I had an “identity crisis” during my first year of college. Back home I never had time to reflect. I was always in survival mode. If I wasn’t in school, I was working. If I wasn’t working, I was contacting my caseworkers to make sure they were doing the things I needed them to do. Once I was in college, and not worrying about where I was going to sleep or what I was going to eat, I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences in foster care.
I entered the system in my early teens and never had a steady home. So when other people at my predominantly white, upper-class, small liberal arts college talked about missing home, I couldn’t ever relate. And no one on campus could relate to my experiences. I was a minority on campus because I’m black, Latina, and poor, but there were communities on campus dedicated to those identities. Where was the space on campus dedicated to making me feel safe? Was being in foster care even an identity?
It sure felt like it. Most of the time I felt completely alienated when talking about my personal life on campus. I was casually talking to a girl one day and I brought up being in foster care. She quickly apologized for my parents passing away. I corrected her and told her they were both alive. She looked at me, with the most confused look on her face, and said, “Didn’t your parents have to die for that to happen?” It was shocking to me she didn’t know what foster care was. She was from a big city, how could she not know about foster care? But as I spoke to more and more people, I realized most people had no idea what being in foster care was really about.
To the people in and close to foster care, it’s no secret the current system is failing. Every year more than 20,000 young people, some as young as 18, “age out” of foster care. Many of these young people are without high school diplomas, are unemployed, and will become homeless. Some young people in care are subject to abuse and negligence at the hands of their foster parents and sometimes even the agencies that should be protecting them. Like many other institutions in the country, foster care disproportionately affects communities that are already at risk for other types of discrimination. Even though people of color are a minority in this country, they are most affected by foster care. LGBTQIA youth are already at a high-risk for becoming homeless, and that number rises when they are in foster care. So what do we do? It seems our struggle is silent. Foster care is only on the agenda when there is a tragedy. That needs to change. And I think I know how.
Youth in care need to be given back their voices. We need to be empowered. We need to understand that their stories are valuable. We need to tell those stories to people in power and tell them the best ways to help US. People in power have to be willing to listen and collaborate with youth on these efforts. If they aren’t willing, they need not be in power. Most importantly, we need to engage people, like the girl in my school, who have no idea what foster care is. I did a film with the Possibility Project called Know How, which is filmed, written and performed by youth like me, based on the life experiences of the cast. Know How tells the story of foster care by youth who were actually in foster care. People on the outside need to see the system for what it really is, and the consequences it has on the youth that come in contact with it. Only then can they step up and help.
Until then, here’s to the little girl packing up her belongings in a black duffle bag, unsure of whether the room she will sleep in tonight is safe. Here’s to the boy attempting to articulate his needs to his caseworker, even though his agency, the people who are supposed to protect him, have never listened to his needs in the past. Every single person who has entered this broken system is a hero. Finding the will to survive each and every day is a testament to their determination. When you enter foster care, whether you were in care for months or years, you carry a piece of it with you every day. So here’s to strength. Happy National Foster Care Month.
Published on May 30, 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.