Youth Voices, Speaking Out about Foster Care
By A Foster Care Alum
I have always wondered how much different life would have been in the Big Apple if I hadn’t grown up in foster care.
Unlike the uncertainty of city life, foster care came with Two Truths: 1) New York City contracted random families to care for orphans like my three siblings, and myself and 2) this contract was binding until the age of 18, adoption, or aging out.
My recent work with the Youth Writes program, which spent two months delivering a strengths-based writing program for young women impacted by the NYC foster care system was as memorable as it was stunning – providing a unique insight into the voices of those still in care while unearthing questions I had never asked and ones that had never been answered.
Primarily, how was it that, as a child who came of age in foster care, I had never learned how to age out of it?
My foster care journey lay in the bizarre equation that when posed with increasingly worrisome situations, one tended to stay in rather than out. Without a true grasp of the power of money, we’d made a contract of our own: we decided that the best way was to stay together, no matter what.
As the eldest, I’d let myself get gussied-up once a year to stand before a family court judge and state, under oath, that neither my siblings nor I -- as miserable as our accommodations were -- wished to be adopted by our current, and last foster parent. The courtroom did not allow foster or biological family members to be present during these proceedings, yet even the lack of anxious eyes was not enough to prompt a judge to ask “Why,” or for that matter, “Why not.”
Oh, how I wish they’d turned my mic up.
I would have told them about dodging loan sharks, showing up to school tired and disheveled, of sleeping head--to-foot in shared rooms with incestuous “relatives”, but, no one asked.
By then, we had already come to understand that adoption meant the end of the contract, and with it, a future that seemed dubious at best.
I ponder the worth of that feckless piece of paper we fought so hard for that did so little to improve our lives. Looking back, I see little more than an impotent instrument of urban ineffectiveness, but as a child, it served as a foggy, soggy cloud of hope that hovered over our dysfunctional household, a monthly reminder of our grim reality.
We became keenly aware of the intersection of money and care -- we had never even seen the check, our check as we secretly called it, but we knew it had a much larger impact on our future than we did without it.
How can it be that a city as progressive as New York would mindlessly compensate families to care for others with such little regard for their well-being? We were unlikely dowry in the hands of dimwits, yet the alternatives left far too many unknowns.
* * *
In a demented twist of fate, after 13 years of failed fostering and one imprudent phone call, we were awoken in the dead of the night by a social worker hell-bent on taking us through the alphabet soup of ACS apathy: a D-O=drop-off center across the Bridge, sleeping on tables at various EAU’s=emergency assistance units, before two beds became available at a GH=group home.
We arrived to an urban palace: conjoined, carpeted 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartments, situated in a middle-class, high-rise building, with separate terraces, on-site laundry and a doorman. It sparkled with “fresh start.”, and it was the first time I learned the term age out.
I was an A+ high school student, I’d already held two jobs, and the prospect of living with eleven other people, (even if one of them was my sister), with varying degrees of recalcitrance and 24-hour staff supervision, was more than I could handle.
Group home rules stipulated that residents, as we were called, were not allowed on the premises weekdays between 7 am and 3 pm. They also enforced a daily chore, which paid $2 per day, per chore, with an additional buck thrown in for one day of deep-cleaning, aka “G. I., or General Instruction.”
Besides chores and the mysteries of life beyond foster care, we received an annual clothing allowance of $500, access to a cooking kitchen, and most excitingly of all, the promise of a cool $750, courtesy of the agency, and only upon aging out.
Knowing that I would soon have. check - for my care, no less, that I could finally lay my hands on quickly taught me the mechanics of monetizing group home life: I’d ditch school for the day shift; sell my “courtesy clothes” for double to the kids across the street, and be back on the stoop by 3:01 pm to complete as many of the other girls’ chores as I could.
By freshman year, I’d left the group home and moved into my first apartment: a one-bedroom in Crown Heights, where I lived two peaceful years before facing another (housing court) judge for an (unknowingly) illegal sublet.
I was evicted on Christmas Eve.
Although I have been out of the foster care system for almost two decades, I have been unable to maintain a permanent residence ever since. I never thought to ask what part ACS played in my failings to maintain even the barest modicum of stability for myself.
The Youth Writes initiative's subsequent publishing of Aging Up, an Anthology, provided a seamless platform for these young women to voice their concerns and trauma, and I was hopeful that ACS would at least begin to acknowledge the vast disparities in care their charges brought to light.
The ensuing follow-up phone call proved both triggering and underwhelming.
Before long, a singular narrative arose from the conversation: What does it look like to successfully age out of ACS?
To read the stories of these young women was at turns heartbreaking and healing. I came away deeply impressed by how these women overcome the harshness of their imposed environs, while deeply saddened by ACS’s abject failure to prevent these environs in the first place.
Participants spoke of feeling non-existent, of isolation and hopelessness, and a blatant lack of empathy and professionalism from providers and staff. Nevertheless, amidst the dismay, were pockets of success. Agencies that reunited youth with their biological parents, programs that helped youth prepare Books of Life to document their time before entering foster care, and staff who imbued genuine warmth, respect and empathy.
For more than some however, ACS has much more work to do if they are to ensure every person in their charge receives a standard level of thoughtful and emotionally-responsible care.
“There are movements to abolish the [ACS] system, so I knew I was getting into a system that was contentious,” said an MSW candidate who interned with Prison Writes during the initiative.
She may have been referring to the “Abolish NYC ACS” movement currently gaining momentum on Twitter, gathering nearly 200 followers since its inception.
“Although ACS is a massive organization, the buck doesn’t stop with anyone.”
Participants were eager to share the highlights of their work with the project. They shared their hopes of ending the “generational trauma” of being in care, and spoke earnestly on the great need for emergency housing alternatives.
Another participant, who has since started her own non-profit, Gathering of Interdependent Resources for Living Successfully (G.I.R.L.S), was particularly effusive in her desire to “keep the Youth Writes group going.”
“Don’t just drop it,” echoed another.
While many on the call agreed that youth and young adults under the care of ACS deserve a chance of a “fair future”,
ACS did cite the lapses in care some youth receive versus the care they pledge to actually provide all youth, but generally remained, as usual, defensive.
To wit, the staffer who made mention of the “many youth councils” scattered throughout ACS, yet specific details were not available. A subsequent Google search revealed little of these councils outside of a leadership group for persons 25 and younger, currently or formerly involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice system.
However, as one participant noted, “I would not have known who to ask anything.”
Post Zoom, and although ACS has stated otherwise, neither Prison Writes nor any of the participants of the Youth Writes workshop has yet to hear back regarding their expansion of the initiative, plans for structured life-skill resources, or upcoming policy or legislative changes. The continuous lack of responsiveness is a stunning and troubling sign from the one organization created to “protect and promote the safety and well-being of New York City's children, young people, families, and communities by providing excellent child welfare.”
Yet with all of the could-be’s of foster care, it would seem that many of today’s foster youth still find life in the Big Apple too big to bite off.
Prison Writes has given these young women an opportunity to create sharp words, and even sharper images in Aging Up, there lies a hope that these young women and others both in and out of care can continue to use their voices to help shape an agency that continually fails to successfully transition them into positive, self-loving functional adults.
Who knew working and writing about the expectations of foster care could be so liberating and so incensing, but once we looked it straight through the eyes of hindsight and foresight, it blinked – but we did not.