By A. L. Gabner
American foster care youth (FCY) that are not adopted or reunited with their birth families before transitioning to adulthood, exit the child welfare system by way of emancipation (Batsche et al., 2014). This is often referred to as “aging out.” Transition-aged FCY must navigate the uncertainties of impending adulthood without the guidance of a parent or guardian. This paper will investigate the challenges faced by American foster care youth through a Symbolic Interactionist (SI) lens. It will focus specifically on SI’s emphasis on social interaction through symbols, the collective meaning associated with those symbols, and the individual’s extraction of that meaning in forming a sense of self. It will also consider the Symbolic Interactionist view that both humans and their environments are in a constant state of flux, emphasizing the power of free will and possibilities for change.
American Foster Care
The current child welfare and foster care system in the United States is composed of a combination of public and private agencies.
Foster care is often the United States child welfare system’s solution for children who are unable to live with their parents. It is defined as continuous, surrogate care for youth placed away from their family of origin through an agency affiliated with the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (Definitions: Foster Care, 2011). Most sources cite its earliest beginnings in 1853 when the Reverend Charles Loring Brace began putting poor and orphaned children from New York City onto trains, to place them with farming families across the Midwest (Cook, 1995). These trains were known as orphan trains even though many of the children were not orphaned. Brace and his organization, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), also targeted children that were poor, homeless, neglected, or delinquent. Some authors note that the CAS, a Protestant organization, specifically targeted children of Catholics (Nelson, 2020). In response to the CAS’s foster care movement, Catholics started their own with The Foundling Home in 1876 (Cook, 1995; Trattner, 1999). They believed the CAS was stripping Catholic children of their faith. This religious clash stirred the beginnings of a best interest debate (Nelson, 2020).
The child welfare system has changed since 1853, but poverty remains an ever-present theme. In the book To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam (2013), said “…one shining truth in my research was this: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get entangled with child welfare” (p. 262). This was true in 1853 and remains true today.
States must comply with federal requirements, but there is a vast inconsistency in how services are provided to their citizens.
Reverend Brace considered his intervention to be child rescue, but also a cleansing of sorts, to rid the city of childhood crime and delinquency. In his book titled, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them, Brace (1872), referred to his mediation as a “moral and physical disinfectant” (p. 96). America’s child welfare system also remains tethered to religion as over 1,000 current foster care agencies are private organizations. Many of these organizations are faith-based with their own ideas about best interest (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021).
The current child welfare and foster care system in the United States is composed of a combination of public and private agencies. States must comply with federal requirements, but there is a vast inconsistency in how services are provided to their citizens. The haphazard fashion of the federal, state, county, public, private, often faith-based child welfare system in the U.S. could remind one of an Americana patchwork quilt, created from bits of new ideas mended with leftover scraps from the past. It is stitched together with threads of compassion in some places and knots of pure function in others, with each patch representing the cultural norms and legal fibers of its associated state in the union.
Prevalence and Special Populations
There were 423,997 U.S. children reported to be in foster care on September 30, 2019 (Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). Children were placed in out-of-home care due to neglect, parental drug abuse, caretaker inability to cope, physical abuse, housing issues, child behavioral problems, parental incarceration, parental alcohol abuse, abandonment, sexual abuse, child drug abuse, child disabilities, relinquishment, and parental death in that order. Children under one year of age represented the highest rate of abuse. A slight majority of foster care children, 52%, were identified as male in 2019, despite the victimization rate being slightly higher for females.
Aging out youth typically fall between the ages of 18-21 years, a life stage signifying the often-challenging transition from childhood to adulthood.
Black and Hispanic children were overrepresented in the foster care system as compared to U.S. census data of the general population from the same year. Black people made up approximately 12% of the U.S. population according to the census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), while Black children in foster care were represented at almost double that rate at 23% (Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). American Indian/Alaskan Native children held the highest rate of victimization while African American children held the second highest rate. The causes for this disparity are not clear but author Cris Beam (2013), has pointed out a positive correlation between minority poverty rates and their rates of overrepresentation in the child welfare system.
The aging out population of foster care is of special consideration in this paper. This population consisted of 20,445 American youth in 2020 (Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). Aging out youth typically fall between the ages of 18-21 years, a life stage signifying the often-challenging transition from childhood to adulthood. Transition-age FCY frequently lack the social support structures and advocacy traditionally provided by parents and guardians. This absence of support places them at greater risk for lack of access to health care, limited education, legal issues, unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration (Reilly, 2003).
The Impact of Aging Out
Youth preparing to age out of the foster care system have likely experienced significant trauma in their lives. They have been separated from their families, friends, and classmates all while enduring the social stigma associated with being in care (Piel, 2018). According to Colvin et al. (2011), youth who have spent about 28 months in care, experience at least three different placement settings.
With the right support system, FCY could essentially rewrite their self-fulfilling prophecy.
The absence of a consistent and trustworthy primary caregiver often contributes to attachment and intimacy disorders for displaced youth. One former FCY interviewed by Beam (2013) referred to herself as, “like a broken thing” (p. 146) and said she will, “never be able to love in a normal way” (p.148). This recurrent cycle of insecurity, abandonment, and transition is in addition to the initial reasons youth have been placed in foster care. Beam (2013) claims FCY are two times more likely than war veterans to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma of foster care, compounded with additional stressors associated with transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, make aging out youth an especially vulnerable population.
Foster Care Youth and Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic Interactionism (SI) places a heavy emphasis on humanity’s social use of symbols, how they extract meaning from those symbols, and how they ultimately define themselves and others based on that meaning (Plummer, 2012). The father of SI, George Herbert Mead, suggested that humans learn the shared meaning of symbols and how to behave in society through “role performance” (Powell, 2013, p.10). As an individual develops from childhood to adulthood and beyond, they form a sense of self through the playing out of these roles (Mead, 1934/2013). The “self” is a process that grows and evolves relative to its relationships and surroundings. The very nature of a “self” requires an “other” and collectively, individual selves and others form culture, society, and institutions based on a shared understanding of symbols (Plummer, 2012). Plummer calls this “collective behavior” (Images, Histories, Themes section, para. 3).
From a SI perspective, a social worker has the potential to influence the future behavior of FCY by cultivating positive relationships, encouraging self-determination, and helping to lessen the power of negative stigmas.
Viewing foster care through the lens of SI places a great importance on the FCYs’ self- perceptions. Given their traumatic histories, they are likely to absorb more critical views of themselves and their environments. Considering Charles Horton Cooley’s theory of the Looking Glass Self and Robert Merton’s, Self-fulfilling Prophecy1 (Girvin, 2021), FCY could be prone to absorb negative stigmas placed on them by society. This may elicit feelings of shame and ultimately send them on a harmful life trajectory. Society tends to feel pity for FCY and view them as damaged, unwanted, lost, and even dangerous. If aging out FCY do indeed adopt these views of themselves, it could severely damage their developing sense of self. Based on statistics, one could argue the typical outcomes for American FCY suggest an alignment with these theories.
Social Work Values and SI
The trauma of foster care, compounded with additional stressors associated with transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, make aging out youth an especially vulnerable population.
Conversely, SI could give one working with this population a sense of hope for better outcomes. SI encompasses the social work principles that place value on the “importance of human relationships” (p.6) and honors the “dignity and worth of a person” (p.5) (National Association of Social Workers, 2017). A professional working with youth in the foster care system can help them to uncover their internal sense of self and work with them to pinpoint how much of it has been placed there by society. It is important to remember that SI also assumes everything is in a constant state of flux, from individual human beings to society at large. SI’s emphasis on change, free will, and the self as a process, allows professionals to work with FCY on the meaning they extract from their past relationships with other individuals, society, and societal institutions such as the child welfare system. SI makes space to foster self- determination, develop healthier relationships, create new roles and in a sense, “flip the script” to help build a more positive sense of self and optimism for the future. From a SI perspective, a social worker has the potential to influence the future behavior of FCY by cultivating positive relationships, encouraging self-determination, and helping to lessen the power of negative stigmas. With the right support system, FCY could essentially rewrite their self-fulfilling prophecy.
The meaning associated with childhood has been inconsistent throughout history. The value placed on childhood has evolved based on both philosophical shifts and societal needs. According to The Law Dictionary (2011), the word “child” has two legal definitions. In domestic relations, it is used strictly in association to the child’s parent and is referenced as “son” or “daughter” to define descent and distribution. In laws relating to child welfare however, it is used to mean the opposite of adult, specifically the young of the human species and without reference to descent or distinction of sex. The first definition is reminiscent of the way children were viewed in the United States from the Colonial Period into the mid 19th century. The second definition, however, carries a more modern tone as it humanizes and places value on the child without regard to their age or gender. One could argue that these two legal definitions of child illustrate the history of child welfare in America from then to now, at least for advantaged children.
According to SI principles, society and its institutions have the capacity to evolve; and its people have the ability to solve social problems through shared definitions and understanding.
Child welfare in the U.S. has consistently demonstrated unequal treatment of groups based on race, sex, class, religion, geography, and disabilities throughout its history (Trattner, 1999). To end this disparity, it is important for American society to apply the humanizing definition of child equally to all children. According to SI principles, society and its institutions have the capacity to evolve; and its people have the ability to solve social problems through shared definitions and understanding. Considering this, the first step to solving difficulties associated with the American foster care system may be to investigate the system’s ties to poverty, racism, and religion. A collective definition of “best interest,” absent of bias and religious preference, may help to balance the scales for many FCY. Likewise, a shared understanding of aging out may help to ensure transition-age youth are provided adequate support until they can successfully demonstrate self-sufficiency.
SI is often considered a micro practice theory2 as it is concerned with the individual’s interpretation of meaning and development of the self. However, from a social work perspective, its focus on relationships and environments easily falls within the mezzo practice realm as well. One could further argue that SI’s emphasis on the collective ability to change policies and institutions through shared understanding builds a solid bridge to successful macro practice. The macro social worker utilizing the theoretical framework of SI, could work to reform American foster care by influencing society’s shared meanings and definitions. Beam (2013) said FCY are the “most vulnerable members of society” (p. xii). If Americans can collectively understand that, perhaps there is hope for positive change.
1See Cooley (1902) and Merton (1948) for more information.
2Micro-level social work practice consists of direct work with clients and families. Mezzo-level practice involves work with less intimate systems closely affiliated with clients. Macro-level work focuses on larger organizations, institutions, and policy (Hepworth et al., 2017).
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A. L. Gabner is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program.