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Dave Newell: Journeys through foster care

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Mindland Voices, Omaha World-HeraldDave-4298
August 23, 2017

As a social worker and adoptive parent, I am often asked about the foster care system, foster kids and adoption. Is “The System” as terrible as what people hear about in the news?

I invariably start my answer with, “It’s complicated.”

I strongly believe that prevention is paramount to the safety, health and well-being of every child. In a perfect world, abuse and neglect wouldn’t exist, and there would be no need for foster care or child welfare systems. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so we must begin with the reality that some families need help.

About 5,000 children a year go through the child welfare system in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, with about 1,500 kids in foster care on any given day. Ninety-two percent of local foster kids are living in family-based care, and of these, 61 percent are living with relatives or adults who are known and loved by them.

While improvements have occurred within Nebraska’s child welfare system, it is still far from perfect. Children of color are removed from their families at significantly higher rates than Caucasian children, with Native Americans and African-Americans being the most over-represented groups in proportion to the general population.

About 25 percent of kids get “stuck” in foster care for two years or longer. The longer they linger in care, the greater their risk of developing emotional, developmental and health challenges. While most kids in foster care are safe, there are adult predators who target some for such crimes as human trafficking.

Even if a perfect foster care system could be created, it would still be traumatic for the children and families who go through it. There is no painless way of separating children from their families.

Foster kids and their families find themselves involuntarily flung into a system that expects them to change, even when it is often the system that needs to change to better meet their needs. At times, some professionals experience burnout and “toxic stress” that impairs their ability to empathize and numbs them to the painful process that kids and families are experiencing.

Most foster families and professionals are well-intentioned people, but unfortunately there is a small percentage of adults who violate the trust placed in them, and these tragedies, whether child deaths or horrific abuse, are heartbreaking when they occur.

The actions of a few cast a negative shadow over all foster parents and child welfare professionals, making it even more challenging to find people willing to take up those vital roles.

This year, Project Everlast, an initiative committed to providing resources and support to those “aging out” of the foster care system, partnered with the Rose Theater and nationally known performer and activist Daniel Beaty as part of a community engagement series to address the complex issues of the foster care system. Beaty facilitated workshops with current and former foster youths, foster parents and service workers to tell their stories and share their experiences with the foster care system.

The stories they shared revealed the challenges faced within the system by both youths and adults and the long-term effects that foster care can have on a person’s life. The transcripts from these workshops were used to create a script for a play, which will be performed Friday through Sunday by a professional cast of actors at the Rose Theater. Complimentary tickets are still available through Vic Gutman & Associates. Contact Laura at 402-345-5401, ext. 109 to reserve seats.

I remain optimistic about our ability to move Nebraska’s child welfare system to one that will both protect children and strengthen families. We must design systems of care that decrease the frequency of trauma inflicted when children are removed and isolated from the people and communities they love most.

My hope is that we will continue to work toward building a system that keeps kids safe and provides hope and healing for all of Nebraska’s children and families.

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