The news of the relationship between foster care and the sex trade has made its way to the Capitol. In recent testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee former foster child, Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, cogently outlined the multiple ways in which the structure and function of the child welfare system create a smooth pathway from foster care to the sex trade.
Not least of these is the fact that foster children generate income for the homes in which they reside. Whether the money that follows a foster child is sufficient to cover the costs of her stay in the foster home is another question for another time. The fact is that adults are paid to care for foster children.
As Pettigrew points out, from the perspective of the child, there may not be a significant difference between being the source of income for a foster parent and the source of income for a pimp. When children’s worth is measured in dollars by their caregivers they have no other way of gauging self-worth.
Consequently, many foster children grow up without an inherent sense that they are worthy of care, respect, and unconditional love—period—the end.
Foster children who are valued for the money attached to them by the child welfare system are, fundamentally, interchangeable. Thankfully there are many foster parents who care much about the children and less about the money, but for those who take in children primarily for financial reasons, keeping the designated beds filled matters much more than who is occupying them or for how long. In these cases, children learn that their best strategy may be just to “shut up,” in the hope that they will at least keep the roof over their heads.
Unlike children raised in their biological families, there may be no single person in the life of a foster child who is not paid to care for her—no adults who are there just because they care. When foster youth do encounter adults who want to have a relationship with them without the strings of money attached they are often terrified of what that means. Relationships based on care alone leave the parties vulnerable to loss in a way that financially supported relationships do not. It happens often that, just when foster youth are feeling closer to their therapist, they announce: “You don’t care about me. You’re just seeing me for the money.” When therapists who are volunteering through A Home Within respond, “No. I don’t get paid for this. I do it because I care,” they
send a powerful message to young people who have come to see themselves as no more than a meal ticket for foster parents, caseworkers, attorneys, tutors and coaches—in short, an entire system of adults who benefit financially from their misfortune.
Pettigrew ends her testimony with a plea for a system that would appoint “one person who will follow them throughout placement changes whether it be a CASA or a mentor, these youth should have a constant ally throughout their time in care and this person should also be available whether or not a youth is in placement.” We couldn’t agree more. The relationships with adults who volunteer with foster youth are not constrained by finances or placement changes. The therapists who offer weekly pro bono psychotherapy through A Home Within pledge
to maintain the relationship “for as long as it takes.” Many of the children and youth have stayed in touch with their therapists for over ten years, long after the weekly therapy drew to a close.
All children need at least one stable relationship with a caring adult.
In every community there is a need for CASAs, who can advocate for foster youth, and for mentors who can help them navigate the world of school or sports or work, and for therapists who can help them reflect on their experiences and learn about themselves.
By Toni Heineman