Well, I promised to follow up my last post with some good news, and I know that at least one of my readers will be disappointed that she won’t get to read about the sense of optimism I feel in the air just yet. Instead, I’m gonna hang out on my soapbox for a little while longer because I’m still working through my irritation.
Last night’s Teens in Foster Care panel was very odd. I think the organizers felt like everyone in the room was on the same page regarding permanency for youth in care 14 and older (roughly 3600 of New York City’s 12,000 children in the system). Funny thing though: I don’t think the panel realized how deeply their message conflicted with one of their guest speaker’s most important points. …And then things got even worse.
Let’s do this good/bad/ugly style.
Cris Beam. CRIS BEAM. I’d seen her give a reading to a group of young writers back in December, so I’d already heard the whole spiel of how a teenaged daughter entered her life with the suddenness of an unplanned pregnancy. Tonight, however, Beam came with a stronger agenda and she prefaced her reading by dropping some data.
Here’s some straight from NYC ACS: Between the ages of 14 and 15 only 17% of young people in foster care wish to exit the system as an independent adult. By the time they reach 17, however, the percentage of youth who wish to age out to independent living rises to 94%. That means that by 17, only 6% of young people in foster care want to be adopted.
My young people list out a few reasons why in the previous post. True, some of it can be attributed to the “shortsightedness of youth,” as Beam puts it. Young people can’t always comprehend the longterm benefits of having parents as adults.
But Beam also points out that a lot of youth shy away from adoption because they feel it would amount to a betrayal of their birth parents—a sentiment that resonates with me on a very personal level. In Beam’s own case, although she and Christina regard each other as mother and daughter, they never actually went through with a legal adoption. For Christina, formalizing the parental relationship felt like too much pressure. Beam insists, “We need to talk to kids about other ways to have families and commitments.”
Once more we have the problem of policies based on exemplary rather than representative cases. The really delightful 14-year old on the panel gushed about how her parents would pay for her to go away to college. It feels rather silly having to type out that this is not the norm in the world that most of us inhabit, but apparently it’s reasonable to present exemplary cases such as this (as with the story of the adoptive mother covering her adult son’s rent for several months) as a fair representation of the virtues of adoption.
If you only attended panel discussions on foster care and adoption, you’d think New York were full of middle- and upper middle-class people willing to open their homes up to our most vulnerable children. Once you enter this world for real, though, you’ll quickly learn that most foster parents could not afford to take children in without the support of a stipend.
To be fair, I sort of get where decision-makers are coming from. When you’re trying to attract supporters it makes perfect sense to trot out your poster children (though hopefully they don’t feel too much like show ponies in the process). Alongside them you’d feature your most committed parents who say that the emotional roller coaster is totally worth it. Yes, there are some very wonderful stories out there, I’m sure, but it’s misguided to present adoption as the silver bullet solution to the problem of youth homelessness and generally poor outcomes after leaving care. For starters, just as some foster care placements fail, so do adoptions. More fundamentally, since when is it good practice to prescribe any one exit plan as the most desirable outcome for all young people?
The question of mentoring came up, and the party line on that was that mentors were a good supplement but not a substitute for parents—reason being that mentors aren’t as committed, they don’t stick around, they don’t invite you over for the holidays. You don’t just need skills and resources, you “need a person to call” when something major happens in your life.
Hearing this, one of the young adults in the audience—a foster care alum herself—shared that her experiences with Big Brothers/Big Sisters contradicted this limited view of the mentoring relationship. Her ‘big’ continues to play an active role in her adult life. The young woman explained that her mentor is usually the first person she calls for advice, and that she does indeed go over to her home for the holidays.
Here’s the ugly: the moderator, who had opened the evening with the statement that the young people’s voices were the most important in the room, summarily dismissed the audience member’s story. (Hey, maybe it was too exemplary and not representative of most mentoring relationships!)
Listen to what our young people are saying. Let’s help those who wish to be adopted find permanent families. For the rest of them—the great majority—let’s find other ways of ensuring they can establish a sense of connectedness and stability as young adults. Maybe it’s through an informal adoptive relationship, or maybe it’s through one or more mentor figures. We should present them with a full range of planning goals, making sure they understand the pros and cons of each. Whatever they decide, we must respect and support their choice, even if what we want for our young people may not be what they want for themselves.
Let’s form policies based on the real needs and wishes of the youth—not on our fantasies of happy family life. Those of us in this work know that blood is not necessarily thicker than water, and (even more heartbreaking) love does not conquer all. Reunification and kinship placement are not always the best courses of action for each child. For some reason, though, we like to present adoption as a temporary roller coaster ride followed by a happily-ever-after. Let’s stop building up the case for adoption by pointing repeatedly and exclusively to all the extraordinary cases of adoptive parents who are able to parent their children wisely and shower them with money long into adulthood.
The world is not exactly overrun by parents who are fully willing and able to meet their children’s emotional and material needs. But guess what? As we mature we find ways of compensating for this by learning to build our own lives and our own connections to competent, caring adults. I’d be willing to wager that the average mentor has better youth engagement skills than the average parent because mentors generously offer themselves to the task without any biological or legal imperative. They’re also usually required to undergo training before interacting with their youth.
To be clear, I am not inherently against the adoption of older youth, as is one of my emerging leaders, who believes that adoption should not even be on the table for those 18 and older. If older youth actually wanted to be adopted in droves, I would throw myself behind that full force. Instead I rail against a particular approach to adoption advocacy because it comes at the cost of ignoring the voices of youth who clamor for better skills, more resources, and opportunities to connect with caring adults they don’t necessarily have to live with.
Being the sort of person who asks young people a lot of questions and encourages them to speak up both in person and online, I am obsessed with listening to youth voices. The profound disconnect between the decision-makers and our young people would diminish if they only took the time to sit, talk, and listen a lot more carefully.