Affecting Outcomes for Children in Foster Care

I once read that the family is Estelle-Largethe project of the person. Family is the space in which human life begins, and in which it is nurtured and cherished. It is the place in which a person first learns what it is to love by being loved–where a person learns what it is to have dignity by having dignity extended to them. Family provides a sense of community. And community is where a child can begin to visualize their place and belonging in the world.

I could write about statistics for foster children, like more than 650,000 children experience out-of-home care every year in theU.S. and that only 2 percent of foster children ever graduate from college, but Children’s Rights has done a good job of documenting these unfortunate and mostly preventable facts. What you are instead reading is what those statistics look like as the lived experience of the child, because I am one of those data points.

I write this blog as a former technologist who was on a team that designed the automated external defibrillators that you see in the malls and on airplanes. I write as a former global business executive and consultant who lived in Paris. I write as a cancer researcher and future physician with projects in theU.S. and Africa….and I write as a former foster child who had five sets of parents before the age of 18.

I know very personally what it can be like to have a family disintegrate–to be vulnerable, to be abandoned, neglected and abused–to not know where to fit in or belong.

I will never forget the day when a car pulled up and we were told to put some things in a brown paper grocery bag and get into that car with a stranger. This was the day child protective services took custody of us. However, they could not take us to a foster home because they did not have one available. Nor could they take us to a children’s home because they were full. So they took us to the juvenile detention center.

My sister and I were separated from my brothers. We were processed through the standard juvenile detention center intake process–disrobed, deloused, and cleaned. Whether we were clean or not did not really matter. Then we were sent out to “play” in a field with a very high chain link fence with barbed wire around the top. And so the journey began…I was 4 years old.

In cancer research and medicine, we are learning that the environment plays a very important role in disease processes, sometimes even more than genetic susceptibility. For example, someone can have the gene for height, but due to the environment the individual grows up in, they can develop to be of short stature.

The same can be true with the impact of abandonment, neglect and abuse. It is clear these experiences can be embodied in all people, whether foster children or not. The difference is that foster children are repeatedly exposed to excessive and prolonged neglect, exclusion, and abuse that often lead to the dismal reality of their deteriorating mental and physical health.

But, the good news is, if we change the environment, we can affect the outcomes. When children are surrounded by environments where they are loved and feel a secure sense of belonging, the outcomes change.

When I had the opportunity to experience environments of love, encouragement, and inclusion at different points in my childhood, I was able to forget what the statistics said about who I would be or could be, and what I could do or would do having grown up in the unfortunate circumstances of being a foster child. In those moments I remember feeling for a short time that maybe I was like other children. I felt proud instead of ashamed, I felt like I belonged instead of feeling excluded. I felt like I could do anything, and dared to dream of what could be. It was these experiences, these people who came alongside me and supported me, loved me, and believed in me and my potential at various times in my life that have allowed me to successfully transform my dreams into reality.

So next time you meet foster children, don’t talk about the disadvantages from being neglected, abused, and abandoned. They know these much better than anyone else ever could. Tell them about the potential you see in them, about their unique talents and strengths. Tell them you believe in their potential and who you see that they can be when they are loved, valued, and included.

And you never know–the child who benefits from your love and support may grow up to be like me, pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor–or they may grow up and change the world.

Published on May 22, 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.