When children are found in dangerous, abusive, or neglectful situations, we know exactly what to do: Get them out. But what happens next?
For 640,000 kids a year, foster care is what's next. And what happens there isn't always an immediate "happily ever after." Here are four stories of young people who grew up in the system and lived to tell the tale.
"Sometimes the people that are supposed to love you will hurt you as well."
James was put in the foster care system when he was only 1 year old. For the next 18 years, he was in and out of neglectful, abusive homes. Once, when staying with a racist foster father who saw him hanging out with a black friend, he beat James, drug him outside, clasped a dog collar around my neck, and cuffed his hand to a Confederate flag rail in front of the doghouse. He left James outside overnight in the cold of December with no clothes. The next morning, he said, "If I see you hanging with that [N-word] again, you will be out here for a week."
"I grew to realize that my circumstances equipped me with the tools and burning passion to make certain other foster youth do not experience what I did."
Eventually James was connected with a caseworker who changed his life. She took him seriously, listened to him about his placements, and helped him grow. Now he's graduating from the University of Southern California with a master's in ... what else? Social work.
"People need to know that foster care youth need love and care just like other children."Marcellia was born to a drug-addicted mother who was unable to properly care for her and her siblings. They were placed in foster care when she was 10 years old, and Marcellia remained in the system until she aged out at 19. During those nine years, she was separated from her biological brothers several times, neglected, and placed in homes with, as she states so simply, "no love."
"One of my worst memories was coming out as a lesbian to my foster mom. ... When I was a high school senior, she said, 'I am not going to pay for a gay prom.' I took a job at a pizza place so I could save up and buy my own prom dress."
Marcellia somehow made it through. She is now a member of the California Youth Connection and advocates for current and former foster youth, working to make a better future for them.
"If the system is a teacher, then she is incredibly cruel."
Melissa entered foster care when she was 2. Over the next traumatic 20 years, she was in and out of homes, back and forth between new placements and her biological family (which she believes should not have been afforded so many chances with her).
"I spent five years with a lady who blew the monthly stipend from DCFS on her own kids while we lowly fosters got to eat maybe once a day, if we were lucky. But she was very generous with the beatings, which often bordered on torture (making us kneel for hours on uncooked rice seemed to be her favorite)."
The one upside? Being on her own qualified Melissa for extensive college financial aid. But she wasn't able to finish. College felt almost impossible without the type of support and stability that most students have in a family. Now an adult, Melissa believes that the only way to reform the system is to create more opportunities for people like her and other survivors of the system in the system.
Michael started off in a roach-infested foster home in the housing projects of Queens, NYC. When he complained about the conditions to his social worker, Michael was removed and placed into a new home — with an abusive, alcoholic foster mother. He was 11 years old. Michael's only way of coping was to act out. He was eventually placed in psychiatric care and pumped full of drugs that made him sluggish and drowsy. But it was his way to survive.
"The psychiatric hospital was my escape from the madness. I acted out frequently, threatening to kill myself and doing anything I knew would land me back in the hospital."
Because of his experiences, Michael created Mind the Gap, a website that aims to improve communication around the mental health treatment of children in foster care.
The good news: They are not victims.
All of them have come through the system and landed on the other side, determined to prevent other children from having to walk the same difficult path they were forced to walk.
The bad news: The system is broken.
Nearly 32% of these children will wait over three years before being adopted. Nearly 15,000 children have been waiting for five or more years to be adopted. And at least 25 states do not meet the federal standard for keeping kids safe while in care.
Of course, all stories aren't as heartbreaking as these. There are many wonderful, compassionate parents; smart, competent social workers; and nurtured and loved children within the foster care system. But stories like these and others in Children's Rights' report "Children Unseen" are far too common. Thank God that James, Marcellia, Melissa, and Michael are standing up and speaking out to change that.