This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020 Election: Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of the next month.
James McIntyre watched the 2020 Democratic primaries with one issue in mind: What candidates would do for young people in the foster care system. He came away disappointed.
McIntyre spent 17 years in the custody of the Illinois Department of Family services, shuffled between more than 20 homes and institutions after social workers took him from his parents as a baby because of his mother’s drug abuse. He experienced physical and sexual abuse in foster care. Now an advocate for children in the system, he is frustrated to see lawmakers at the national level ignore child welfare year after year.
“If the government takes a kid out of their family, we make a commitment to that child that their life will be better because of the government interaction,” said McIntyre, 29. “That’s just not true. And we don’t have anybody talking about those issues on a federal level.”
During the primaries, the child welfare system barely came up. Julián Castro, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration, was the only candidate to release a child welfare plan. But he dropped out of the race in January. The only mention of the child welfare system in the Democratic Party platform is focused on the sovereignty of indigenous tribal nations under the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that governs the removal of Native American children from their families.
This high-level silence is the norm—in part, advocates say, because the young people who bear the full impact cannot vote. In an election year framed as a referendum on President Donald Trump, foster care does not lend itself well to traditional partisan divides in politics. Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has eclipsed other political debates, foster care has fallen even further by the wayside, as families in the system struggle more than ever.
“We have kids sleeping in psychiatric hospitals that no longer need to be there but are there because there are no places for them [in the foster homes],” said McIntyre, who lobbied successfully in Illinois for an executive order to fund housing for young people who age out of foster care—nearly 20 percent of whom end up homeless in normal times—during the pandemic. “We have kids in juvenile detention centers right now who have been released but because of Covid-19 have to sleep in a place where they can get sick.”
Castro, who released the only real plan for children in foster care during the Democratic primary, was raised by a single mother and grandmother. That experience, along with practicing family law, made him aware of challenges facing vulnerable children. He believes that one obstacle is the perception that the child welfare system is an issue for states. But it’s important for the federal government to support states and make sure federal dollars are allocated properly, he said.
“It’s not an issue with political divisions that lend themselves to soundbites,” said Castro. “A lot of people don’t realize how many kids go through that system.”
The child welfare system is bigger than many people realize. Almost half a million children are in foster care, which means millions of Americans spend time in the child welfare system.
About 1 out of every 20 children will spend some time in foster care, according to research by Christopher Wildeman, professor at Cornell University who helps manage the largest federal government database of foster care statistics. Using a federal database on child abuse, Wildeman and his team found that 37.4 percent of children will be involved in a child welfare investigation by age 18. For Black children—who are disproportionately represented in the system—the figure is more like 50 percent. The federal government does not track children across states. If a child moves from one state to another and encounters the child welfare system in both, they might be counted twice. But that effect is small, he said, and other research backs up his findings.
These numbers matter because the system—a mismatch of state and county departments that contract widely with private and nonprofit agencies—is not working.
Children who enter foster care are more likely to experience addiction, poverty, trauma and incarceration. A Kansas City Star investigation surveyed more than 6,000 incarcerated people in the United States and found that 1 in 4 spent time in foster care. Of people who age out of the foster care system without returning to their families or finding an adoptive home, only 3 percent graduate from college.
But the issue goes largely ignored, especially in presidential politics. Neither of the top Democratic presidential candidates, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, mentioned child welfare on their campaign websites. And amid the hundreds of questions fielded by more than 20 candidates across 12 debate nights, not a single one mentioned foster care.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Steven Olender, a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund. People who have suffered in the system are watching, he said. “And there are questions to candidates like, ‘Who is your most unlikely friend?’ but not asking about 400,000 kids in foster care.”
Even so, this primary election may have been better than most, Olender said. Castro’s plan could get picked up by another candidate. It called for investing more than $10 billion annually in services to prevent children from entering foster care and increased support for youth aging out of the system. It also aimed to tackle the disproportionate number of children of color in the system by increasing the diversity of child welfare workers and family court judges. Black children are more likely to enter foster care, stay there longer, and are less likely to be reunited with their families or adopted.
In February, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked the first question about child poverty during a debate in 20 years. While children from rich and poor families enter the welfare system, poverty can exacerbate stress that leads to abuse and neglect.
Bruce Lesley, the executive director of First Focus, an advocacy organization focused on children’s issues, also noted the question, but said it was nowhere near enough.
“Child poverty is 50 percent higher than adult poverty,” he said. “Child abuse was on this trajectory downward. There were fewer kids in foster care, but now with the opioid epidemic, it’s on the rise. The number of uninsured kids is up. Child suicide is now the leading cause of death for teens. School shootings, infant mortality. Don’t tell me things are good for kids.”
The lack of attention on child welfare in politics and media does not mean the federal government has been entirely absent. Congress boasts an active caucus on foster care in the House of Representatives. Last December, the largest reform to foster care in decades—a change that shifts federal dollars toward prevention services, away from group homes and residential intuitions—was signed into law.
Yet the change, tucked in the middle of a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill, went largely unmarked outside of the child welfare world. Many advocates also point out limitations: While the Family First Act puts more money toward prevention, many such services don’t exist or are already covered by Medicaid. In fact, the law is estimated to represent a net decrease in federal funding for child welfare. Meanwhile, long-standing advocacy priorities still go ignored. For instance, the federal government provides funding for foster care only for children from families with household incomes lower than the poverty level in 1996.
Child welfare was an awkward fit for a primary focused on defeating Trump, whose record on the issue has been mixed. While his cuts to basic social services and harsh immigration policies sent more children into foster care, his administration also passed the Family First Act, which had the backing of many child welfare advocates. And some former foster youth praised particular political appointees under the administration.
David Hall, 23, is a music teacher who entered foster care twice, at ages of 8 and 16. He now works as an advocate for former foster youth in Oklahoma. He was a Sanders supporter and plans to vote Democrat, which he said will help the welfare of children more broadly. But he said that if he were voting just on foster care, he would support Trump, because he’s been impressed with Jerry Milner, the acting commissioner for Children and Families.
McIntyre also plans to vote Democrat, but is worried that a post-election change in leadership could halt recent progress, including a new initiative to expand housing assistance for children aging out of foster care. But he said attacks on the Affordable Care Act under the Trump administration could hurt former foster youth on Medicaid. McIntyre said his perspective is also informed by being gay. Nearly 30 percent of youth in foster identify as LGBT, and McIntyre is appalled by the Trump administration’s willingness to allow some foster care agencies to discriminate against prospective LGBT foster families on religious freedom grounds, a practice that is set to go before the Supreme Court this fall.
But for McIntyre, it’s not just about policy. It’s also about having the right stakeholders.
“I want people who make the rules to talk to us like we are equals instead of using our stories and moving on to the next person,” he said. “People want us to support them, but they don’t want to fight for us.”