perspective on how adverse childhood experiences impact our entire lives (and poverty is considered a form of ACEs). Many of the stories she shares in the book illustrate exactly how systemic poverty is and how it directly impacts the lives of children and their families.

Read this article ‘Canadian researchers gave $7,500 to people without a home — and the results show the power of universal basic income‘ from Business Insider, for a look at how even a small amount of money can help move people out of the cycle of poverty: “Those who were given the cash largely spent the money on food, rent, and transportation and moved into stable housing faster over the course of the year, according to the findings. Spending on “temptation goods,” such as drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol declined by 39%, on average. And recipients were able to keep an average of $1,000 in savings, according to Canadian news outlet CBC.  The cash payment saved the shelter system $8,100 per person over the course of the year, a total savings of $405,000.”

Consider this article, as well, ‘The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake‘ from The Atlantic. While this is a bit of a departure and a long read, I find it really fascinating how this article does tie back into the topic of poverty. This article will explain how we, as a society, have moved away from extended families and more toward nuclear families over the past several decades, and how that exacerbates income inequality by making it harder for low-income families to survive without the built-in social safety net that an extended family provides.

As always, I appreciate a good conversation and I hope you follow me at least partially because I do, from time-to-time, make you uncomfortable and challenge you. I’m incredibly grateful for the people who have challenged or corrected me over the years — it has made me a better person, and perhaps the type of person who can be an informed foster parent and advocate someday.

(Sincere thanks to friends + mentors who kindly read this post to offer feedback. Their experience with both foster care and adoption is invaluable as is their perspective, and extra eyes on my work is always appreciated.)

The Connection Between Poverty and Foster Care

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