Image Credit: Emma Margraf
I sat in a small and dirty conference room with a young mother and her lawyer for hours before she decided to sign away her parental rights. Her signature ended her relationship with her son and secured a future for the five-year-old with a couple who was eager to raise him. The young mother talked about how she wasn’t ready to commit to treatment for her drug and alcohol addiction. We talked about how we knew she had been trying her best when she left her son with her parents, but that her parents weren’t doing a great job of keeping her son safe, and so he’d been removed from their home. She didn’t want her son to be in jeopardy.
We talked about how her parents weren’t always supporting her better choices. We talked about how well her child was doing in his new setting. Where before he was routinely being put in the same room as a sexual offender, he was now in a safe place. Where before he was removed from his home he didn’t speak, he was now reading aloud. Where before he was being considered for a delayed entrance into kindergarten, he was now on track. Where before he was being neglected, he was now getting his needs met.
Not all families belong together.
That room was in the ancient family courthouse where we were supposed to be having a hearing on the future of this young woman’s child. It smelled like bleach and bad memories. We sat in uncomfortable folding chairs around a rickety metal table, and every now and then I glanced through a thick window, where I could see beleaguered lawyers feeding coins into the copy machine and anxious parents feeding their belongings to the x-ray machine at security. The only times I left the room were to go to the bathroom and to get drinks out of a decrepit vending machine that required a kick and exact change.
The young mother was thin, with her long thick hair pulled back and pinned with barrettes in the shape of birds. She was sad. She hadn’t been given much that would help her succeed and she was starting to see that. I desperately wanted to help her. She didn’t want my help. If we’d gone into court, the judge would have asked that she complete treatment for addiction, take steps towards finding a stable job, find a home, and agree to keep her son away from those who’d committed crimes against children. She wasn’t ready or feeling capable of doing all of that, and so she signed away her parental rights.
Her son was a gregarious little boy who was evaluated for an autism diagnosis because when he was enrolled in pre-school, he didn’t speak. Early on I went to visit him at his school after visiting him several times at his home with his grandparents. He was making progress, said the teachers, and I sat on a miniature plastic chair and watched him play. After a while, he brought me a bag of chips and shook them until it was clear he wanted them to be opened. I asked him what his favorite television show was, and I didn’t understand his answer. After several tries, a little girl with her hair all in braids nearby looked at me in exasperation.
“He SAID his favorite show is Sponge Bob!”, she said, while raising her arms in the air.
So, he could get his message across.
When the case was all done and the papers were signed, the young mom’s lawyer asked an assembled group of lawyers and social workers and me to give the young mom some words of wisdom or thoughts about the choice she’d made that morning. It was an unusual ask. No one said anything but me.
“I’m very proud of you. You were really brave today. I wish you all the best for the next phase of your life.” I said with tears in my eyes. Everyone else was still quiet. The young mom tried to look up and smile at me but couldn’t hold my gaze. Instead she reached out to hug me. It was an incredibly sweet moment, but I kicked myself for the tears. I was not the one who’d given up my child. Her lawyer hugged her, and everyone else continued to awkwardly look on. The young mom turned around and headed out of the lobby. I watched as her young and very dirty boyfriend, who’d been waiting on the outskirts of the activity, walked her past the security and out of the building.
That child is grown now. He was the first child I’d ever represented as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for foster children. I’d go on to represent a dozen children in a range of situations where no child should find themselves. I hoped to find permanent solutions that would facilitate the regular childhoods they deserved, and in the best of all possible worlds, none of them had any awareness of me because we’d found a neglect and abuse free home for them. On that day in court the social workers asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with them to celebrate, and I regretted accepting as soon as we arrived at the restaurant. I had no idea why anyone would feel like celebrating. Afterwards I called the CASA office to talk to my volunteer manager about the fact that I didn’t feel like celebrating at all, and she understood. Go see the child, she said. Go see him play and do the things kids do. This is personal, she said. It should be. These are people’s lives.
Lately, the personal is feeling political like it never has before. I am part of a very progressive world, and it was no surprise to me when my social media feed filled up with pictures of my friends and their kids framed by the families belong together hashtag. I’m viscerally aware of the fear that people of color have whenever their children leave the house. It’s heartbreaking to hear a friend talk about how she’s instructed her teenage son never to call the police, for fear for his life. Friends who are undocumented, married to citizens and raising children who are citizens, are living each day in fear they’ll never see their children again. Fear of the other has risen seemingly everywhere and with everyone. They were reacting to something horrible. No parent in their right mind wants a child to be torn from their family and put into a prison like facility.
It is of course absolutely cruel that our country has been ripping children away from their parents at the border. It’s even worse that so many have been in cages and not been returned, and that three-year-olds have been asked to testify for themselves in court. But I have to wonder those who’ve been taken from their parents in order to keep them safe feel when they see the news coverage.
During the height of the child separation scandal, when it felt like everyone I knew was talking about it, I sat with a friend who grew up in foster care who said she had mixed feelings about the #familiesstaytogether slogan.
“I bet”, I said, knowing that foster care had never found her a family and that her biological one wasn’t an option.
Some children in our country have terrible lives, and no one takes note. In most states, children in foster care graduate from high school at lower rates than every other demographic. In my state there is such a shortage of foster families that children get shipped to privately owned facilities out of state. I’ve never been to one, so I don’t know how they compare to foster care, but I have never heard anything that sounded good.
The Families Stay Together slogan wouldn’t sting if we, as a community, as a nation, cared about all families equally. It wouldn’t sting if we found families for the kids who couldn’t stay with their own. It wouldn’t sting so much if, when those kids were placed with families they were given equitable chances to succeed. It wouldn’t sting so much if we didn’t blame conservatives for not caring about children while we, all of us, ignore or pretend like there is nothing we can do about the critical needs of children here in our country. Not all families belong together but every child deserves a family to belong to.
Foster parents are asked to only provide health and safety for their foster children. For many kids, there is no one person asking the child what their hopes and dreams are, let alone working to make those dreams come true. When I advocated for my foster daughter to be able to get a private tutor, SAT classes, or private music lessons, I was treated as if I was asking for more than I was supposed to. Her social worker was surprised when I pushed for my foster daughter to be able to have things, surprised when I advocated for her to have more educational opportunities, and surprised when I wanted things for her. I was told that I asked for a lot, over and over again.
My foster daughter was treated like an afterthought in public school. There were few in the system that could bring themselves to do anything for her that didn’t involve escalating in-school detention for a list of minor crimes she committed frequently. Once she was on their list, she was removed from class and sent to in school detention for throwing pencils on the ground, for not having her school supplies, and for using swear words. She fell further and further behind in her classes.
In frustration, I used my skills to ensure a private school education for her.
When this news reached the Executive Director of the agency that licensed me as a foster parent, he called me in for a meeting. He was a small man with a mustache. He was revered in the community and I never really knew why. He asked me a series of indirect questions about how I secured the funding and why, before he got to the real point of the matter.
“This school, and the summer programs you are enrolling her in, they cost a lot of money.”
“Yes, yes they do.” I said, staring him straight in the face.
“Do you think, given how many other kids there are in the program, that this is a good use of resources?”
“Yes.” I said.
“Don’t you think it’s a lot of money to be spending on one child?”
“I don’t know, how much do you spend on your kids?” I asked. This was cheating. I knew his kids lived a pretty typical upper middle-class life. I knew I was boxing him in but his tone made me so furious I didn’t care at all.
“Well it’s just that there are limited resources, and I don’t know if it’s fair to the other kids.”
“I hear you, but I’m not the foster parent for those kids. I’m only responsible for this one kid, and this is what she needs to be successful. If you want me to come help you raise some money for other kids, I’d be happy to, but you placed this one kid with me and I’m trying to do right by her.”
“I don’t need that kind of assistance.” He said in a tone that had changed from friendly to distant. I’d either offended him or disappointed him, but either way the meeting was over. He got up from his chair and thanked me for coming in, then walked to the door and opened it so I knew it was time for me to leave.
Private school and private donors afforded my foster daughter much more than other foster kids get. She had a large book collection, a guitar she didn’t play and a skateboard she didn’t ride. She had mentors who supported her goals, and she got accepted into a four-year college and moved from our house into the dorms. My foster daughter earned her way into college, but was the only kid in our foster care community to go to a four-year school the year she went. She wasn’t the only one who was capable of getting into a four-year school, but the other kids weren’t encouraged to try.
The other kids didn’t have my step-father helping her with her with her college application essay, or access to an SAT prep class. The other kids didn’t have people to help them with their financial aid forms or press them to apply for scholarships. The other kids didn’t do practice interviews with me or have to roll their eyes after the fifth session saying, “ok, geez, I got it already”. She got all the things that family can help you get.
When people heard about college, or some trips she got to take with her friends or with me, they constantly talked about how lucky she was to have found me, which I bristled against. It wasn’t humility, it was sadness. The word luck felt demoralizing. It felt like my progressive community telling me that some kids should feel lucky to get what other kids are told they deserved – a home. After a while, the good intentions people had when they said it started to feel like a burden. I would talk about the need for homes for kids and people would respond that they had friends who collected backpacks for foster children.
The reason that kids in the foster care don’t graduate from high school is not because they don’t have enough back packs. They don’t have families who can be there for them. There’s a business in my area that advertises for a yearly coat drive, and they use the slogan, “not everyone can help be a foster parent, but everyone can help a foster child.” My foster daughter was gifted so many coats and backpacks full of school supplies we brought overflow stuff to the homeless shelter.
She benefitted from some social service programs, for short periods of time. There were so many options for different supports that she floated between them, absorbing tiny bits from some and big chunks from others, but never finding much lasting influence. She, like so many other kids, needed consistency you don’t find in programs or drives, but you do find in good (and sometimes expensive) education, with professional educators, and homes.
Every time I said what kids need are homes to almost anyone, I was ignored. I started realizing how many more fundamentalist Christian families I knew with foster kids who had serious behavior problems, where none of my liberal friends did. While it’s true that not everyone can be a foster parent, everyone can ask a foster family what they can do to help. People can encourage foster kids to have high expectations. The progressive community stopped feeling felt like home to me.
Most progressives would never admit that they think foster kids shouldn’t have expectations. I think many of them do feel that way. Millions of teenagers in this country get to go on class trips, get tutors, get to go to private school. Those kids, while they may be grateful, aren’t ever asked to think twice about what they have, wonder whether they deserve it, or if they should have shared with others. That makes every foster kid the outsider. If we, as a community and a nation, didn’t treat kids this way, the #familiesstaytogether hashtag would make me feel right at home.
Emma Margraf is a writer, former foster parent, and former CASA. Her work can be found in the Tiferet Journal, Manifest Station, Lunch Ticket, and Entropy. She has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles.
Abandonment and neglect. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. Suicide ideation. These are subjects which are prominent in child welfare and foster care; on average, foster children remain wards of the state for two years. I asked: Why are these stories uncommon despite its longstanding presence? Why is the adage “education out of the system” the emergent path to adulthood? Why have I not found a safe space for these stories from educators, administrators, foster parents, biological parents, kinship placements, adoptees, and the fostered and unfostered?
There has to be a way to make that happen. That is what I’m looking at for this foster care series. The writings I aim to publish will take a variety of forms, including creative nonfiction, hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, visual and text-based. More importantly, they will come from voices which are undeniably unafraid to speak. If language can do that, I think we can get closer to reinventing our experiences; we’re not so different or alone at the end of the day. Send your writings on foster care to firstname.lastname@example.org. And keep speaking.