Foster Care is a Cruel Teacher. Make Its Survivors Part of the Solution

By Melissa Fortner

I once read that the average amount of time a kid melissa-fortner-newest-large-USE-THIS-254x300spends in foster care is something like three years. It’s a piece of trivia that still floors me. I spent so much of my own childhood in foster care that I can’t remember anything that came before it. I entered the system when I was 2; it would be the only constant in my life for the next twenty years. Placements and families came and went, but the system remained. Some parts of it never leave.

In small ways, the system crept into my world before I even understood that I was a part of it: getting pulled out of class for weird visits with a woman who used too much hairspray and made me call her Mommy. The unsettling knowledge that I didn’t look like either of the grownups I lived with, who were my real parents, as far as I knew. They loved me and my two siblings like they loved their own sons. Then the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) van came to move us, and I finally understood.

The placements after that were a revolving door of abuse and degradation. I spent five years with a lady who blew the monthly stipend from DCFS on her own kids while we lowly fosters got to eat maybe once a day, if we were lucky. But she was very generous with the beatings, which often bordered on torture (making us kneel for hours on uncooked rice seemed to be her favorite). My ticket out, ironically, was a suicide attempt that sent me to the psych hospital for a whole summer – there were bars on all the windows, and I couldn’t go outside, but I felt like I’d been rescued. Then came other homes, where I learned to expect nothing and accept favoritism and other blows to my self-worth because at least they were not real punches.

The one upside to spending my life in foster care is that I got to file for financial aid as an independent; I attended the University of Illinois almost for free. But I didn’t graduate. College felt impossible to get through without a family to call up anytime for support, or a home to return to during break. I spent the holidays alone in my dorm room. And I was so ashamed of being a foster kid that I hid it from all my college friends. I lied like crazy—what else could I say when they asked me what my parents do for a living? I’m not convinced that drug dealing qualifies as an actual job. Feeling like I didn’t fit in, and bending under the pressure to succeed, to be one of the few foster youth on the right side of the statistics, I left and never went back.

I’m not sure what lessons there are to learn from experiences like mine. If the system is a teacher, then she is incredibly cruel. How do we prove child abuse is happening when the foster parent is so good at hiding it? Is it even possible? Some problems are up to society to tackle: how do we prevent kids from needing to be “rescued” by the system in the first place?

But maybe we can fix some things. Sometimes reunification isn’t the best thing for a child. In my case, the courts gave my parents ridiculous amounts of time to prove themselves before moving to terminate their parental rights. My mother got ten years to get her act together; her rights weren’t terminated until I was thirteen. By then, my shot at adoption was long gone – who wants a damaged teenager?

Keeping siblings together shouldn’t always be more important than finding each kid a good home. Once, there was a decent couple who was interested only in me; naturally, it fell through because my siblings and I were a package deal (my mom, who still had her rights, lobbied hard for that).

And foster care survivors—from all educational backgrounds—should really be recruited into child welfare jobs and internships, perhaps as advisors. Significant positions in the field usually require a degree – which shuts out 97 percent of us! We’re your greatest resource and we have so much to offer: courage, passion for change, and we know the system in a way that your average caseworker or policy wonk could never understand. If you’re serious about reform, then foster-care survivors need to be omnipresent.

Published on May 13, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.