Child Welfare: Gambling on the Lives of Little Ones

We launched a writing contest to see what former foster youth had to say about their time in care or their experiences with the justice system. The contest gave youth the opportunity to write on one of three themes: “What does home mean to you?” “What’s one thing the child welfare or juvenile justice system could have done to help you but didn’t?” and “How has the criminal justice and/or correctional system impacted your family and you personally?” Here is the finalist essay for the “fixing child welfare” category.

I am part of the 2 percent who graduate with a degree out of the 9 percent of foster youth who attend a four-year university. Did I manage this because all the wrongs in my life were resolved by people around me? No. I’ve come to realize that the most supportive people in my life were not people at all, they were a set of laws, acts and policies. Now, as a social worker, I get to see exactly how the administration of those services has affected my life.

I got lucky in so many ways, and that is exactly why the child welfare system failed me. Support without discrimination must come to those who have no supports — once the need has been determined, support must be given. If the child welfare system stepped into my life to act as the support system I did not have, it should have done so confidently and with aim. A parent is going to do everything in their power to guarantee their kid has what they need. A child’s welfare is not supposed to be left up to chance.

You know what the child welfare system did not do for me? It did not wrap around me. I did not feel the warm embrace of its arms. And it doesn’t have to have any arms or hands, so I never even received a singular pat on the back from it. My life is not the clothes on my back, the roof over my head, or the bed I sleep in at night, but often that’s what it felt like — just the basics.

I was placed into foster care at 5 years old and I remained until I was 18. I was lucky enough to be in California when Assembly Bill 12 passed, bringing about extended foster care rights and I was allowed to act as my own foster parent until the age of 21. I was paid as if I were my own foster parent so long as I was either in school or working part time and meeting with my social worker once a month.

Lino Pena Martinez

Supervised visits, domestic violence, substance abuse, neglect, long-term absence and chaos were all commonplace throughout my life, but it was my transition into adulthood that was the most difficult for me to manage. One of the biggest concerns was healthcare.

When I was a few months away from emancipating, I was in a stable enough situation to present as if I no longer needed the foster care system and its services. Naturally, the adoption conversation was brought to the table, but I had already grown jaded to the notion of wanting a family of my own; after all, I only had a few months left and I would move away for college anyway.

I had no clue that I was now going to be considered an “emancipated foster youth.” This would later make me eligible for health insurance until 26 underneath the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which took effect in 2014, two years after my emancipation. In order to qualify I had to be a ward of the court on my 18th birthday and enrolled in Medicaid while in foster care. According to the law, I would be now allowed to stay on my “parent’s” health insurance until the age of 26 – and the government was my parent.

Nearly 60 percent of foster youth suffer from a chronic medical condition and almost 25 percent suffer from three or more chronic health conditions. Foster youth not only have many health conditions, they are also very poorly insured. Pile this on top of the sporadic levels of permanency we experience as support systems come and go and outcomes are guaranteed to be poor. If we improve outcomes, we decrease the dependence on the social welfare system down the line — in some sense, it’s a bipartisan ideal in which the fiscals and the social aspects align perfectly. So, let me show you a little more about how this unfurled in my life.

It’s fortunate that I chose not to be adopted, because chaos struck during those years just after emancipation, and my entire foster family fractured into pieces, resulting in the ostracization of some of us foster youth from the household. But even if that hadn’t happened, there are limitations on employee health benefits, and their biological kids would take coverage priority. If they had wanted to cover us all under their health insurance, they would have had to downgrade to a cheaper plan, which in some ways penalizes a foster parent for taking in a foster youth. In turn that makes becoming a foster parent less desirable, which is a whole issue on its own.

Beyond this, when I moved to another state in 2016, I discovered that roughly 14 states were extending the Medicaid until 26 benefit to foster youth; I was lucky enough to move to one of those states. I think it’s safe to say that the intent behind the ACA was to make health insurance accessible to me as a member of a vulnerable demographic, impacting my reliance on social welfare down the line. If I had moved to any of the 36 states without this extended coverage, I would be ineligible for support services I rely on.

Luck in the child welfare system looks like denying certain youth benefits for situational happenstance. I’m trying to use my own experience to demonstrate that it’s these inconsistencies in child welfare services that hinder the outcomes of foster youth as a whole. This is but one of many examples where the sub-populations that compose the child welfare system are intentionally or unintentionally granted or denied access and eligibility to a variety of services.

Essentially, what I’m arguing is that in order to affect the outcomes of the entire population, services need to be tailored to that population and administered indiscriminately. True, unfettered, scrupulous support would feel to me and to many others like a warm embrace from a loved one I never really had.

In the simplest sense, I got lucky and I flourished and became the individual that I am today. But while I am fortunate, I recognize how easily it could’ve all fallen apart. My brothers and sisters deserve what I have. They deserve my life, my happiness, my gratitude, and I want to guarantee they get it. I won’t let them settle for gambler’s luck, because odds are they won’t get lucky like I did. When I say brothers and sisters I don’t just mean in the metaphorical sense as in foster youth as a whole, I literally mean my foster siblings. They had the same recipe that I did, but not all went to college, and not all even emancipated, so they don’t have what I have.

The one thing the child welfare system could have done for me is it could’ve guaranteed my access to support. It could have guaranteed my access to Medicaid until age 26 in all states. It could have guaranteed that access, even if I were adopted months away from emancipation. In doing this for me, I would feel that loving kind of warmth. Knowing I had that kind of security would have brought me comfort, and it would have made me even happier to know that all my brothers and sisters would have the same.

Lino Martinez is a California transplant and foster care alumnus living in Boston, Mass. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and the history of art and architecture from the University of California Santa Barbara. Martinez currently works as a caseworker at The Home for Little Wanderers, specializing in continuum wraparound care, where he gets to act on his passion for transforming child welfare every day.

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