Broken foster care system may be contributing to homelessness crisis

The issue of homelessness has been pervasive in the Bay Area for far too long. Have you ever stopped to take a close look at people living in the streets and consider how this happened and where their families are? A lot has been written about the lack of affordable housing, overpopulated homeless shelters and prevalence of mental illness in the homeless population. A breakdown in family, as well as challenges that plague the system responsible for youth who cannot be safely cared for by family, is another contributing factor to homelessness we must not overlook.

Recent statistics indicate there were more than 56,000 youth in California who lived in foster care in 2014. Of these children, more than 14,000 were waiting to be adopted. Although more than 5,000 children were adopted from the child welfare system in California in 2014, we can see many more are still in need of a permanent home. For youth who exit foster care without having been adopted, the outcomes are dire. These young people are more likely to flounder in society, with higher rates of homelessness and unemployment, compared to their peers who are adopted.

Adoption and foster care adoption experiences vary in many ways; yet, there are also shared connections among this diverse group. Many times, individuals perceive adoption as a niche issue. But according to a survey commissioned by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, the majority of Americans surveyed have a family member or friend who has adopted or is adopted themselves. Most importantly, the majority of Americans surveyed rank regulation of adoption and foster care high on a list of pressing social issues.

Critical changes are necessary so no young person is left alone at a time in their life when guidance is needed the most. Ultimately, if we are going to alleviate the challenges that occur when strengthening family is not prioritized, we must engage in a new dialogue about adoption, foster care adoption and what it means to be family.

In order to create meaningful change, we first must start with a new conversation that reflects on the modern experience in adoption and foster care adoption. In doing this, we realize adoption is a lifelong transformation. Yet too often, it is treated as a one-time transaction. Considering adoption and foster care in a transactional manner removes the humanity from this experience and leaves children and families without the support they need to thrive.

Within the foster care experience, youth who do not have family support when they age out of foster care face significant challenges. Research conducted by a variety of sources over the past 10 years demonstrates housing instability is a significant problem for many emancipated youth, with some studies indicating that by their mid 20s, more than 30 percent of this population will have experienced homelessness.

DAI’s Let’s Adopt Reform initiative is committed to driving a new conversation about adoption and foster care adoption, actively listening to community voices, and understanding the interplay with other systems and leveraging these connections to develop innovative solutions. Our national town hall tour has set the stage for a conversation that needs to occur in order for us to create solutions that best support and strengthen families and shine a light on complex issues that are not always obvious. At one recent town hall in San Francisco, we explored the connection between foster care and homelessness with our panel and audience. Nathan Ross, a panelist and former foster youth, shared his commitment to ensuring no person ever ages out of foster care with the threat of becoming homeless.

Strong families build strong communities, and strong communities make a better world for all of us. We hope you join DAI as we strive to elevate the dialogue and stimulate positive change. Every voice matters and you can make a difference by
adding yours to this new conversation. Learn more at

April Dinwoodie is chief executive of The Donaldson Adoption Institute.

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