By Rep. Kristi Noem
When I was growing up, my parents did something pretty incredible – they opened our home and our family’s heart to a young child in need of a loving support system. As much as we became a foster family to help change the life of a child, he also made an unmistakable impact on our lives. From this experience, I learned about a different kind of compassion, understanding and resilience that I don’t know if I would have otherwise understood – especially from such a young age. Still today, those lessons help inform how I raise my kids and how I serve South Dakota.
May is National Foster Care Month – a time to recognize the unique experiences of those who have been in foster care and to raise awareness about their needs. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the thousands of dedicated foster families, social workers, and service providers who support these young people each and every day.
At any given time, around 400,000 children live in foster care. Each carries with them a unique experience and background – and a much-deserved need for a caring family to support them.
Sadly, life within the foster care system is difficult for many. More than half of foster children experienced at least seven school changes while in the child welfare system. The instability has a tremendous impact on their education, health, and outlook. It also puts these young people at a greater risk of falling into the hands of human traffickers.
Traffickers prey on children who are defenseless, vulnerable, and looking for love and a sense of belonging. In 2015, recognizing that children within the foster care system carry many of the characteristics that traffickers target, we passed legislation to help protect vulnerable young people. We gave states more resources and flexibility when it comes to developing and expanding comprehensive child trafficking deterrence programs. We also provided more resources to train law enforcement officers and social workers on risk factors and intervention tactics. It’s a start.
After transitioning out of foster care, not every child has the tools they need to be successful either. In 2013, more than 23,000 young people “aged out” of the foster care system without a permanent family, and sadly, studies show these young people are much more likely to end up homeless, become involved in crime, or suffer from mental health challenges.
Every child deserves a safe, supportive and permanent family, so we must continue to work toward finding lasting homes for foster youth – either through reunification, kinship care, guardianship, or adoption. That’s at least one of the reasons why I’ve sponsored legislation to help make adoption more affordable for families by ensuring every family can fully benefit from the adoption tax credit.
What’s really incredible to me is that despite the tough lives many children within the foster care system lead, their optimism and their resilience shine strong. In fact, 70 percent of teens in foster care want to attend college. Many have been through so much and still, they have dreams and hopes for the future.
Please keep these resilient young people in your prayers this month, and if you’re interested in becoming more involved, I encourage you to visit www.fosteronesd.org.