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.
I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.
1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications. Continue reading
Recently I’d been thinking a lot about how this work uplifts me. On Twitter I had some wonderful conversations with advocates in the special ed and autism community about the public misperception that the populations we work with are depressing. “I could never do the work you do” is often coded language for “I could never work with those people.” It’s offensive, especially considering the fact that what’s dispiriting and draining about this work has virtually nothing to do with the people we serve.
You know what does get me down? On one level it’s the larger institutional, economic, and social structures that present significant challenges to our young people. If I dwell on them too much, it makes me lose my sense of humor. Some days I wake up wanting to punch somebody. I wish I could say that my advocacy springs from a generous Dalai Lama-esque capacity to love all my fellow human beings, but I’m not there yet. The truth is, my sense of purpose and outrage is very personally rooted. I’ll say this much: many of the stories I hear about children in foster care resonate with me.
It’s a happy coincidence that National Adoption Month should begin on my adoptive father’s birthday. I’d been following the conversation on adoption and loss on Twitter and it caused me to reflect on this very special relationship that has spanned decades of my life.
My Daddy Gary entered my world when I was seven and legally adopted me around the time I was nine. I remember my mom attempting to explain why this was happening, but I didn’t comprehend then—and am still trying to piece together now—the reasoning behind the decision. Yet what was plain to me even as a child was my father’s obvious agitation at the course of things. I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of his car, seeing his hand clutch the stick shift, and noting an unusual graveness about him. —I will always be your dad.
The memories of my adoption are not pretty: I recall a dark courthouse, a self-important judge (“Say ‘yes, sir!‘”), and my dad, at a distance, looking uncharacteristically crestfallen. I walked out of that building with a new surname I was reluctant to use, not out of any dislike for my stepfather—I was already deeply attached to him—but the frightening sensation of being separated from the clan and severed from the thickness of family history. (My Daddy Gary also bears the name of the stepfather who adopted him, but rather than appreciating this poetic symmetry, it felt doubly estranging.) And then there was the insupportable weight of betrayal: The image of my happy-go-lucky father so visibly crushed would haunt me for years. Continue reading