The holidays always make me wonder about lives that are unlike mine and thus unfamiliar. I wonder how people are doing amid the bustle of the family gatherings and parties and other festivities that mark the season for most of us.
I love Christmas, but a large part of the magic is that I am surrounded by people I love — and who love me back.
I think about old people who may not have family close by — or may not have family at all. I think about adults who have mental disabilities because I've been told they often think and act like children and pine for gifts from Santa this time of year, but that's not always on the giving public's radar. Years ago, I wrote about a man in his 70s who'd been asking Santa for a train set for decades.
I've written about Christmas for people who are homeless or forgotten. I've written about a family celebrating what would surely be the mom's last Christmas with her family, because she had a devastating illness.
But lately, I've started to wonder about all the young adults who don't have families of their own — especially the older kids who are aging out of foster care without reuniting with their families or being adopted by new ones.
There's a lot to ponder about foster kids, not just those transitioning to adulthood, in some cases without permanent ties. I suspect Christmas is hard on most foster kids, caught between their birth families and uncertainty — and there are a lot of them. The Chronicle for Social Change has for some time been predicting that we would see an increase in foster care numbers, while it has also predicted a decrease in foster homes to care for the children and teens. It appears to have been right on both counts. It reported this week that the most recent count from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) found a fourth straight year of increases. More than 437,000 kids are in foster care in America. About 92,000 of them were plucked from homes where at least one parent is an opioid addict.
Many people have the mistaken notion that kids land into foster care because they've done something wrong. They incorrectly equate youth corrections with the child welfare system. The "crimes" that get kids into foster care are things like having parents who are addicted to drugs or having parents who physically abuse them. The youths in foster care may be neglected. They cannot safely stay at home.
The good news hidden in the report is that adoptions rose, too, by 12 percent between 2012 and 2014, a bright spot in a system that sees a lot of families in sorrow and chaos. Some of the crisis created by more foster kids and fewer foster parents will be offset by kinship care, where extended family members like aunts and uncles or grandparents step up to be foster parents to the kids. But an astonishing number of kids will wait in the system for a more permanent solution to the problems in their lives. But the increases are not enough to stabilize all those young lives. Many will still be there, waiting, until the system tells them they're too old and it's time to go out on their own.
What's it like to be on your own as a young adult when the holidays roll around? My family gathers, dozens strong, to celebrate the season and the fact that we are kin. What do those without healthy families do?
My daughter sent me her wish list to help me figure out what she'd like for Christmas and she's pretty confident she'll get something she listed. That's a luxury foster kids probably don't have.
If you're fortunate enough to have caring relatives and friends, by all means, shower them with love this season. But remember, too, those who pine not for treasures, but for connections. In a season marked by expressions of love, the need is great.