I’m hanging out on a college campus this week. I’m here in the Willamette Valley teaching a class on Writing as a Healing Art. My students are foster kids. High School-age foster kids.
My friend and fellow scribe Echo Garrett has worked a great deal with foster teens. She has advocated for years on behalf of teens in foster care. I’m the FNG person when it comes to the ins and outs of foster care. Sure, I’ve written the occasional story about it. Followed some of the state stats. Have been aware that whenever the opiod crisis is mentioned in this country, that children are the collateral damage that often go unmentioned.
An estimated 30 percent of children in Oregon’s foster care system are teenagers.
Foster care or not, teenagers come with their own baggage. I believe it was Mark Twain who said that children should be kept in a wooden barrel with an air hole until they are 14 and then the air hole should be plugged up. Every parent can grasp the wry wit of Twain’s remarks, but for the foster teen much of the humor behind that sentiment can just seem plain cruel.
Oregon, like most every state in the nation, has been in a foster care crisis as of late. It’s been well-reported and because of that, the legislature has had to address the well-documented failures of the system. There was public outcry when it was revealed that state workers were putting kids up in hotels just for lack of foster care homes.
The problem is one of resources, of course. States often short-shrift kids because, hey, kids don’t really have much political power. They can’t vote. They have little if any money. They can’t stage noisy protests. What’s a kid going to do if the state repeatedly ignores their needs? Cry themselves to sleep again? Rant about it on Facebook? Certainly the thing they aren’t about to do is complain to their foster parents, or their case workers, or even their counselors, should they be fortunate enough to have one of those.
When a friend recently agreed to foster two toddler children, siblings, I was surprised to learn that the state does not help pay for childcare. Our family friend isn’t married. She is the sole support. She has a mortgage payments, a car payment and all the usual bills that running a household incurs. Childcare for young children can easily run a $1,000 a month. Just for one kid. Is it any wonder the state has a lack of quality applicants willing to provide homes?
Being branded “foster care” can feel a bit like getting a coat from the “slightly worn” store. Foster kids carry with them that sense that they were never quite good enough. They are somebody’s cast off item.
The deepest need we all share is the need to belong. To be wanted. To be desired.
Yet, foster teens face the almost constant sense of impermanence, of never really belonging anywhere for very long.
Still, they press on.
Often grateful that they have been removed from often truly dangerous situations.
“If I could change any one thing about foster care it would be the perception that it’s a bad thing,” one gal confided. “It saved me.”
An absentee father and a mother battling addictions kept her in foster care from the time she was aged four on. She’s been in so many foster care homes, she lost count.
She’s grown now, though, has a college education and a job working with foster care kids herself. Paying it forward and backwards.
A success story by most anyone’s standards.
Yet, saving her life came at a cost. It meant being cut off from her biological family and having to learn to build a family from a mishmash of good friends, kind strangers who became like family, and a menagerie of caring, loving people collected along life’s path.
Some of us are born into a family.
Others of us have to form a family from scratch.
Who’s your people? is a question that can help define us, but it is not always a question about our ancestry. Sometimes, the answer to who’s your people is simply a matter of knowing who will always set a place for us at the table and who will always welcome us with a warm embrace.
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel, (Mercer University Press).