I survived the foster care system. Dismantling it altogether is the only path forward.

Destructive like tides

Always fighting to survive

God help me get by.

When I wrote this haiku, the only thing I had in mind was the need for people to understand that group care destroys lives almost instantaneously. As I sat in my friend’s living room witnessing on TV a fictional character’s entry in foster care, a jarring realization struck me: How can this seemingly untouchable system impact even imaginary lives? How many real lives has it decimated?

Overwhelmed with distress, I knew I had to write something. Something short, something concise, something simple, something that anyone can understand.

“Life in a Tsunami” tells a story – my story, but also the story of thousands of children who have been, and continue to be, robbed of their homes and families by the foster system. When I was a child, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services took me from my mom, changing my life forever – and not for the better. Because of ACS, I endured a prison-like environment without ever being a criminal. When I was 14 years old, ACS pulled me out of my home, community and school and locked me up in a group home.

Now 23, I'm fortunate to glimpse a bright future ahead. But my journey here has been long, and unfortunately I am far from the only young person failed by the so-called child welfare system in New York state.

Kaylah McMillan, left, and her mother, Joyce McMillan, who's the founder and executive director of Just Making A Change for Families.
Kaylah McMillan, left, and her mother, Joyce McMillan, who's the founder and executive director of Just Making A Change for Families.

The foster care system isn't set up to help kids thrive

In New York, there are thousands of kids like me who are separated from their families and placed into the foster system. The overwhelming majority of them are Black, like me.

Many of these children are put in what are known as congregate facilities that, according to a new report called"Are You Listening?" from Children's Rights and Community Impact Advisors, inflict lasting harm on children. Children – myself included – who are housed in congregate facilities face isolating, prison-like conditions that include severe limitations on privacy and bathroom use, poor food quality and inadequate medical care – particularly mental health care – all while feeling lonely, unsafe and unloved.

Help save our children: Drugs and untreated mental health issues are killing America's kids. You can help stop it.

On top of the harmful conditions that kids in congregate settings face, they also experience a severe interruption in their education that has a lasting impact. Among participants in the "Are You Listening?" study, nearly two-thirds said they had a negative academic experience while in congregate facilities. Students report sitting in a classroom receiving below-grade-level worksheets.

Gaps in attendance, a lack of consistent guidance and encouragement from teachers, unsafe schools on congregate campuses, including the use of physical restraints, and environments unconducive to concentration and study are the norm.

They experience disruptions to education and bureaucratic failures with transferring credits that leave them under-credited. Not surprisingly, these children are emotionally and educationally unprepared to achieve or pursue higher education, professional opportunities and independent life.

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A 2022 study paints a grim picture of educational achievement among children in the foster system. The study reports that only 1 in 4 New York City youth who experienced foster care during high school graduate in four years, as compared with three-quarters of all city students.

Children who spent most of high school in group facilities graduated only 5% of the time.

It's time we abolish foster care as we know it

None of this is news to me. I know it well because it is part of my story. When I was taken away from my mom and my school, I was learning algebra as a ninth grader. But in the group home where I was placed, I believe I was receiving what amounted to third grade instruction.

I keep in touch with a lot of those people I was in that group home with, and I only know of one other student who graduated besides me.

I'm a foster kid with a degree. That shouldn't be rare, but it is. We can change that.

Despite everything, I graduated high school on time. I'm able to read, write and get a job, but it wasn’t because of the foster system. It was despite the system. It separated me from my mom in part for “educational neglect” and then left me educationally neglected.

As a first step, the immediate solution to this problem is a simple one – we must stop putting children in congregate settings in New York, and instead place children in home settings and with family members whenever possible.

Of course, ending the use of congregate facilities will not eliminate the harm that the foster system as a whole causes. It’s time we abolish the foster care system altogether.

There is no fixing this broken system – it must be dismantled. We must stop ripping families apart and placing kids into a system where they are hurt, not loved. No child deserves to face the educational, mental, physical and emotional abuse and neglect that is the daily experience of so many of these kids. It’s time for a change.

Kaylah McMillan is a 23 year-old-survivor of the foster care system and an advocate for child welfare system reform.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Group homes harm kids. Why are foster care systems still using them?