By NANCY BUCKNER
Special to Atmore News
Alabamians have proven their resilience throughout the past year. As our state took precautions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, we adjusted to changed surroundings, coped with being separated from loved ones and faced growing uncertainty about the future.
Sadly, these hardships are nothing new for 423,000 children in foster care across the country. For many of them – including over 6,000 in Alabama – those same challenges will remain even as other residents of our state and country regain a sense of normalcy.
May is National Foster Care Month, a time to celebrate these resilient children during a difficult chapter in their young lives. It is also a chance to show our gratitude to the large, extended family of advocates, social workers and foster parents, who go to tremendous lengths to make sure no foster child has to brave these struggles alone.
These children have already endured a lifetime’s worth of trauma and hardship. They have suffered severe abuse, neglect, inadequate housing and even abandonment. All too often, drugs are a root cause – over 47 percent of children who entered Alabama’s foster care system last year did so because a parent’s drug use created unsafe living conditions.
The physical and emotional scars these children bear can heal only in a safe and loving environment. The extraordinary men and women who serve as foster parents rise to meet this need by opening their homes to vulnerable children and by lifting them up with love and support. While some children stay only a few days until they can be placed with a relative, others are embraced as permanent family members. I am proud to report that our department recorded a record 814 adoptions from foster care in 2020, including many adoptions by foster parents; and approximately 70 percent returned to parents and other relatives.
Permanence is always our priority, whether through adoption, placement with a relative or a safe return to parents. Unfortunately, some do not find permanent families by the time they age out of foster care, around ages 19 or 21 in Alabama. The odds are stacked against these young adults. Only half of the 23,000 youths who age out of foster care each year in the United States find gainful employment by age 24. Less than 3 percent ever earn a college degree. Many fall into homelessness the day they exit foster care.
Shifting the odds in their favor must be a priority for our state. This begins with a focus on permanent placement and expanded access to services and educational programs. These children and young adults will play an important role in the future of Alabama. It is up to all of us to create a safe environment where they can thrive. They have endured unimaginable hardship early in life, but they have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. They deserve a bright future.
As we celebrate foster children this month, I encourage you to contribute your time and talents to the cause. That could be something as simple as volunteering with our nonprofit partners – or as life-changing as fostering a child.
Learn more about foster care in Alabama at dhr.alabama.gov/foster-care or by contacting a local county DHR office.
Nancy Buckner is Commissioner, Alabama Department of Human Resources.
[This column was received by Atmore News Monday, May 24.]