Foster children face challenges as they age out of system

Foster parent
Frank Martin Gill (R) casts a shadow on the ground as he talks with his six-year-old foster son.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Cris Beam was a high school English teacher in 2000, when a former student came to her desperate for a place to stay. The student, Christina, had moved to a different school where other students threatened to kill her when they found out she was transgender.

Beam let Christina stay on her couch for a couple of nights, which led to Beam's becoming her foster parent and eventually adopting her. This summer, Christina turned 30.

"I don't think I'm old enough to have delivered a baby girl who could hit such a milestone," Beam wrote in The New York Times. "In my case, it's true: I'm only 41. I didn't give birth to my daughter. I became her mother when I was 28 and she was 17. Call it an unplanned delivery, very late term. Christina was one of the 135,000-plus teenagers nationwide in foster care, most of whom are abandoned when they age out of the system between 18 and 21."

Beam's newest book, "To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care," shifts the focus away from her personal story and examines the problems the U.S. foster care system faces.

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Beam said the cycle of foster care can be horrifying and confusing to a young person.

"They'll get pulled from their home at five or six and a van will come to them in the middle of the night, they'll take the kid, the kid is terrified, and they'll be put with a stranger," Beam told NPR. "Imagine being five years old and suddenly being surrounded by strangers. They don't understand what's happening."

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Beam says that the problems foster kids face are so intractable because they are also society's problems. She says it is impossible to address the foster care problem without tackling broader issues of drug abuse, domestic and sexual abuse, and poverty.

"They are a meter of our social problems," Beam says. "[But] not just a meter of how child welfare is failing or succeeding, they're a meter of how we are failing or succeeding as a society."

Beam joins The Daily Circuit along with Michelle Chalmers, co-executive officer at Ampersand Families, to discuss the foster care system and what happens when children age out.