Cultural Identity Can be Maintained in Foster Care

Edgar-LargeEdgar remembers playing with a toy car on the kitchen floor, watching his stepmother make flautas, guacamole and beans.

“She would always make these really good dishes,” he recalled.

Years later — in the kitchen of his “independent living” apartment where he is learning to be self-reliant — Edgar does his best to recreate her recipes. It is part of his effort to maintain a connection to his Hispanic culture — a tie that could have been severed during a childhood spent in and out of foster care. He also speaks Spanish, listens to bachata and reggaeton music, and stays in touch with his brother, father and cousins. He even saved up enough money to visit his extended family in Guatemala.

Children’s Rights got to know Edgar during a trip to meet former foster youth in Metropolitan Atlanta — a system we are in the midst of reforming. We shared his journey in our September Fostering Families Today column. The issue is focused on “Nurturing the Identity of Children in Foster Care.”

Edgar described going into foster care as “culture shock.” He said he was introduced to American ways, lost touch with some Hispanic traditions, and struggled to keep in contact with family.

“I feel like I had to grow up too quickly and maybe if the system would’ve made sure that my brother was there, that I had communication with my cousin… maybe everything would’ve been better,” he said.

Shaquita Ogletree, a former foster youth who works with Edgar and other young people transitioning out of care in Atlanta, said it is common for foster children to struggle with identity issues.

“You have to adapt to the system. You have to adapt so much that you become a new person sometimes,” she said. She believes visitation with family, mentoring, and simply talking with youth to gain an understanding of their individual backgrounds and hopes can help nurture kids’ identities.

Every day Children’s Rights presses for states to make improvements so young people like Edgar can maintain ties to their families and communities — and ultimately feel loved, nurtured, and connected to their backgrounds.

Since we took action in Atlanta, visitation between children and their birth parents has become far more frequent. In 2011, 86 percent of foster children, with goals to rejoin their families, visited regularly with their parents, compared to just 25 percent in 2007. Our reforms in Tennessee, New Jersey and Atlanta, have also resulted in children being placed closer to their schools and communities. And our campaigns in Atlanta, Connecticut and Tennessee have led to more siblings being placed together in foster care. In fact, the percent of sibling groups living together in Tennessee custody jumped from 35 percent in 2002 to 81 percent in 2011.

Children’s Rights was honored to share Edgar’s story. He could have lost sight of his identity in foster care, but through sheer grit, and some support from caring group home staff and advocates, he managed to emerge with confidence and strong ties to his heritage. He is now a senior in high school, with plans of double majoring in international relations and Spanish, and minoring in Chinese.

Edgar is just one of the 650,000 kids who spend time in foster care every year — and each of them deserves to stay connected to their cultures while in care.