Armed with a backpack, one man is walking across the U.S. to raise awareness about the foster care system.
Jarett Wilkins, who was adopted from Colombia as an infant, started the Forever Family Walk in August 2015 and so far has walked through 11 states.
“The thing that always resonated with me was [reading] articles about kids in my situation that had less fortunate situations than myself,” he explained.
When he learned about Together We Rise, an organization that was collecting suitcase and backpack donations for foster children, as many of them are given trash bags to store their belongings, he was inspired to do something to shine a light on the American foster care system.
Through the Fall of 2017, Wilkins is walking across 30 states, split over two legs. Everywhere he goes, he meets with child advocates for interviews to show the different struggles each agency is experiencing with placing children in safe forever homes. He shares his journey with photos on social media, including the hashtags #ForeverFamilyWalk #LGBTyouth #ConnectingACommunity and #TalkTheWalk.
He finished the first leg and is transcribing the interviews to share on his site.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 415,000 children are living in foster care. Nearly 108,000 are eligible for adoption, but will wait four years to be placed with a forever family. In 2014, children spent an average of 19.5 months in foster care.
Through his walk, many of Wilkins’ stops have been LGBT organizations that advocate for homeless children — about 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, either from running away or being kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families.
Many agencies have been reaching out to LGBT groups for help in creating a system that best works for LGBT foster children. At Equality Kansas, it was brought to his attention that many government agencies don’t track the sexual orientation or gender identity of a child, which could be helpful when placing them in a home.
“Say we’re in Kentucky and a child is kicked out of their home because they’re gay and they have a very religious family, Kentucky does not have any sort of data,” Wilkins said. “Now you’ve got a kid that’s been disowned by their family and then placed in another one that is the same way, which leads to the child running away, it increases the rate of suicide.”
According to a study by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Williams Institute, more than 18 percent of those surveyed experienced discrimination in the foster system, and they also were bounced around to more homes than their straight peers.
“A lot of these places were so uninformed on how to treat this community legally,” he said. “It’s a dangerous world when you put a gay or transgender or lesbian child into a group home, there is abuse.”
On a positive note, some agencies are learning how to better LGBT children — he heard the story of a transgender girl being placed in an accepting home that already had girls living there, which helped her blossom.
Throughout his walk, not only has he brought to light issues in the foster care system, but in visiting with 37 agencies, he has been able to introduce many of them together to share advice.
Wilkins is set to begin on the second and final leg of the Forever Family Walk, which is now recognized as a nonprofit. To support the cause, donate to GoFundMe.com/x3a2kc3k. All left over money at the end of the walk will go to One Simple Wish.