There are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system in the U.S. with the average age being 8 years old, according to the most recent federal data.
Child welfare advocate David Ambroz, who is head of community engagement at Amazon and spent much of his childhood homeless or in foster homes, thinks our nation's leaders need to be talking a lot more about these numbers, and the reality these children face.
Ambroz, who is a former executive with Disney ABC Television Group, spoke with ABC News Live Prime about how everyone can get involved in supporting foster youth, improving the foster care system and his own personal journey, which he recounts in his new memoir “A Place Called Home.”
PRIME: David, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID AMBROZ: Thank you for having me.
PRIME: So I wanted to start off by quoting the book. You write of your childhood: “I live in a cycle. Homelessness, hunger, housing, welfare and homelessness again.” Just talk to us a bit about how you ultimately were able to get out of this cycle and why this has been so important to you, that you're dedicating your life's work, in part, to this.
AMBROZ: I think our poverty programs are so disaggregated. We reach into the water and pull a person up that's drowning and then we let go once they grasp the breath. And then another program pulls them up, but they go back in. And my family went through that cycle relentlessly.
We have to streamline it and help families lift up out of poverty. Two-thirds of the kids entering foster care are there because of neglect, which is a euphemism for poverty. We can do better. We can preserve families. If we chip away at this issue, that never seems to end.
PRIME: And one more quote here. You write, “I know that I'm not going to law school for me. I'm going with the determination to help them, to help kids like me off the streets, to make sure that they are never put through a system that grinds away hope.” I'm curious what laws you feel need to be reformed in order to better serve and protect those who are in foster care.
AMBROZ: What I often ask people to do is to close their eyes and imagine if their child had to go into foster care tomorrow, what does that system look like? Let's develop that system and whatever laws need to be put in place, let's do that. I think there's very low-hanging fruit.
So, for instance, how do we recruit more foster parents into the system, so that social workers aren’t desperate for a placement? Let's provide them health insurance as if they were federal employees. You remove one of the biggest obstacles for middle-class people to do this work by addressing their core needs. There is a policy way to move this forward, but it's not going to happen unless the public cares enough.
PRIME: But I am curious about these people who are maybe on the fence and they go, ‘I don't know, is my house suitable enough?’ How would you define that?
AMBROZ: I think all of us start that question from ‘Why can't I?’ So many things in our face every day, a homeless person on the street asking us for money, all these challenges we have as people. And what I would ask folks to do is not start with the reasons listed out in your mind, ‘why can't you?’
Why should you? And how could you? And it may not be right for you to become a foster parent. That's fine. There's all these other ways you can contribute.
I'm running a campaign right now called Donate Your Small Talk. So instead of asking someone when you get in the elevator how their weekend was, no one cares. Tell them a fun fact about foster care. Like, you know, Steve Jobs was adopted out of foster care. Or do you know Marilyn Monroe was a foster kid? Say something interesting about this topic. That's the lowest level — is to care, educate yourself, all the way up to fostering, which I hope people will consider.
PRIME: 400,000 children currently in the foster care system here. It's believed that 117,000 of those have disabilities. And many people said when Roe v. Wade was overturned in June that that was going to overwhelm the system. So I'd kind of just like to get a status check as far as where we are now and what are some preventive measures we can put into place.
AMBROZ: We've talked about coal miners, and there's 424,000 children– well outnumber[ing] that population, but we don't talk about it [child poverty]. The system is already overwhelmed. So it's not a matter of overwhelming it further. The boat has holes and it's sinking.
Every time foster care comes up, it's often in the shadow of other controversial issues. Like the opioid crisis, a lot of those kids went into foster care from those families. The separation of children at the border, those kids went into foster care. The system is always in the shadow of these other controversial topics. And because of that shadow, it never gets the sunlight it needs. Imagine if your kid was going into it, let's create that system you want for your child. It's overwhelmed right now. We don't have to wait for more kids to come.
PRIME: I do want to just ask you in the last minute that we have. You had talked about how you felt unprotected in the foster care system. You've now become a foster parent yourself. What made you decide to do that?
AMBROZ: Oh, my gosh. I fell in love with this young person. He came into my office and I often will have conversations, folks can do this as a volunteer thing to mentor kids. I would do conversations with foster kids for my sister, who's a social worker, and he came in my office and as one does, this bright child with all the potential in the world -- I just fell in love.
And I saw him and I saw his pain, I saw his future and my heart broke and I wanted to be part of his life and I wanted him to have a different trajectory. It went from mentorship to deep mentorship to all of a sudden, I'm his foster father. I'm like, What just happened? And he's the love of my life.
PRIME: I can imagine that you have changed his trajectory. David, we thank you so much for sharing your story, for coming on the show. You can purchase ‘A Place Called Home’ wherever books are sold.