Foster Boys and Male Mentors
This has been a summer filled with promise for the future of foster care, starting with the announcement of new legislation to spur mentorship and ending with a coalescing of the foster care advocacy community around sweeping reform. But as the seasons change I am left reflecting on the small things that could -- right now -- make life better for the half-million children in foster care, especially the boys.
As a reporter who covers the system extensively, I have grown accustomed to being one of the only men in the room. Right or wrong it is largely women who hold, love and uplift the children in foster care. As a man with a sincere desire to see the system radically change, I can't help but to notice that we men could and should be doing a lot more.
The statistics speak of an army of young people, more than 20,000 a year, who leave the state's care inadequately prepared to go it alone. A survey of foster care alumni outcomes released by the National Foster Care Month Partnership (http://www.nationalfostercaremonth.org/) found that within 18 months of leaving the system a quarter of these young people will have experienced homelessness and half are unemployed. In my Los Angeles County, the Children's Law Center reports that one quarter will have been incarcerated within two years.
Among the myriad factors that create this societal wrong is that there are simply too few positive male role models in these young people's lives.
My small contribution has been to mentor two young men who came up in the system, both now 18: one still in Los Angeles, the other recently moved to the Pacific Northwest. Not long ago Chris, the first foster kid I ever got to know, told me he didn't like letting girls all the way into his soul. It was the same message that I had heard just weeks before from 18-year-old John, who said he would never give up his whole heart, keeping five percent for himself.
My response to both was the same. That there is no other way to go into a relationship other than to give wholly of yourself. If she doesn't like your soul she may walk away, but if you don't let her see 100 percent of it -- she surely will.
I don't know if what I said made any impact. But at least it was positive and bore a male voice.
In late Spring, I was invited to Washington D.C. by Casey Family Programs and the National Foster Care Coalition for the kick off of National Foster Care Month. There, several dozen emancipated foster youth met face-to-face with the press, senators and congressmen to deliver the message that the system is broken.
One of these young people, Christopher Andrade, 20, stood behind a podium usually reserved for members of the Congress' Ways and Means Committee. He told of his life in a foster family who he loved but who inexplicably turned him out two weeks before high school graduation. "I became a boulder," he said. "Invulnerable but also so very vulnerable."
After Andrade and a handful of other former foster youth presented their stories, I spoke with Kathi Crowe, also a former foster child, an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and the Executive Director of the National Foster Care Coalition (www.nationalfostercare.org).
I asked her why men are so important in foster boys' lives.
"They provide that image of what it is to be a successful man," she said. "They can teach these kids that father is not just a noun. That fathering is an activity."
It is hard for boys to become men when they don't have any in their lives. For John, the Chris I know and Andrade the difference can be a male role model, a mentor.
While in DC, I met with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (http://landrieu.senate.gov/2009/index.cfm) who was promoting a bill, officially named The Foster Care Mentoring Act of 2009, which would offer up to $20,000 in loan forgiveness to college students who mentor foster youth. "It provides the anchor until we get more calm seas," Landrieu told me in her well-appointed chambers.
Alongside Landrieu sat comedian Rosie O'Donnell, (www.forallkids.org) an adoptive mother of two and another unstinting child advocate. She was in D.C. using her star power and the recent release of her Lifetime film "America" about the foster care system, to help promote Landrieu's bill.
Landrieu and O'Donnell later addressed the delegation of former foster youth: two strong women there to help. "How do you save the half million kids in foster care?" O'Donnell asked. "One at a time."
By chance I took the same flight back to L.A. as Andrade. We discussed his boulder metaphor. I told him that strength was derived from being unashamed of exposing your weakness. At 20, having spent his life in the system, he said he couldn't remember hearing another man say that. "It's kind of nice to hear its okay to be vulnerable," he said.
Since May, Landrieu's bill has been slowed by distraction over the economic crisis and health care reform. But that doesn't mean any of us, especially us men are off the hook. If more of us don't provide an example, boys will continue to grow into boulders instead of men.
Ways to get involved:
The Foster Care Mentoring Act sponsored by Landrieu in the Senate and Joe Crowley in the Congress looks to increase mentorship based on the model established by Children Uniting Nations (CUN) in Los Angeles County. CUN employs both relationship and academic based mentoring. For more information visit: www.childrenunitingnations.org
Foster Club, of which Andrade is a representative, is a porthole of services for foster youth and adults who want to help. They can help find mentorship opportunities: www.fosterclub.com
Casey Family Programs can also help you find a child to mentor: www.casey.org