Permanency Complication

By Nicole

I have sort of a fairy tale foster care experience. While it hasn’t been easy, I have had a permanent home and am in a guardianship situation. Recently, though, I was talking with other former foster youth and got to thinking about how permanency for foster youth really is complicated. In a sense, foster youth have a hard time with the idea of permanency. Maybe this is a deeper cultural issue: in a society where everything is disposable, permanency loses meaning. For foster youth, though, relationships often turn disposable. In this way, it is hard to talk to people outside of the system about the importance of permanency for foster youth. Permanency, for many people, has never been explained, but has always been felt. A home for the holidays, someone to call in a crisis (or just to catch up) and a support group that is always reliable. It is safe to teach foster youth to be independent and care for themselves, but it’s also important to maintain relationships in order to help foster youth grow and integrate into society. In this way permanency for foster youth is complicated. Mostly, it doesn’t exist. It is intangible. Foster youth need this connection more than most, though, because they have never had it. We have to be strong enough to go it alone, as that’s what we’ve been asked to do our entire lives, and yet it is almost vital that we experience a connection that allows us to share some of our burden.

“You’ve got a family that’s yours – like, ‘That’s my mom.'”

Rage to Do BetterAfter my first foster home, I lived with these people that was planning to adopt me, but they didn’t ’cause they had a baby of their own.  After that I went to another foster home that was gonna adopt me.  There were seven of us – the lady said that she wanted a big family.  I loved her as a mom, but the kids didn’t like me and the dad thought I caused him his heart attack or something, from stress.  I went to a group home after that and stayed for over three eyars.  One day, a couple days after Christmas, I went down to the office and my social worker said, “You got a famiy.” I could have said no but I said yes so I could have a family.

At first it didn’t feel different ’cause I always thought I’d move again no matter what.  That’s just how I felt since I moved all around.  To be honest, I was scared.  I stayed in my room.  I just wanted to stay in the house by myself and watch TV.  Then I was testing.  I got on their nerves.  I got the gift to push the right buttons.  I just push sometimes to see what happens.

When you’re older, you got that shield around you.  You got your attitude set, like “You can’t tell me nothing.” Especially in group homes, you gotta act like you’re tough.  So I came here and I was like, “I don’t care.” My parents just kept reflecting that I knew I wasn’t the toughest, baddest person in the world.  Then when someone would tell me something, I’d start thinking, “I really don’t know how to do this, so I should just listen.”

Being adopted is better because you’ve got a family that’s yours – like, “That’s my mom.” In the group home they did love you, but not in that way.  This love is like love for your life.  I feel it.  It took until about this point, though, because this is the longest time I’ve lived in a family.

I have one real brother but I never met him.  My social worker tried to get us in touch with each other, but the parents, I guess they don’t want him to know that he was adopted.  But you gotta tell ’em sooner or later.  No person for their whole life should not know that they’ve got the family out there that wants to find them.  It’s wrong not to tell them.  It’s like stabbing them.

I met my biological parents a couple of times.  I’ll always remember this – my mom took me to a bar and they played this Michael Jackson song I liked, “Thriller.” It was like the first time I really saw her, and I guess the last time I saw her.  I was eight.

I want to be an engineer or a stockbroker.  An electrical engineer ’cause it’s the future.  Everything works on electricity.  A stock broker ’cause I can handle the stress.   I can do all that.  Bring in some cash.

What you have to do is build a base.  It’s like building a house.  When I first came here, I made my base.  I made the lower part of the house, the first floor.  Then I made the second floor. Right now I’m doing the tippy top of the house.  I just need a little bit more.  Just get your education.  Just worry about if your mom is happy – “My son got A’s.  My son did this.”

What do I worry about? Sometimes college.  I want me and my friend to go to the same college.  Mostly girls, job, football – teenager stuff. I would rather have these worries than staying in a group home worrying about if I’m going to be adopted.

-an excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein; Michael, 14, lived in three foster homes and one group home before being adopted at the age of 10.

“Adoption meant I’d have these parents forever.”

Rage to Do BetterMy mom gave me up because she was going through drug therapy and she couldn’t get rid of the drugs, so she had to get rid of something.  She didn’t want me to be mistreated, so she gave me away.  Foster care was going from one house to another house and rules and stuff changing.  You’d get to know a neighborhood – walking to the ice cream store or whatever – and then change to another home.  It was confusing.  You’d get up in the middle of the night and go, “Where’s the bathroom?” One time I broke my arm and got moved.  At least I thought that was why I had to be moved.

Then I came to this family.  From the beginning they acted like my parents, like they really did want me.  My dad would be watching The Simpsons and I’d come and sit beside him and he’d put his arm around me and we’d start talking.  I had the option of calling them Jeff and Sue or Mom and Dad.  I chose Mom and Dad ’cause I felt comfortable with them.  I knew adoption meant that I’d have these parents forever.  That was not peroblem ’cause they were really cool.

I have seven adopted brothers and sisters plus my biological brother and my dad’s biological daughter.  When my younger brother William came, he always wanted me to pick him up.  When we went to court for him to be adopted, he came over and sat on my lap.  That was real neat.

My brothers and sisters are from all different races.  Some people can be really rude and racist, but I just tell them, “You parents had you.  My parents chose me.” Or I’ll say, “My dad’s with me all the time.  How ‘ bout yours? What’s he do?  He hands you 20 bucks and tells you to go to the arcade. I’m with my dad having fun, playing T-ball.”

I seem like my dad for some reason.  Everyone says that.  He’s into taking things apart and making them work.  My little brother will give me something that’s broken and I’ll take it and fix it too.

I remember the day I got adopted.  My dad said, “This is the day that you’re gonna be officially mine.  How do you feel about that?”  I said, “It feels good, Dad.” Then we came home and it was like a big birthday party, but it was an adoption party.  When I went to school the next day the whole room was decorateed with “Happy Adoption Day” and they gave me this big poster and everyone signed it.

There’s nothing better than having a set of parents that really love you and want to take care of you the rest of your life, someone you can call Mom and Dad.  Like if something is wrong with your car and you need help, you can call your dad.  But if you’re out there by yourself, who are you gonna call?

Being in foster care is like four people in a room, each in a corner.  Being adopted feels like all the people in the middle of the room, all talking to each other.  It’s not just you and the wall.

-an excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein; Charles, 15, is a high school student.  He was adopted along with his older brother when he was nine years old, after five years in several foster homes.

“You don’t make it through any stage of life alone.”

Rage to Do Better cover.jpgWhen I was in foster care, people would say things to me like, “Oh, you look like you could go to college,” encouraging kinds of things, but there wasn’t a lot of hands-on help. It was more like, “Go get yourself a job,” and “We’ll consider you successful if you can hold down a job and pay rent.”  But a lot of my friends outside the [foster care] system went off to college. I looked pretty closely at what they were doing and I decided that I was going to try for it. I really didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I was going to try for it.

Some of what they teach you when you’re in the system is how to go furniture shopping or car shopping. Those are not really practical. We don’t know how to drive! It would be beneficial if they could do an assessment of people who have left the group homes and find out what the needs are really going to be.

But one thing they do teach you is, “If you don’t have something, go out and get it. Look for it until you find it.” And so I did that, and it worked. I graduated last year and now I’m pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

The image people have of former foster youth is that we’re going to become welfare dependents and rip off the state for all this money. I’d hear people who didn’t know I was in the system talking about, “Oh, those kids in group homes – they’re just gonna grow up and go to prison.” Or, “They’re gonna grow up and get welfare, and they’re going to be taking my taxpayer money, sitting on their butts eating potato chips and soda.” I had been told all my life, “You’re just going ot take, take, take.” That really hurt me, so I decided that no matter what I do, I’m going to be working. And that’s exactly what I did my whole way through college.

But it is not as clear cut as just “Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on” when you don’t have the supports to do that. People don’t understand that because they think that everybody has a family. In reality, for a lot of people who have been in foster care, it’s sink or swim. If you want to do it, you have to somehow get the confidence to do it. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how I got that confidence. I think I just reached out.  Seeing that other people were doing it, I took a chance that I might be able to do it. But a lot of people sink rather than swim, and that’s what scares me.

I don’t like the idea of having to pick yourself up by yourself. That’s not the way it works. Anyone who’s made it has had friends or some kind of support to make it through. You don’t make it through any stage of life alone.

-an interview with Jessica, 24, who spent her teenage years in foster homes and group homes and who recently started a support group for former foster youth on her college campus; excerpt from A Rage to Do Better: Listening to the Young People from the Foster Care System, by Nell Bernstein

View other excerpts from A Rage to Do Better.

Book about Foster Youth Wins Literary Award

On Their Own, a new book about life after foster care wins award. From Jim Casey Youth Initiatives site:

“On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System” is a winner of the Pro Humanitate Literary Award, North America’s premier literary award for the field of child welfare. The book was written by Martha Shirk, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

Bestowed by the Center for Child Welfare Policy of the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare, the award recognizes literary works that “exemplify the intellectual integrity and moral courage required to transcend political and social barriers to promote “best practice‿ in the field of child welfare,‿ according to Ronald C. Hughes, director of the center.

Another book, “Children in Foster Care,‿ by James G. Barber and Paula H. Delfabbro, tied with “On Their Own‿ for the 2005 Daniel Douglas Schneider Book Award and Prize. The two books were selected by a panel of peers. The awards ceremony will take place September 30 at the Child Welfare League of America’s New England Regional Training & National Child Care and Development Conference in Providence, R.I.

“On Their Own‿ (Westview Press, 2004) puts a human face on a largely invisible population. Shirk and Stangler tell the story through the lives of ten children who did not have a safety net once they were out of foster care but relied on survival skills. With a foreword by former President Jimmy Carter, the book also offers solutions, especially about education, health care, and employment.

Here’s the review from Booklist:

Foster care is designed to provide for children up until the age of 18, but what happens after that? Shirk and Stangler note in the introduction to their study that in today’s society, young people don’t tend to reach full maturity until their mid-twenties, and most children leaving foster care aren’t even equipped with the basic tools (a high-school diploma, a driver’s license or state ID, work experience) the average 18-year-old possesses. Shirk and Stangler examined several individual cases in various states to see how well the children faired. One chapter examines three brothers whose fates diverged: one is currently in jail for armed robbery, another died in a car crash, and the third is happily married with a new business. One young woman makes it through a series of foster homes and high schools to earn a hard-won college degree and a position as a teacher, while one young man yearns for a family but keeps running afoul of the law. Jimmy Carter provides the forward for this important and often heart-wrenching book. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

From the Foreword by President Jimmy Carter
“‘On Their Own’ is a must-read account… for all Americans who care about children.”

— President Jimmy Carter