Almost 500,000 children aged infant through 21 years old. That is the number of children in foster care in the United States any day of the week. This number seems impossible to me, but there it is. What is also eye-opening is the percentage of those in foster care that have a diagnosed Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Around 70 percent of children in foster care in the United States are affected by an FASD. This percentage is conservative because FASD is rarely diagnosed until later in life.

A quick synopsis on FASDS is irreversible brain damage done to a child in utero when someone drinks alcohol during pregnancy. There is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. 

One common reason for children being placed into foster care is addiction in the home. This course of events plays into the percentage of those in the system with an FASD. In my situation, I was placed in a foster home after birth in New Jersey. I was placed because my birth mom could not care for me (perhaps in association with an addiction). I was also a statistic of those kids with an unknown diagnosis. My birth mom told the adoption agency she drank, but I was never tested for Fetal Alcohol until I was 34 years old and had struggled most of those years with social quirks and academia. 

The foster care system gives children a place to stay while their parents either work toward rehabilitation ordered by a judge or they become eligible for adoption. Some foster parents are trained at length about FASD, and others are given a quick tutorial. Foster care training is not perfect. 

Some foster parents agree that they have learned many things later on that foster care training classes and their social worker did not teach them. Learning how to parent a foster child who has an FASD or is suspected of having one can add another challenging layer to parenting. There is lots of trial and error. One child with an FASD may not respond the same as another child to the same situation. Those with an FASD love structure and stability. We love to know what is coming next. Foster care can be a roller coaster, and sometimes life changes drastically from one day to the next: another foster child may come into the home, a social worker may arrive for an unannounced visit, or family dynamics may shift. These events can cause stress for those kids with FASD.

One of the characteristics of those with an FASD is that actual age is usually twice that of emotional age. Our brains are just not fully developed, especially the frontal lobe where all of the executive functioning tasks happen. So, I started thinking last year about foster kids being emancipated from foster care (after the age of 18 in most states). While I think 18 is young to be out on your own to find your way, think about all of those with an FASD in the system. So, those kids are 18 years old, but emotionally? That is 10 years old. Check out these numbers:

More than 23,000 children will age out of the U.S. foster care system every year.

After reaching the age of 18, 20 percent of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.

Fifty percent of former foster youth who age out of the system will be unemployed by the age of 24

I struggle so much to wrap my head around these numbers. When you add in the amount of those children that have FASD–irreversible brain damage–these numbers actually make sense. It makes my heart hurt. At 10, we are not looking for a job and an apartment. Heck, we are just learning about money in school! I know many states have assistance to help these foster kids who have just aged out. Yet, how many of these programs account for those with an FASD? 

Many of us need step-by-step directions, visuals, and we need things told to us multiple times. Even then, the next day we may not remember anything we had learned. An hour later, we may forget entirely. There are so many children in foster care and so many rules and regulations that have to be followed. We need time though. We need patience. Those two things are far and few between sometimes when it comes to government-run programs such as foster care. 

I have often heard, and often said myself, “The system is so broken.” Parts of it need improvement, but I don’t know if I would use the term broken. The dictionary definition of broken is, “having been fractured or damaged and no longer in one piece or in working order.” Foster Care is still a working system. Parts of it are damaged—but repairable. I think funding is needed in foster care, especially in the education component of all those involved. Educating foster care employees about FASD and other disorders that are prevalent in foster care and giving in-depth training and resources on these topics is needed. 

I think if we can educate about FASD and other disorders, there will be a ripple effect on the decrease in the percentage of those in foster care that end up homeless and in the criminal justice system. I know this is a big ask, but all it takes is one first step forward. I will be one of those steps forward. Who wants to come with me?