Fixing foster care wouldn't actually be that hard — or that expensive

Erstwhile foster child David Ambroz explains why, and what’s standing in our way

Published December 4, 2022 2:30PM (EST)

Paper people chain, law books and judge's gavel (Getty Images/YGolub)
Paper people chain, law books and judge's gavel (Getty Images/YGolub)

"Mom hits as often as she hugs, and I'd rather have neither than both," writes David Ambroz in his 2022 memoir, "A Place Called Home." Ambroz, a child welfare advocate, spent years of his youth homeless and in foster care. He describes walking unseen among New York City tourists "still warm from wherever they got their last hot chocolates," hunkering down with his mother and siblings "in the colorless crevices of the city [as] gray people fading to nothing."

Ambroz retells small kindnesses during those years — moments that communicated, "You matter. We care." But they were too small, too few, and too far between. He writes: "My family is a car accident on the side of the highway. Passersby slow down long enough to gape but do nothing or very little to provide life-saving aid. America watches its children suffer in poverty, shaking our heads in sadness, and driving onward thinking it's someone else's job to help those poor folks." He makes a convincing argument that it is not someone else's job. 

Ambroz's tale is, sadly, not unusual. At any moment, over 400,000 kids are in foster care, a number which is both under- and over-inclusive. Some children suffer ongoing abuse without being identified by the system. On the flip side, some are torn from their parents for the crime of being poor. University of Pennsylvania law professor and sociologist Dorothy Roberts says the bulk of investigations and removals penalize parents for poverty, and some families are impacted more than others. In "Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World," Roberts argues for dismantling the "multi-billion-dollar apparatus" and building something new to take its place.

"How do we live in this rich country where millions of children live in poverty! How is that even possible?"

Ambroz doesn't go that far, instead suggesting a grab bag of reforms building upon the ones included in 2014's Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. That piece of legislation allowed for, among other things, kids in foster care to participate in contact sports and sleepovers without judicial permission. Many of Ambroz's proposals are similarly both common sense and outside-the-box, like building dorms near community colleges where foster youth who have just aged out of the system get priority.

Ambroz calls his mother "my curse," but writes, "I will never stop loving her…. Every time I walk away from this woman, it's the worst day of my life." In home after institution after home, he is mistreated. Only in his late teens does Ambroz find a foster home where he learns "what it's like to give and receive a less complicated love." He deserved emotional and physical safety years before he got it, and his mother deserved tangible support and mental health services she was never effectively offered. 

I gave Ambroz a call to figure out where we, as individuals and as a nation, can start doing better for those in the foster care system. Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Since I delve into the autobiographical in articles, I often end up talking to someone who knows much more about my life than I do about theirs. But today that script is flipped. When I read the scene with you in a bathroom filled with bloody gauze, as a mom, I desperately wanted to rupture the space-time continuum and carry you out of there.

I feel like I published my diary. I've been doing these talks with small groups of foster kids, like when a nonprofit reaches out, and we do Zooms. These young people share, and it washes over you — all their stories, pain and hope. Foster care is a receptacle for all of the other failures in our society. So when kids are separated inhumanely at the border from their families, those kids end up in foster care. The kids of families addicted to opioid drugs end up in foster care. Foster care is going to be the receptacle for unwanted children as the result of the Dobbs decision. And like, how do we live in this rich country where millions of children live in poverty! How is that even possible?

Let's talk about possible. Tell me more about this dorm idea.

A third of the homeless of Los Angeles County and San Francisco, etc. are former foster kids. Only 50% of them are graduating from high school. They might still receive money each month from the state, but they don't have first and last month's rent saved up. They don't have a leasing history. No one will rent to them. We do this weird thing in foster care in this country: We get them right to the finish line and then we just say, "Sorry!" And we're shocked that they perpetuate the same cycle of poverty and violence. What if we instead emancipated them into a two-year vocational transfer or another type of degree? The public owns the land the colleges sit on. I worked at L.A. City College, and they have tens of acres of flat parking above a subway station. With just five of these dorms in the state of California, no foster youth would be homeless. It's doable and financially feasible. And if we remove a third of the homelessness pipeline, we can focus more attention on the two-thirds of that problem that's more intractable.

"We also need more foster families. Upper income, middle class-ish people don't tend to foster."

How can average citizens support a project like this? 

Bond measures. Bond measures can give billions of dollars to community colleges. Kids don't vote, kids don't have political power, and they need us. 

One of the ideas you mention is encouraging more people to foster by guaranteeing their foster kids and their biological children get a free ride at a public university.

Foster parents, everything I say is in respect and honoring people who foster today. They are opening their homes, and shame on the rest of us for not doing anything. We need to, first and foremost, support current foster parents better. But we also need more foster families. Upper income, middle class-ish people don't tend to foster. I had a lot of foster homes, and I did not experience wealth in any of those placements. That's anecdotal, but we ignore anecdote at our own peril. Right now, this is not a wealthy person's game. Higher income kids don't end up in foster care, both because they have safety nets and because we don't scrutinize or pathologize their families as much. (My sister says, "When you shake an apple tree, apples will fall.") And higher income adults don't help provide foster care. What is holding them back and what could push them forward? Their three main concerns in life are healthcare, retirement, and paying for a college education for their children. We are talking about a small number of people we need to join this force. Let's make foster parents federal employees with postal worker-like benefits. And we could scale it. Some of the hardest placements are kids with disabilities, older children, young women with babies, and formerly incarcerated kids. They deserve to be fostered well. Incentivize that. Use incentives to get more people from a diverse background in the mix and all the resources and political power that comes with them.

Let's back up for a second to the number of people we need to foster. 

"Roughly speaking, 700,000 foster children will pass through the system each year, 400,000 at any given moment."

What I would like to see happen is to increase by a quarter the number of foster homes we have, to have people ready, willing, and able when the need arises. The National Foster Parent Association and the Child Welfare League of America have really robust information on this stuff, but the number thing is tricky because there's not really good data on how many foster homes there are on a state-by-state basis. The numbers range wildly. So I tend to be vague, not to be annoying but because it's run county-by-county. It is, data-wise, a little bit of a disaster. 

Give me some back-of-the-envelope math.

Today, roughly speaking, 700,000 foster children will pass through the system each year, 400,000 at any given moment. So we don't need a million foster homes. A quarter would mean about 100,000 new homes. Then social workers like my sister aren't spending half the day calling all over to try and find a placement. She can actually do foster care, not work as a public Airbnb. Having more people ready, willing, able, trained, certified, and background checked would be phenomenal.

And then you've said the other piece of the equation is reducing the need for homes?

Yes. In our lifetime, the foster system could be one tenth of how big it is now. Roughly speaking, two-thirds of kids entering foster care, it's from neglect. Neglect has a lot to do with poverty. We can reduce the need by preserving bio families with some really simple interventions. If folks are poor, make them less poor. Our poverty programs in this country are kind of like you are drowning off the side of a boat, and someone comes along, pulls you out, and you're able to breathe for a second, and you think, "Oh they are going to pull me into a lifeboat," but then they drop you. And then another program comes along and does the same thing, but you never get the hell out of the water. 

This sounds a lot like that one Christmas you had at a church.

Yeah, I got shit for that. If you remember, the comment in the book is, "Thank you for the Christmas gifts, but I'd like to not be homeless."

I loved that line. Okay, so we were talking about reducing the need for foster care … 

We need to harness the awesome power of the state to break up families, which it should have but should use judiciously. If we are going to help kids, we have to help their families. We just changed the law so that federal foster care money, Title IV-E money, can be used to preserve families, not just after you take families apart. If we can support bio families and those providing care for their kin, and give them what they need to make sure kids have food and stability, think about what that would mean! That's hundreds of thousands of stories a year that don't become what happened to them or their families. Most foster children will be reunited with their family. Foster care is not an adoption pipeline; it is temporary care. For that we need foster parents on the bench ready to go, and we have figured that out, we just haven't applied it to this issue.

Do you mean like doctors being on call? The National Guard?

Absolutely. We have to think about foster parenting as a service to our country. They are like FEMA. The system we need is achievable. When you close your eyes and think about your own children, what does that foster home look like that you want to put your kid in? Do the foster parents have savings? Do they have a safe outdoor place to play? Do they read national newspapers? Do they have a college degree? If you close your eyes, do you think of the current foster system as a place where you'd put your kid? If not, let's go create that system.

Your story seems like such good PR for kids in foster care. We get a window inside this smart, sensitive, conscientious kid, and I don't think that's how people usually conceptualize children in foster care.

PR is absolutely part of the solution. I thought a lot about breast cancer, and I don't have a degree or anything in this, but breast cancer went from an issue that half the species thought wasn't their problem, that was depressing, to where it is today. People think "cure" and they rally around women. The public does not want to be involved in an impossible fight. So I co-founded a nonprofit called FosterMore to help foster care go through that same transformation from dark to pink. [Editor's note: Neither Ambroz nor Salon endorses "pinkwashing."] FosterMore works with the entertainment industry, the Television Academy Foundation, the Writers Guild of America, and the Producers Guild. We are constantly in dialogue with Hollywood — just like GLAAD, just like the Anti-Defamation League — about representations of foster care and adoption in TV and film. Why do people think about fostering and wonder if this kid is going to kill my bio kid? Because of Hollywood. I want them to think Coco Chanel, Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe, Leo Tolstoy, Harry Potter, all foster kids. The other goal is to lower the perceived barrier to doing something. Not everyone can foster, so what else can we ask folks to do? FosterMore is doing a campaign called Donate Your Small Talk. Next time you start a Zoom or get in an elevator and someone asks you how your weekend went or how your kids are, instead of wasting those moments, talk about foster care.

What else? 

"California passed a law which gave [foster kids] preferential registration at public colleges. You know what happened? Our retention rate went through the roof. And it was free!"

FosterMore is also using media partnerships and social media to micro-target people using big data to recruit them into becoming foster parents. Another thing is creating the Foster Friendly Workplace Certification. ViacomCBS has implemented it. There are some simple, free policy changes you can make as an employer to ensure you are supporting foster parents. For example, if you get a foster kid and you have to go to court, are you penalized? If you want to bond with a foster baby that gets put in your placement, do you get to take family bonding leave? We can do this. We can get companies thinking about foster families, not as something over there, but as something here. And if corporations care they are going to change the way they lobby. Then there's the National Scholarship Fund for Foster Youth, which has raised I think close to six million dollars. Every time people hear the words "foster kid," I want them to think about education, just like they think "cure" about cancer. 

It seems like you're trying to give people an on-ramp to where caring can feel manageable, for it to feel like I can do something without fundamentally changing my life. 

Confronted with so much to do and care about, we all start with the phrase in our head, "I can't because …." What if all of us started with the phrase, "I can't, but what I can do is …." We sent a person to the moon, and yet today we are proud when we fill a pothole. What happened to our country? Where is that belief in our collective ability to do big things? It starts with that individual capacity to say, "I can." So I'm not asking everyone to foster. What I'm asking is for people to do something. And there are lots of places along the way to help. You know why foster kids drop out of college? Usually it's super small budget problems. A car repair, whatever. And they drop out because they can't get the courses they need to qualify for financial aid, because the intro classes are full. California passed a law which gave them preferential registration at public colleges. Get your state to do it. Because you know what happened? Our retention rate went through the roof. And it was free!  

What can we learn from other countries? From other points in history? 

I'm gonna say something that's absolutely true and at first blush seems contradictory to what I've said so far: We have the best foster care system in human history right now. We have the most equitable, the most transparent, the most successful in terms of outcomes. It is a lifeboat with holes that need patching, but it's the best shot of not drowning kids have ever had. Do other countries do it better? In some ways, sure, absolutely. Overseas, informal foster care — where you live with your kin, your grandparent, your cousin — is much more supported. We are just starting to do that. Kids are often better off with their biological family. Not always, but often. But the reality is we have this unique country of ours and a lot of the stuff that's overseas, it's not a sapling that will grow in our field. We have Feeding America. There, government makes sure people are fed. We have debt forgiveness. They have free college. 

Okay, so what other saplings will grow here?

We have young women in foster care having babies. We burden young women, in my opinion as a gay man, with taking a pill every day, and yet they're in unstable homes, on the move, with parents who may or may not support that. So, how do we decrease the barrier? Well, we counsel them and give them information and access to long-lasting birth control. We know from a pilot program that that works to substantially reduce teen births. 

What solutions have we not touched on yet? 

We haven't talked about a concept underpinning foster care. We have this bifurcated, duality of reality. In our head we think, "Oh, people should do it for love," and yet, we know we have to pay them. It's not that love is not an important ingredient, but you can't manufacture love, and you should start with professionalizing the work. I don't want my doctor to love me. I want them to heal me. When we pair kids with homes right now, we're sort of doing arranged marriages.

I love that analogy, did you just come up with that?

"Thirty percent of the kids in foster care, roughly, identify as queer. That's nearly triple the percentage as represented in the general population."

That? Yeah, just now. What I usually talk about is Tinder. Foster parents and foster children don't have the ability to swipe right or left, and if they do it's more on the parent's side. And all the sudden we're thrusting people who have fundamentally different values and capabilities and expectations into a closed environment that is the most intimate environment, and then we're like, "and by the way we're going to under-resource you." We're giving you this kid but not the therapy they need. And we do that kind of shotgun wedding, and then the kids churn through homes. So why don't we just acknowledge what it is, which is a job and a service both. Soldiers are paid, and yet we still honor them. 

Some of the kids who have the most churn in the system identify as LGBTQ.

Thirty percent of the kids in foster care, roughly, identify as queer. That's nearly triple the percentage as represented in the general population. Why is that, and what are we doing to support them in care? It's really important that we wrestle with that. I think queer kids in care and queer kids in delinquency are still having a brutal go of it, and I think we could do much better. Part of that is having queer people step up and do more to advocate, to foster, to adopt, to care, to mentor, because we need to take care of our own. But we also need to call on the better angels of other people and demand care and treatment and support services for our kids.

In terms of services, what's the mental health piece of this? 

There are people like my mother who for 80 years has been trapped in a prison in her own mind constructed from a mental illness-induced fear that she fundamentally believes. I had to fight to get her services so she didn't cycle through ERs or call in bomb threats, which was her wont. If my mom had cancer, God forbid, we would be empathetic. But because my mom is mentally ill, and because she did what she did to me, people say the most awful things about her. She needed care. And foster kids need quality mental health care. They have a higher rate of PTSD than veterans. Where is our moonshot for mental health? Do you know who the largest provider of mental health care in LA County is? 


It's the County Sheriff. That's not okay.

That reminds me of how in your book there are best practices that were known and yet not implemented. You wrote about a representative of the system asking you, in front of your mother, "David, does your mother hurt you?" You wrote, "If she finds out I betrayed her, she really will kill me." So you lied, and the abuse continued.

Pull back the lens for a minute. What was that social worker experiencing that day? How many kids did she interview? How much paperwork did she have to do? We give people impossible jobs and then when they mess up, we gasp and throw stones. I don't blame that social worker. Was it terrible? Absolutely. Should she have done that? No, absolutely not. But instead of focusing on her we should all look in the mirror and say, why did she do that? Social workers have too many kids. We have created a system and these actors are responding to the incentives we've created, and this is what happens. We should fix the system.

So decreased caseload is part of that. What about increased pay? 

Absolutely. The churn rate for social workers leaving the field is incredible. We need to do real loan forgiveness without having to fill out 75 pieces of paper. How about we help them buy homes with interest-free loans and down payment assistance? Let's have the biological kids of social workers go to college for free too, after five years of quality service. The funds are there, the ideas are there, we just kind of need Moses to lead us out of this desert.

Are you Moses?

Oh, dear God, no. I am just one of those people who gets to hold the mirror up because I have lived this life that tried to kill me, and that gives me the privilege to say to you, "Let's go." I believe in the goodness of us as a default. We are a good people, we are a good country, and despite my life which has tried to teach me otherwise, I truly believe that. 

By Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at

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Are We There Yet Child Welfare David Ambroz Education Foster Care Interview Parenting