Editor’s note: This op-ed was written in conjunction with Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger’s series and podcast, called “The Wait,” about her family’s experiences with infertility and Baltimore’s foster care and adoption systems. Read the series here.
I was 6 years old — just finishing getting ready for bed and putting on my favorite pair of footie pajamas — when a social worker and group of uniformed officers appeared at the front door of our trailer home in Montana. My little brother and I could hear another group of men heading around back to catch my stepfather, who had fled through the back door.
Minutes later, we watched our home disappear around the corner from the back of a squad car. We were placed into foster care and eventually separated from each other after a series of moves from one placement to another.
Looking back on that night, I understand that my family needed help, but I will never understand why it came the way it did. My brother and I were ripped from our home and separated from our mother with no warning or explanation. I found out later that my teacher had reported us to Child Protective Services after noticing bruises on our arms and legs, but I was never interviewed by a representative of the child welfare system, nor was any attempt made to substantiate the teacher’s claim or work with my family to see if the situation could be addressed without having to place us in foster care. While I do remember that my step-father was an abusive man and actively struggled with drug addictions, there was no emergency situation that night that would have warranted a house raid to take us away from our mother.
While the foster care system is a necessary safety net that protects children from abusive and traumatic situations, my entrance into this system remains one of my most traumatic memories. I was immediately cut off from my family and never given any hope that we would be reunified. A year after I was taken, I met briefly with my mother. Little was explained, other than that she wouldn’t see me for a long time. I would learn as an adult that she was told to give up her rights to us or face jail; she left the state after our short encounter. I saw her once more during my childhood, when I was 14. At 18, I was emancipated from the child welfare system and left to figure out adulthood on my own.
I currently serve on the board of directors of FosterClub, a national network for young people in foster care, and I am happy to report that the way I was removed from my home is no longer the norm. However, there is still tremendous progress that needs to be made.
Through my own experience, in my role as an advocate and in hearing from hundreds of young people through FosterClub, three critical areas have emerged for improving the way we serve young people at risk of entering foster care.
First, we must keep families together whenever possible by helping parents access supportive services and giving them a chance to improve as parents before their children are forcibly removed from the home. We must protect children from the trauma of serious abuse and neglect, but we must also recognize that foster care can impose its own form of trauma on a young person.
Second, if a child needs to enter foster care, they should be kept connected to family. The system must do more to maintain open communication between a child who enters the foster care system and their family, and must respect families as a unit. Whenever possible, children should be placed with a relative caregiver.
And third, for young people in long-term foster care, we must ensure they are connected to at least one supportive adult. In talking with fellow foster care alumni who “aged out” of foster care, I’ve found that many of us link our success directly to at least one supportive adult. In my case, I found support in my 6th grade music teacher, who turned out to be my mentor, my savior through multiple foster care placements (I was placed 11 times overall), and who is now my dad. He adopted me at age 25, when only my consent was required, giving me the permanence I had been searching for.
As I continue to fight for an improved foster care system, I can’t help but wonder what my family’s story would have looked like if these priorities had been embraced when we needed help. We’re in touch today, but we aren’t close; we all lead very different and separate lives.
Over 400,000 infants, children and youth are currently in the foster care system, and this year, approximately 3 million families will come into contact with CPS nationwide. How we serve them today will determine their futures tomorrow. We owe them better than I got.