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We Know How to Change Foster Care

Juan-Carlos-Large-254x300In 2010 I got a call from the founder of a nonprofit called the Possibility Project, requesting a meeting — they wanted to make a movie that would empower a group of foster care youth to tell their stories.

Originally I thought the film might be more of a hybrid between documentary and fiction, but the point was to give the youth a platform to tell their own stories. The film, called Know How, is a musical drama based on foster care youth’s real life stories.

Before I sat down with the foster care cast, I really didn’t know that much about foster care other than bits and pieces I’d read in the news. We sat at that round table five or six hours straight, story after story, one youth’s voice leading into another, heart wrenching and hopeful at once. It was an eye-opening experience where I learned about a system that had underserved them and many other foster care youth.

Their stories began at home, parent’s drug abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, stealing to survive, skipping school for months at a time, finding ways to overcome difficult odds. Then they were taken from their home, and dropped into a system where they were seen as numbers, with lawyers and judges who they didn’t fully understand, caseworkers who didn’t advocate for them, abusive foster parents who didn’t give them enough money to live, treatment centers that overmedicated them with prescription drugs, and the list went on. Grievance after grievance piled up, one on top of another, and it was difficult to respond. How did we let this happen? How could their voices have gone unheard?

At first I sat, I listened, I asked questions and more questions. A multi-protagonist plot line formed that weaved in and out of each other’s lives. Sometimes they were deeply involved in one another’s world, and sometimes they just glanced off for a moment. Somehow we ended up with a 124-page foster care epic.

Today those youth are some of my closest friends. We know and understand each other in a way that is unique to having made a movie together. After years hanging out I’ve taken a few things away from being a part of their lives. First and foremost, they’re some of the bravest individuals I know, willing to show parts of themselves that are raw and difficult to talk about. These youth are survivors who have been through an enormous amount and found ways to cope with pain, grief, and a myriad of crisis that most people won’t live through in their lifetimes. They’re also some of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and when we’re together I never stop laughing. Their unique perspective on life is hopeful and they want to succeed as much as anybody else.

If we give foster care youth the tools to excel I have no doubt we’ll see more rise up and become leaders in our society. These individuals are tenacious and want to make the world a better place for themselves and for others.

Here’s what I think we can do:
● Get more people involved in the lives of foster care youth as advocates and mentors.
● Have more great adults become great foster parents.
● Create more leadership programs for foster care youth to be empowered.
● Develop peer to peer mentorship programs where youth who aged out can come back and contribute.
● Humanize youth who are currently in the system so they don’t feel like numbers.
● Give youth in the system more responsibility over their lives.
● Raise the age for youth to “age out” of care to 21 nationally, if not 24 years old.
● Make college free nationally for foster care youth after they’ve already aged out.

Today, a few years after aging out of foster care, only 50 percent of young people will complete high school or aGED, 60 percent will be convicted of a crime, 75 percent will receive public assistance, and only six percent will complete a college degree, according to several studies. A system producing these results needs to change.

Published on May 28, 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.