The sun slowly stretched over the horizon and I was still awake, packing my bags. As the break of day crept nearer, my anticipation, and eagerness, peaked. “What would my life be like over there?” My foster parents called me weird. I just wanted to be prepared. After all I was going to live in yet another foster home, my third in just one year. It was part of my normal routine of hoping for the best, yet preparing for the worst.
My mother was taken from this world when I was very young, and my father spent most of my youth in prison. My paternal aunt took me in under a kinship care program, but I was placed in the system full time when she moved to another city. I was cycled through several group homes, foster homes and, eventually, the juvenile justice system.
Adapting to these homes wasn’t easy. I was once placed in the suburban Philadelphia home of an all white family, where I realized what it meant to be “Black.” But I was always teased more about being a foster child than about my race. As a foster child I was exposed to stigmas and stereotypes around being homeless, unwanted, and given to another family. People didn’t understand that being in foster care had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with my circumstances.
I was then placed in with an African American family, who were Seventh-day Adventists. I never heard of any other religious ideology other than Baptist, and the change in religion was another adjustment. But the family had a nice home, and several children of their own. I was there for several years, attended a good elementary school, and later a good junior high school. I played football and basketball and made good friends.
I would have stayed at this home but my grandmother said my father would be released and she wanted us to reunite. I started to act out and hoped my foster family would request that I be removed, so I could live with my biological family. After being in so many foster homes you tend to think that you know how to work the system. I started arguing with the other kids, disregarded the rules and didn’t do my chores. I thought my plan had worked, but it’s funny how things backfire. I didn’t end up with my grandmother; instead I was sent to a group home.
It was there that the term “only the strong survive,” became real to me. The youth that occupied the group home ranged from ages 13-18, with girls on one side, boys on the other. It was like living in a zoo. Anyone could walk into your room and take your belongings. Kids would wear each other’s clothes without permission, so fights would break out. And developing our minds and life skills was never the priority. We just sat in a room after school and watched TV.
So often, people do not see the collateral damage foster care has on a young person. The thought that your family doesn’t want you, or that you will never attend any of your real family’s reunions, causes mental and emotional trauma for a young person trying to find an identity. Compound that with families who only want a check–as several of my families did–rather than to love, teach, groom and protect you, and it’s rough. Not every foster home is bad. But if the system doesn’t surround you every step of the way with the education you need, the mental health support, the life skills, the compassion, then they all might as well be deficient.
So who knew growing up in the foster care system would be the first step in changing my life? I opened my eyes into a world that statistically defined people like me as failures. I found a remedy to beat those statistics. I worked hard and surrounded myself with peers and mentors who understood the gift of a chance and allowed me to grow amongst them. I experienced different religions, different cultures, different races, and different ways of life, which broadened my perspective. I accepted the fact that my past could not be changed and ensured my future was bright by working tirelessly and diligently until a goal of success was in sight. Overall, I realized that my tragedy was really a blessing in disguise.
I consider myself one of the fortunate ones who ended up with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but let’s think about the ones who end up homeless, in jail, on drugs, or just alone in this world. Where is their justice and support? I tell my story because if anyone can comfort the hearts of the thousands of young people who feel hopeless and alone, it’s former foster youth. It is important to encourage the children in foster care and let them know that they are valuable and are worthy of our society’s investment.
Marvin Bing is the Northeast Regional Director for the NAACP. He lives in New York City and is the proud father of two children.
Published on May 23, 2013 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.