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To Professionals Working with Young People who have Experienced Foster Care

"You can read about a place or person, or see a picture, or read their case file, but that doesn't do life -- or them, or you -- justice."

“There isn’t a person you wouldn’t love if you could read their story.”

I urge professionals to remember this, especially on the most difficult days. Students often reach professionals with their hands tightly clutching their life story, keeping it shut in fear of what it contains. Opening it, reading it, and facing it – especially with a professional that students may not know or trust – is extremely brave. I truly believe in researcher and author Brene Brown’s quote which reads "Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we'll ever do." I feel it encapsulates what aging out of foster care is all about: we turn 18 and are suddenly left holding a book containing our life story that we didn’t write or narrate. I have often debated whether to claim that story, embrace it, or burn it. At 23 years old – 5 years after I aged out of care – I’m realizing that my quest to love myself through the process of reading my past life story and constructing the next chapter certainly is the bravest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done.

   I recently watched Good Will Hunting for the first time shortly after learning the news of Robin William’s death. There is a moment in the film when Williams’ character (Dr. Sean Maguire) is interacting with his client, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon), who grew up in foster care. Williams is responding to a distasteful comment Matt Damon’s character made about a painting in his office when he says, “So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written…. But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.” He goes on to say “You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? … I can't learn anything from you I can't read in some book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in.” These words really impacted me. Robin Williams is right: you can read about a place or person, or see a picture, or read their case file, but that doesn’t do life – or them, or you - justice.



One of the joys of living is that we get to experience life with all of our senses.
This is a photo from a trip to Lake Michigan I took earlier this summer. What this photo doesn’t show is the nearly 2 mile hike I took through the rich green forest to get to this peak, where I stood hundreds of feet in the air and overlooked the brilliantly blue, serene yet powerful body of water. The photo doesn’t show the wind blowing through my long hair, lightly dusting sand across my feet and causing tall olive green blades of grass to tickle my ankles. The air smelled so fresh, crisp and sweet, and seemed to blow itself right into my lungs without me even having to breathe it in. The picture is one-dimensional; it doesn’t portray the vastness of Lake Michigan, or the way it extends for as far as the eye can see no matter which direction you look. Most of all, the photo doesn’t show how I was feeling when I took it: completely overwhelmed with feelings of exhilaration and awe, in love not only with the wonderful man standing by my side but also with the natural beauty before my eyes, the lake larger than any of my problems will ever be. That moment changed my life. And you can’t tell from this photo.

  Similarly, there are a lot of things you can’t tell about a student or their experiences simply by reading their case file and painting your own picture of who they are. Just as Robin Williams said about art and the Sistine Chapel, you can know a lot about foster care but you don’t know what it “smells like”. You don’t know what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like, or looks like. For you to fully understand what my experience in foster care was like, those are the types of questions you would need to ask. Instead, several child welfare professionals I have come in contact with through my work as a student ambassador often focus on different dimensions of my experience:

"Are you in therapy?"
"So, what HAPPENED to you?"
"What naughty thing did you do to end up in residential placement?"
"Tell me about your relationship with your biological parents."

  These questions, recalled verbatim as they were asked, appear to be an attempt to construct my life into a case file; the professionals asking them skimming over the life events they deem most important and definitive. Sometimes people add the words "if you don't mind me asking" to the end of one of those questions, hoping to make them appear somehow less invasive. I hesitate to admit that yes, actually I do mind, out of fear that I will perpetuate the stereotype that students from foster care are distant, rude, and have problems with authority.

  I want someone to ask me "can I hear your story?" instead of dictating the plot. I want to be asked which areas of foster care I have knowledge of or could speak to instead of inquiries about exactly how many placements I was in. I crave empathy in these moments; I want someone to imagine how it would feel if they were asked if they attended therapy or what kind of traumatic events they've lived through within 10 minutes of meeting someone. Foster care doesn’t define me. If you ask me who I am and what my life is like now, I would tell you that I’m a writer. I’m a speaker. I am a woman. I am an advocate. I am a daughter, a friend, a partner, a niece, a student, a granddaughter, a facilitator, a volunteer, a Maid of Honor, a graduate, a recipient, a social worker, a citizen, a pet owner, a roommate, an ambassador. I was in foster care, but I am not a “foster kid”.  Not anymore.

  Another thing I wish professionals emphasized more in my journey is that I am the expert of my story and of my situation. All students in and from foster care are. Working as a life coach, mentor, or child welfare professional must often feel like you have the responsibility of guiding us in the right direction. However, as the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative points out in their Issue Brief #3: Authentic Youth Engagement: Youth-Adult Partnerships, “engagement loses authenticity when adults are conflicted about questions of power and control”. The mere thought that a professional who doesn’t know what my experience in foster care smells like, feels like, tastes like, and looks like would tell me they know the “right” way to guide me through a situation threatens my ability to trust and engage them.

  There is no “right” way to get through foster care, nor is there a “right” way to get through life. Survival and success look different for every student. They are the best person to determine what those terms mean to them and how to best achieve them. We are the experts in our own lives. FSM utilizes the collective impact framework, which states that they are a network of experts versus an expert network. Within that framework, it is important to remember that as professionals, you are experts partnering with expert students. Perhaps you are a professional expert in how to navigate financial aid, but the student is still the expert of what their financial situation is and what they would like it to look like. You may disagree with a student, but I urge you to honor their voice and perspective.

  As professionals, we must embrace interdependence over independence. So many programs and organizations that advocate for the success of young people strive to create and promote student independence. “Independent living skills” strive to teach young people how to do things for themselves, by themselves. Working with FSM has helped me appreciate the concept of interdependence versus independence. We are a society and culture that thrives on connection; no one truly lives independently without some form of human and community connection. Instead of teaching students how to navigate life alone, I propose we teach them to navigate life with others. When I first came to college, I didn’t need to learn how to do things for myself. Being in foster care taught me how to do that. What I needed to learn when I first came to college was how to rely on others. I needed to learn how to make mistakes and how to recover from them. I needed to learn how to fail before succeeding. Teaching students how to fall and get back up again has so much more value than teaching them not to trip.

Finally: Foster care is a verb.
We use it as a noun: “she went to foster care” and “student from foster care”, like it’s a place, some mystical magical place that children go away to. We define it:

We say we know what it is, what it entails, what it describes. We use it as a threat: “you don’t want your children to end up in foster care”. We use it as a legal ramification. However, foster care isn’t a noun; foster care is a verb. Foster care is not a person, place, or thing but rather the ever-evolving act of fostering care.

 

What foster care is not: an identity. A place.

We all need the act of having care fostered to us. We have all fostered care: to our biological children, our elderly parents, our pets, our friends. When we stop fostering care, we die, essentially. We become disconnected. Foster care shouldn’t end when students are 18. Students who are over age 21 and students who aren’t YIT-eligible still deserve care fostered to them. Students still deserve fostered care even after graduation. We all need care, empathy, and connection and we’re going to need that for the rest of our lives – every single one of us, “from” foster care or not.

In addition to being a verb, foster care is a system and a process, “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole”:

If you talk to anyone who has experienced being in the foster care system or experienced working in the foster care system, I would bet the majority would agree we are not as connected, as whole, as organized as we could be. We are not forming a complex whole.

I am 23 years old, deemed a product of the foster care system and I am not whole yet. Were you a “whole” person at 23? Was who you were all of who you will ever be, your entirety? Was that person all of who you are now? I hope not. I hope none of us ever feel “whole”. I hope we never stop learning, growing, changing, progressing, evolving, attaining, and experiencing. Systems, including the foster care system and those working within it, should never stop learning, growing, changing, progressing, evolving, attaining, and experiencing.

I wish you all a new school year full of empathy, fostering care, and growth.

 

 

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Fostering Success Michigan is a program of The New Foster Care that aims to increase access and success in higher education and post-college careers for youth with experience in foster care. Learn how you can contribute to building a holistic network that insulates (i.e., strengthens protective factors and reduces risks) the education to career "pipeline." 

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