KERN COUNTY, Calif. — Human trafficking. Incarceration. Homelessness.
You probably have some thoughts on at least one of these hot topics, but what if they all shared a common denominator? Well the nonprofit Bakersfield Angels’ founder Allison McClain said they do.
"We just have so many opinions nowadays about why people end up homeless or why people end up in prison, and everything is so devisive, but this is an issue we can all rally around, and if anybody has an issue with our homelessness population, our prison population, the fact that our very own children are being sex trafficked in this county, here’s your chance," said McClain.
McClain said all of these issues connect to the foster care system, and you can change that just by volunteering your time. She said one of the biggest problems foster care children face is a lack of mentorship, something Bakersfield Angels volunteers provide.
“Every child deserves at least one healthy adult who knows the color of their eyes and the passions of their heart, and that is not a huge ask, Bakersfield, it’s not a huge ask, but we just need to raise awareness. We need to be talking about it," she said.
McClain said without that kind of relationship, foster kids are less likely to use our county’s resources and more likely to end up on your neighborhood streets. According to McClain, 50% of Kern County's homeless population comes from the foster care system. She said giving those kids a mentor could cut our homeless population in half.
Child Guidance therapist Tahlua Goosby was a foster youth herself. She said a lack of stable relationships can also lead to gang activity.
"Sometimes you can even say our boys who are taken into gangs. It has the appeal of family. Sometimes you hear that. You know, ‘this is my family,'" said Goosby.
And McClain said that desire for family can lead to human trafficking.
"Why do you think these kids end up being human trafficked? Because finally an adult is paying special attention to them. These kids are craving connection and doesn't matter how they get it," said McClain.
Volunteering for foster youth doesn't stop at giving them healthy relationships. Angie Boyler said CASA volunteers like her also help speed up the court process.
“It just takes longer than it should, but that’s where the casa, you know, comes into play because we’re able to gather a lot more evident information for the judge to, you know, make the best decision for the child," said Boyler.
This can help minimize how often foster children move from home to home, something Kern Bridges Youth Homes vice president Jim Vanderzwan said delays their progress in school, hurting their chances of a successful future.
“They also don't have the education, a well grounded education, like you and I do to fall back on, so it’s harder to get a job. It’s harder to stay out of some trouble," said Vanderzwan.
Human Services spokesperson Jana Slage says kids switch between multiple homes because oftentimes foster parents don’t feel prepared to handle trauma that the children come with.
“Sometimes when the children have behaviors due to their trauma, the foster parents get fatigued with that. It’s challenging for them and they may feel like giving up, and that’s just further damaging to a foster child when they get moved several times," said Slagle.
McClain said foster parents can also feel alone and unsupported, eventually closing their homes to foster children.
“I’ve heard from several mamma’s that I know that have fostered and gone on to foster and adopt, it can feel very isolating because when you talk with other parents that are going through experiences with their children, it’s just not the same experience," said McClain.
And Vanderzwan said COVID-19 has proven to be another challenge for foster families. He said visitations with biological parents had to go completely virtual when the pandemic first began.
“Tor a three, four, five-year-old, it’s really hard for them to understand why they can only see mom through a video screen all of a sudden," he said.
They are now able to happen in person with face masks and social distancing, and Vanderzwan said Kern Bridges Youth Homes recently opened two centers that allow safe visitations.
“We’re thankful that visits have resumed for the kids’ sake and the parents’ sake, but it’s still a challenge," said Vanderzwan.
Meanwhile, McClain said you can make a direct impact through the Bakersfield Angels Lovebox Program. Volunteers are paired with a foster family and each month they bring care packages, spending time building strong relationships with the entire family.
“These kids come with a lot of baggage and trauma so it’s not a walk in a park to raise them. But we’re trying to come alongside with support so then those children have placement stability, those families say, ‘I can do this for another year,’ and we just get to beat one odd after another," siad McClain.
She said it’s up to us, not laws or policies.
“I don’t think this is a government issue. The government is doing all they can with policies and laws and procedures but their hands are tied at some level because there's limited funding, there’s, you know, limited resources, so it’s our job to take care of our kids and I believe that with my whole heart. And I believe it’s doable. This is just right here in Kern County. 2,000 kids. This is doable, like, we can do better," said McClain.
And even if you can’t volunteer, CASA Executive Director Amy Dixon says just learning and caring about Kern County’s foster care system can make a difference in itself.
“One thing that we can do is really have compassion for those in our community that are hurting and understand that children in foster care are our future and we can invest in them," said Dixon. "It really does help us all by contributing, right, it doesn't just help the foster child it helps us all in our community by giving back.”