When Tenaja Jordan came out to her parents at 17 years old, they kicked her out of their home. As a teenager, she was still considered a child in the eyes of the state, and was immediately placed into New York City's child welfare system.
Following the trauma of the situation, one question remained on Jordan's mind: Where was she going to live?
Jordan made her needs clear to child welfare workers: She didn't want to live on Staten Island or with a homophobic guardian. But that's exactly where she ended up.
"Her first words to me were, 'Did any of those lesbians at the children's center hit on you?'" Jordan tells Mashable about her guardian. "ACS put me exactly where I didn't want to be."
Jordan, now an adult who has worked in the foster care system herself, isn't unique in her struggle to navigate child welfare. Foster care has long been criticized for failing to meet the needs of children, from allowing kids to age out of the system without safety nets in place, to struggling to adequately support youth and families.
Advocates like Jordan say there's a lot wrong with a system that desperately needs to get it right.
According to the latest statistics available, as of September 2014, more than 415,000 children and teens were in the foster care system at any given time. These young people live in temporary housing provided by the state, are cared for by relatives or unrelated foster parents, or are placed in other residential facilities like group homes. And they're constantly frustrated with a system that feels unmanageable.
But getting to the root of frustration with child welfare systems isn't easy. Advocates say there are a lot of complicated and intertwining factors that make foster care ultimately unsuccessful for many who enter the system.
Consider this a critical starting point to reframe how we think of child welfare. Here are six problems advocates say hinder foster care in the U.S., and what you can do to make a change.
More than 56,000 children in child welfare systems are living in group settings -- and advocates say that number is far too high. Many argue children have more success when placed in family settings from the start, and that defaulting to group settings is a troubling practice.
"We believe all kids who have to be removed from their families should be placed with other families," Tracey Feild, director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, tells Mashable. "That’s the most important criterion for placement -- or it should be."
Aside lacking in adequate support for children in care, group homes also make little financial sense. Group settings are about seven to 10 times more expensive per child than placement with a family.
But, Feild admits, there's one major obstacle when it comes to getting children out of group care: There are rarely enough foster families to achieve that goal.
Denise Goodman, a child welfare professional and consultant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, adds that there's often a dependency on group homes for teenagers in particular, because "not enough people want to step up for teens."
What you can do to help: Become a foster parent, if the new role fits your life and your family.
"What we want is to stabilize youth in one family -- and have that family understand what they are going through, and address and meet their needs,” Feild says.
To learn more about the process to become a foster parent, state-by-state, visit here.
When children, especially teens, are placed into group homes, they're denied the ability to connect with a permanent, adoptive family. Without those connections, they're likely to age out of the system without a supportive network in place.
"At a certain point, a decision is made that a child is old enough that we can let them age out," Feild says. "Now, we are realizing that that’s a mistake."
And the realities of aging out of the system are devastating for youth. One in five young people who age out of the system will become homeless. One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care. And it's estimated that more than 40% of youth who age out won’t complete high school.
"The best independent living, transitional support teens in foster care can have is a family," Goodman says. "There wasn't a whole bunch of us who were truly ready to be 100% on our own at 18."
Goodman adds that many jurisdictions have recently extended foster care beyond age 18 to age 21, because states are starting to understand that young adults are in need of much more support from caregivers and case workers.
"Even kids who have grown up with families and have gone to college -- very few can be independent at 21," Feild says. "And we expect these kids to go off and succeed on their own? It's unlikely and unfair to think that's going to happen."
What you can do to help: Become a mentor for foster youth in your community -- and be a vocal advocate for stronger transitional measures for young adults aging out.
"You need a connection to an adult that is going to be there for you," Jordan says. "Young adults need that kind of mentorship and support."
To become a mentor, reach out to agencies in your state or local families in your community that could use support. To learn more about the challenges facing young adults aging out of the system, read first-person accounts of the crisis here.
Guardians need more support, too, which Feild says is essential for foster parents to work through any difficulties they may experience.
"They are often taking kids who have experienced trauma in their early years," she says. "They have to be trained about what's going on in a child's life, and how to best address those concerns."
Though advocates say family placement is ideal over group homes, children and teens in the system -- especially those who are LGBTQ -- are often reluctant to leave congregate care because many foster care families can't meet their needs the way group care workers can.
With almost half of all children in the child welfare system living in foster homes with non-relatives, Feild says early support while families are forming relationships is especially key to curbing disruptions in placement. And because it's common for foster kids to hop from placement to placement, addressing that trend through child and parental support is crucial.
What you can do to help: Support foster families in your community in big and small ways -- tutor, babysit or simply ask how you can make their lives a little easier. Goodman says there needs to be an "all hands on deck" mentality to support foster families, especially since not every family can be a foster family.
"An entire community needs to have a positive attitude toward people who do this difficult, challenging but ultimately rewarding work of becoming foster parents," she says.
Organizations like the National Foster Parent Association recruit, train and support foster parents in a more structured manner. You can donate to its efforts here.
We often talk about adoption or aging out as the only two options after foster care, but reunification with a parent is an option often overlooked. It's actually common, with about half of all youth who leave foster care becoming reunited with their parents.
But, advocates say, the system as a whole often ignores reunification as a viable option when thinking about a young person's future. Feild says that's a major misstep, especially because children who are removed from their families don’t necessarily want to be.
For these youth, Goodman adds, talking about foster care with reunification in mind is essential.
"We aren't 'giving this child the gift of a family'; this child has a family,” Goodman says. "Family needs to be part of the conversation. We need to be saying, 'Lend a helping hand to children and their families by becoming a foster parent.'"
What you can do to help: Reframe how you talk and think about foster care. Don't assume parents who have children taken away are forever unable to provide for those children.
Abuse or neglect aren't always the issues at hand. The realities of mass incarceration for minor convictions -- especially for black families -- may place a child out of parental care, or a family struggling financially may temporarily lose the ability to take care of their children.
There are many reasons for lapses in the ability to care for a child that can be solved, allowing families to move forward. Let reunification become one of the end goals you talk about when speaking about foster care, not just adoption or aging out.
For many children in the foster care system, their frustrations stem from one main source: They feel their voices go unheard.
"I do think that sometimes we aren't very good at listening to kids or engaging with kids," Goodman says. "Some people just don't value the youth voice -- and I think we should."
Sometimes, that voice can be angry or frustrated, leading adults to cut off communication and leave a child's needs unmet, simply because they don't like how they're being articulated. But both Goodman and Feild agree that anger, especially when dealing with a complex foster care system and past trauma, is understandable.
"You've got kids who have had terrible things happen to them -- so bad that they've had to be removed from their families," Feild says. "They have a lot going on and a lot to deal with, along with growing up and becoming independent."
What you can do to help: Be someone who listens to children and teens in foster care -- and encourage others to do the same. An adult advocating for an unheard child acts as an amplifier for that child's needs.
Some children may feel frustrated with the foster care system because they're constantly under surveillance. There are often a lot of players in the lives of foster children: guardians, advocates, social workers, courts and more.
"You have to go through 12 layers of people to find the right person to talk to about something," Feild says. "You are bound by the rules of the system -- and they are not the normal rules a parent would have for a child."
Feild says seemingly normal tasks for foster children and teens, like getting a driver's license or playing on a sports team, require extensive approval and paperwork. As a result, it's easy for children to feel like their lives are impossible to navigate.
"That's a lot of people controlling your life and making decisions for you," she says. "At least in a biological or adoptive family, you can have a dialogue about that."
And for young people in foster care to assert themselves against these rules can be especially tricky. It often involves a lot of risk.
"[In the foster care system], there's no room for error. If I'm a teenager and I make a stupid mistake, my foster parents may say to an agency, 'Hey, move this kid,'" Feild says.
What you can do to help: Become a court-appointed special advocate for foster youth, if the new role fits your life. A special advocate in the courts ensures foster youth are getting all their legal needs met by getting to know those children and their situations, and then vocalizing their opinions of a positive and sensitive care plan in the courts.
To learn more about how to become a volunteer, visit here.
To learn more about youth rights within the system, start with this breakdown.