There are more than 100,000 children in the United States foster care system waiting for adoption. Sadly, each year more than 23,000 of these children “age out” of the system at 18 or 21, and enter the world as adults without a family support system, or the skills or resources they need to care for themselves.

This, of course, has a direct effect on the social service network. A recent estimate by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative found that the average taxpayer and community cost for every child who ages out of foster care—not including the costs of the foster care itself—is $300,000 per year for services such as public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages.

To put it another way, the cost of doing nothing is adding a $7.8 billion-per-year burden to an already stretched-thin social safety net.

As the president and CEO of an organization charged with ensuring that abused and abandoned children are placed with loving families, I have come to understand that one or two organizations alone can’t provide this support. State and federal agencies have developed mentor programs, employment services, and educational efforts to connect these youth with services that families would otherwise provide, but let’s be clear: These services cannot offer the comfort, wisdom, and safety of family.

Recently I met a former foster youth who had aged out of the system. On the surface, this 26-year-old young man is fearless, articulate, and poised. But he sometimes quietly asks for help from a casual acquaintance to make rent and buy food. He isn’t okay—he is one small paycheck away from becoming homeless while trying to finish school and be an upstanding citizen. This is unacceptable, and his well-being and that of others like him have far-reaching social and economic effects.

As leaders of organizations, businesses, and communities, we simply must do better. To build a culture that better protects and cares for children, we must:

  1. Support families and children at the front end, before they become involved in the system. Prevention, support, and zero tolerance for family violence must be a national priority. But the moment a child moves into foster care, there must be a commitment to urgency and community passion for caring for these children as if they were our own. We should have databases full of potential foster and adoptive parents who will step up and take responsibility as soon as a child is in need.
  2. Stop making excuses and commit to evidence-based efforts. Systems must employ child-focused recruitment that is proven through rigorous research, not use anecdotal evidence as proof of program success. Nearly 10 years ago, our foundation began developing, funding, growing, and embedding best practices for youth who are most at risk of aging out of care—child-focused recruitment. We promised not just another untested tactic but engaged a third-party service, Child Trends, to rigorously evaluate the program, and we’ve learned that it is up to 300 percent more effective than “business as usual” recruitment for both older youth and youth with mental health challenges.
  3. Learn the facts. Our 2013 National Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey found that even though 51 percent of Americans agree that every child is adoptable, negative perceptions of foster care adoption continue to persist, even among those who have considered it. Children are in foster care through no fault of their own, but because of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. And contrary to popular belief, adoption from foster care is not expensive; it is typically less than $2,500, and financial support is available to families that adopt.
  4. Provide workplace recognition of families formed through adoption. Most companies we’ve worked with are unaware that they can support adoptive families with benefits such as paid leave and assistance with expenses. Adoption benefits in the workplace are simple to implement and cost-effective, and build loyal and strong workforces. More importantly, an employer who implements adoption benefits helps create a social environment that recognizes that families formed through adoption are just as important as families formed through birth. Some employers even support adoption nonprofits through payroll deduction programs and cause-related marketing programs. (See a list of companies already doing this work.)
  5. Advocate for improvements to the child welfare system and support child-focused policies. We must focus on advocating for child-focused policies that focus on the fundamentals—smaller caseloads, child-focused recruitment, excellent customer service, and, as I mentioned before, evidence-based programs grounded in research rather than anecdotes.

By supporting adoption from foster care and families formed through adoption, we are investing in stronger communities that will potentially reduce the number of former foster youth who end up back in a social service system.

Our founder, Dave Thomas, once said, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.” Housing and homelessness programs, mental health and addiction service providers, criminal justice advocates, and public assistance reformers should consider the foster care system a firewall. By reducing the number of children who age out of foster care without families, we build stronger communities together.