Most people are only one or two personal connections from a foster child but don't know it. Statistically, there is one foster child for every classroom in America, which means that in schools and out, you have seen them around. They go to school with your children and grandchildren, are part of scout packs and troops, and you can often meet them at church or out to dinner with their foster families. In the best cases, you won't recognize them as fostered because they'll be with loving, inclusive families. But sometimes you can tell because a child needs help and at that point it doesn't matter who you are to them if you are in a position to help.
Know Their Rights
If you have found yourself acquainted with a foster child and suspect that their rights are not being respected, your first step is to get educated. Most people don't know the rights of foster children because they don't need to, but it's incredibly important to each and every foster child. The laws vary by state, but there are about twenty rights that are consistent across the country. Some of them relate to their rights to basic needs, while others are about their ability to visit siblings and keep their identities. To be fully informed, look up the rules for your state, but here's a few summarized to give you a good idea:
The right to a written list of their rights and knowledge of how to file a complaint if rights are violated
To live and eat cleanly and healthily, with appropriate respect to personal space and belongings
To keep their personal belongings with them safely
To be placed with siblings when possible, or to be allowed and helped to see them including transportation
To receive medical, dental, visual medical care, and the right to refuse non-prescription medicines and vitamins.
To privacy, private phone calls, and unopened mail sent and received
Unrestricted access to their case worker and attorney, and to be told about changes in their plan
To practice personal religion and culture, even when separate from foster family culture
To have a personal life plan, and after about 12 years old, to speak to a judge about it.
Know Their Caretakers
Each foster child has several people in their lives who are there to help. Once you've done some research and are reasonably sure there is a violation or signs of abuse, try to get an idea of their situation. When neglect happens, it's not always intentional on anyone's part. The foster system is stretched thin and unfortunately, sometimes mistakes are made and children slip through the cracks. A family, for instance, may not realize they are repressing a child's religious or cultural identity by enthusiastically sharing their own. Other times, especially with children in a large foster family or a group home, you may be the first person to notice that the child is in need. Approach the issue with understanding, and talk to the child about how they feel about the situation.
Who You Should Talk To
Start at the beginning: take care of that first right whenever you have a moment with the child to go over the list. Print out the exact list of foster child rights for your state and help the child understand their them. The younger the child, the less likely it is that they had a previous understanding even if it was explained before. If the foster family appears to be good-natured but unaware of the problem, it is most likely safe to approach them, but remember to do so with delicacy. You are talking about their home and a member of their family, albeit a temporary one. If you think there might be some risk of retribution on the child for your actions, approach their social worker instead.
It's an unfortunate fact that there are more foster children than there are available and qualified people to help them. With a system that stressed, they can actually use every helping hand that's willing to pitch in. If or when you notice that a foster child who needs extra support, whether in your church, workplace, in a public park, or coming home to play with your kids, don't be afraid to offer your assistance. Just remember to do so carefully and with respect to everyone involved. And if you are truly moved to, and are able to help, consider registering your home for foster care.
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com