(BPT) - What do you know about foster care in America? And if you have no plans to ever foster a child, why should you care about it? The influence of the foster care system extends far beyond the children who go through it and the families who care for them, experts say. And those effects are both good (foster care brings together or preserves many families every year) and bad (children who go through foster care are more likely to abuse substances or alcohol).
The good news is, efforts to curb the number of kids who need foster care appear to be working. More than 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States, according to the most recent report released by AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System). That's down more than 8 percent from 2008, and nearly 30 percent from 1999, when there were nearly 570,000 foster children.
One primary reason for that decrease is the implementation of proactive social service programs such as Safe Families for Children
(SFFC), a ministry committed to keeping kids out of the foster care system, preventing child abuse, supporting pregnant and parenting teens and strengthening families. Safe Families for Children enlists host families to provide temporary care for children whose parents are experiencing personal difficulties so that they can work through their troubles without having to place their children in foster care.
"Over the past several years, the SFFC ministry has seen substantial growth across the country," says Dr. David Anderson, founder and executive director of SFFC. "The ministry has been embraced throughout the communities in which it serves, with local residents and organizations - including many churches - stepping up to help families in crisis. It's truly remarkable to see the difference SFFC can have on keeping families together and children out of foster care."
Family preservation professionals, such as Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services
, know that while the decade-long decrease in the number of children in foster care is a positive sign, there's still plenty of work left to be done.
"Last year, more than 254,000 children were placed in foster care, so our work is far from over," Blacquiere says. "Family preservation and social service agencies like Bethany must continue to lead in raising public awareness and do a better job of recruiting families, community organizations and local businesses committed to supporting the country's most vulnerable children."
More than 40 percent of foster children end up abusing drugs and alcohol, 40 percent turn to crime, and up to 10 percent give up hope and commit suicide, according to Bethany.
Fortunately, happy stories also emerge from the foster care system, stories like those of Malik and Matthew.
Malik, 14, wears a smile from ear-to-ear when recounting how he and his brother Matthew, 12, went from being among the world's millions of waiting children to become the adoptive sons of Kyle and Petra Ray one August morning three years ago.
"During our court date to finalize our adoption, I remember asking my dad, 'Is mom crying because she's happy?'" Malik says.
For more information on foster children, visit www.Bethany.org