In "Know How," a new documentary by Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza, viewers follow the experiences of foster youth in NYC -- those young people who are forced to fight for themselves, or like a white dwarf star, succumb to the prevailing reality of the foster care life. Some sleep on the street. Some turn to drugs. Some find a family. Some unite with their real parents. Despite these sorts of awareness documentaries, there really is little preventing these hardships.
Imagine being young, alone, and having literally no one advocate for you. Imagine it. With overcrowded school systems, lack of resources in low-income neighborhoods and, ultimately, few people who understand the condition of the orphan, the foster care spiral becomes a black hole.
May is Foster Care Awareness Month, so it seems a fitting time to admit that I, too, am a foster youth survivor. I entered into the system in my early teens and aged out, and I say 'survivor' because it feels like a war.
Unlike so many unfortunate foster kids, life has been generous to me. I now have a Masters degree, live in New York City and enjoy a beautiful life as a writer and editor. It was not remotely easy to get here, but it is even harder to shake off that stigma--that feeling that I'm sort of always floating, anchor-less. Despite my "new" life, I deal with feelings of worthlessness and loss daily; it's a sort of lasting PTSD that hovers like a rain cloud.
I acknowledge that I am a minority in terms of foster youth. Many other children and teens were abandoned or torn away from their families and placed into a harsh system that offers very few rehabilitative or forgiving elements.
Here is my story: both of my parents used drugs for most of my life. I grew up in New Jersey with a hardworking single mother whose vices, at times, were stronger than her resilience. We were living at the poverty level in the port neighborhood of Elizabeth, New Jersey when we lost our apartment and moved in with my sickly grandmother. My mother just sort of let me stop attending school, and this is because she was out dealing with her own issues.
A truancy officer must have reported her because shortly after, my brother and I were taken away. New Jersey's Division of Family Services provided us with a social worker who treated our situation like a list of grocery items. He struggled to place us into homes with our extended family, but I got the sense his priority was to just to check off the boxes - to get us into any home, anywhere, at any cost.
Years later, I would learn that an aunt and an uncle chose not take us in because they didn't want to get involved with "the system." Other family members "didn't have room." Others were far away. It was as though my brother and I were the dirt dragged in from outside, threatening to tread over their fine, white carpets.
What does it say when even your own family refuses you? It not only speaks to the stigma attached to the system, it tells a child that they are not wanted. Right now, there are an estimated 500,000 kids in foster care. 10 percent of them age out of the system at 18. Who knows what happens next.
While there are some great foster parents out there (my brother had them, luckily), there are an alarming number of foster care families who do take a child in for the wrong reasons: they receive subsidies from the state, or they fantasize about possessing a child as though he or she were an accessory. Picture a small dog in a handbag. And then there are the children who are molested, abused or even killed at the hands of a foster care family.
When we entered into the system, my brother and I were parceled out like a deck of cards. First, we ended up in the dark attic of our aunt's parents' house, where we slept in the same bed. Eventually, we had to leave - though I was grateful to have had a place to hang my head.
Like my brother, I ended up with strangers too; mine were a successful older couple who worked in theatre. Think "Running With Scissors," in a way.
The day I moved in I walked myself over to their house. No one walked with me. I brought a few bags and a box. I said goodbye to my brother, who drove away in a car. My new foster house was in the same neighborhood as my previous one, and my new foster mother showed me the insides of the drawers, how they were lined with floral sheets. She was proud of this detail, I remember, as though this somehow gave me my entire life back. The loneliness had no end. That day, the social worker made the mistake of telling me that the family "gave back" a younger girl once, leaving me to worry about homelessness for the next three years.
The light fell into my new bedroom and I began to cry. I tried to call my my real mother, but she did not pick up.
For the next few years, I lived rather well. I repeated the 10th grade but had trouble making friends. I had trouble making any connections at all. It was clear to me that my foster family were looking to connect with me as well; the truth is, they were looking for a daughter, but it could never have been me. They truly loved me in their own ways: they forced me to work hard and study. They gave me countless opportunities. But they also told me not to "act like a boarder" whenever I'd retreat to my room. They didn't support my mother visiting. They wanted me to assimilate. I know they meant well, but that approach to inclusion failed me.
Sometimes there is only trying and failing. They tried, and I tried, but when I turned 18, I packed all of my things while they weren't home and left.
Foster youth are not your hobby. They are not your paycheck. They need to cared for, not only by their foster families, but by their school systems and by the foster care system itself. They need be able to grieve and experience separation anxiety rather than assimilate or be treated as second best. The family dynamic becomes a total mystery, and the child often feels rootless.
Of rootlessness, I remember once being invited to a friend's house for dinner. It filled me with fear: the place-mats and the utensils and the smiles all made me feel like a sham. I felt I was a sympathy case, and I suppose that feeling has never left.
I spoke to the British writer Lemn Sissay, who presented a Ted Talk called,A Child Of The State. I confessed to him, "I never understand houses. Bedrooms. Vacations. Wealth. I never understood family." He said he never understood dining tables. I was relieved; after all, this meant I was not alone in my uncomfortable weirdness.
Right now, I'm overdosing on the shows like Criminal Minds and The Killing, and I can't help but notice how many of the murderers come from foster homes. How many times can we possibly conflate foster youth with homicidal maniac? Or loser? Or sad, homeless kid? While I don't want foster youth to be reduced to a TV cliche, I also don't want to ignore the fact that coming from foster care means there is a real risk of behavioral issues that last for life.
If a series of lucky circumstances hadn't happened to me, I would have become a stereotype. I remember the few teachers who helped support me when they saw me struggling to stay awake in school. Still, they were few and far between. One memory stands out: my guidance counselor told me I wouldn't get into college. I could tell she thought lesser of me compared to the wealthy, well-rounded students in my grade. I simply wasn't even worth fighting for. I asked to be in AP courses and was denied until I 'proved' myself. It was a constant fight against invisibility and others' perceptions. This was the school system failing me, just as I suspect thousands of other foster youth are being failed right now.
I aged out of that school system and did get into college, where I slowly rebuilt my identity and repaired my relationship with family and the world. Another former foster youth, Arlene Esquivel of California, told me that she was aged out of the system in 2005, after going in when she was four. "I had seven sisters and two brothers. We were split it into different foster homes & we were all abused as children. I have overcome it by speaking up for other foster kids. That should know they have a voice." Today, she's rebuilt everything too.
It is critical for others to support foster youth, and it is equally as important that us Wards of the State acknowledge the good that comes from the foster experience: resilience, compassion and perspective. It is key that we know we're deserving too.
I spoke to Toni Heineman, the Executive Director of A Home Within, the only national organization dedicated to meeting the emotional needs of foster youth. She said, "Despite having to overcome the many obstacles of feeling like outsiders, many foster children do succeed, most often because they had the help of just one adult. We should never forget that asking for help takes courage. We honor foster youth this May--those who have found the courage to reach out, and those who are still waiting for a helping hand."
In the case of the foster kid, the victim/survivor binary sways like a pendulum; often, it is hard to see which way is which. In the end, their survival is everyone's responsibility -- from the social worker with the notepad and the good intentions, to the foster families and the foster youth themselves.