The United States of America has long been called the land of opportunity. Take a look around and you’ll see why. There are prospects and opportunities that Americans seize every day in hopes of getting one step closer to their ultimate goal. Millions of our citizens believe that they can become whatever they desire to become. Surrounding ourselves with optimism and symbols of success, we watch television and movies and read books and articles about people who have “made it.”
But in this great nation of ours, there exists a generation of underserved youth — those who are in the foster-care system. In addition to drawing attention to this system, I’d like to challenge our successful professionals and businessowners to help these children. Indeed, I am calling on them for help.
There are hundreds of thousands of these “foster-care” children throughout the United States. A December 2010 article written for 2Impact, titled “Black Youth in Foster Care,” stated that there are more than 513,000 young children in foster care throughout the country and that every two minutes another child enters the system. Nationwide, 40 percent of the foster-care population is African-American. That figure is drastically higher if considered per state. For example, the African-American foster-care population in New York City is 73 percent and in Chicago it is 75 percent. Children enter foster care primarily because of abuse or neglect in the home. Each one of these children deserves the same opportunities to realize his or her potential that other American citizens have. Those who are in a position to help these children should begin to do just that, individually and collaboratively. There are numerous resources that can be tapped, including organizations such as Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA), which consists of volunteers who mentor abused and neglected children. CASA organizations can always use more volunteers or donations. People can also get involved with foster-care agencies throughout the country by volunteering to spend one-on-one time with a child with special needs, or even by going as far as to take children into their home and foster them after complying with the proper state regulations to do so.
It is more than just our obligation to provide the children of our underserved populations the opportunities that they may not have otherwise. Angels Foster Family Network of San Diego, Calif., reported the following startling statistics about children formerly in foster care: 54 percent earn a high-school diploma; 2 percent earn a bachelor’s degree or higher; 84 percent become parents too soon, exposing children to a repeated cycle of neglect and abuse; 51 percent are unemployed; 30 percent have no health insurance; 25 percent experience homelessness; 30 percent receive public assistance. It is a travesty that only 2 percent of children formerly in foster care attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, when many of these children are very bright and have tremendous untapped potential. If we do not support these children and help them to realize their full potential, we may lose generations of innovators, inventors and pioneers.
As the founder, president and CEO of multiple human services agencies in Pennsylvania, I have centered my life’s work on helping foster-care children reach their true potential. Agencies and Americans in general have the ability to help our youth break the vicious cycle in which they are stuck; to show them what’s “on the other side”; to see the special qualities they possess and the available opportunities that they can seize to capitalize on those qualities. We must work together to increase awareness of and support for children who are in the foster care system. Too often the children in foster care feel that they are out of sight and out of mind. We must show them how important they are, even though that takes time, energy and tremendous resources.
I present this challenge as a product of the foster-care system. I spent 13 years in foster homes until I reached 18, the age at which foster children are turned out of the system. Today, I hold three master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. I’m proud of what I have achieved. Sadly, however, I cannot say that the foster-care system helped me to attain my goals. It is important to me that children in this system not only find individuals to look up to, but also that they find realistic role models. Our great nation cannot afford to allow so much untapped potential to fall by the wayside. I urge those who can to volunteer their time to help the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care to be the success they can be.
Nathaniel J. Williams, Ed.D. — “Dr. Nat” to his friends and fans — is the president and CEO of HumanWorks Affiliates Inc., a cluster of eight corporations focused on human services based in Pennsylvania. He is also an adjunct professor, author, international motivational speaker and TV talk-show host.