Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Stop Giving Stuff to Foster Kids

     We have just passed the biggest giving time of the year.  The gifts piled up and the returns are on their way.  Charities are counting their donations and we are counting our tax deductions.  And, the organizations that help poor families, homeless people, and underprivileged children are taking a deep breath after distributing the food, clothes, and toys dropped off during the holiday season.  Now the commercials appear with beautiful faces representing foster children manipulating us into sending them coats for the winter.  You're not helping a foster child, you're hurting one.  Don't do it.
      Not only are direct gifts of goods the least efficient and effective way of helping foster youth, it is demeaning and damaging to their development and relationships.  First, it is important to specify that foster children do not belong to the categories of homeless or poor.  They are dependents of the court which is responsible for their care having removed custody from parents because of abuse or neglect.  Child Welfare Services, funded by local, state, and federal taxes, reimburses foster parents and group homes for the care of children.  These payments range from about $450 to $9000 per month depending on the age of the child and particularly the level of supervision required for the child.  Some of these payments are recouped from the parents.  The money is meant to cover the cost of caring for the child which includes food, clothes, and shelter. So, if the reimbursement rate accurately reflects the cost of caring for a child, no foster child should be going without necessities.  The fact that they might should be of concern for auditors and taxpayers.
     Yet for-profit companies and non-profit agencies continue spending time and money asking the public for donations of winter coats, pajamas, school supplies, and toys.  It makes us feel better and salves our consciences to spend the time to buy that Transformer figure or those Frozen pajamas to drop in the bin at the store.  As if we can decided what a stranger's child needs or wants.  We have warm thoughts and even experiences of handing those gifts to those poor children represented in the commercials.  We can walk away feeling a lot better about ourselves.  We are not thinking about the damage we are doing.  The company or agency will report its huge charitable effort and how much it is needed and appreciated.  It's a big public relations boon to see smiling children shopping with famous football players on television.  And, yes, foster parents and those representing children sign up for the gifts and accept them with glee.  This is the "give a man a fish" kind of metaphor.  When we give the kid a coat, we take away the experience of shopping for the coat of their choice.  The regular kid down the block goes with their parent not a social worker or celebrity.
     Having been removed from their parents' care through no fault of their own, foster children have the right to have their needs met.  They are not charity cases who should be expected to appreciate their care or to be grateful to strangers for giving them stuff.  We want foster children to have as normal a life as possible given their less than normal circumstances.  No regular child receives gifts from strangers for which they are expected to be thankful.  Would you force your child to unwrap a gift from a stranger "just for you" and expect them to write a thank you note?  That's what we do to foster children.  Regular children receive gifts from their parents and family members.  Regular children are not expected to accept the Ninja Turtle backpack or the Hello Kitty blanket that a stranger dropped in a bin at a mattress store.  Regular children are given an allowance or a budget by their parents to shop and buy the necessities of their or their parents' choice, whether the allowance or budget covers Macy's or Target or the local thrift shop or Goodwill.  This conveys the respect of their personal choices and teaches that stuff does not come from people with whom they have no connection.  Who can forgive a foster child whose belongings have been moved in trash bags or lost entirely between homes if they seem to have no appreciation for their belongings and expect stuff to just appear on demand.
     In the meantime, businesses that specialize in managing inventory feel they have the expertise to do social services and agencies that specialize in social services feel forced to manage inventory.  Sometimes that inventory includes that sweatshirt you outgrew, the blanket frayed at the corner, or the half-used soap on a rope.  Yes, foster child, be grateful for someone else's trash because you are a treasure.  There is everything good about reusing and recycling, but let it be a choice.  The homeless person on the street has every right to accept or reject your offering.  A foster child may gladly take free stuff without realizing the respect stolen from them in the process.  The responsible adults are complicit in this further victimization. So, what to do instead?  It feels good to give. First, leave the stuff at the store where they know how to handle it.  Second, if you must give, give cash to foster parents to reinforce their central role as provider for the child.  Third, give through your taxes by supporting increases in the reimbursement rates for foster parents.  Finally, consider either supporting a foster parent by giving them a night out or a day off or becoming a foster parent yourself.