But in order to create change in the right direction, we need to really understand what is going on. … The very complexity of the system gets in the way of writing effective policy and practical implementation that works well for everyone. I think not enough sides of the story are being told about foster care in the U.S.  … And I think the best way to find out is to ask the people who would know best—the fostered children, foster parents, biological families of fostered children, family friends, social workers, court advocates, and all those who have personally experienced it from many different perspectives. If these people will tell their stories, I hope to synthesize what they say into meaningful data that can tell a bigger story about the foster care system—one that can enlighten us, open our minds, and maybe help shape policy to make things better for everyone.

Nikky

I’m really glad you’re here. I hope to get to know you through your stories. In the spirit of getting to know one another, here’s a little about me.

I am a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia.  This section tells you a little bit about me and why I’m motivated to do this research. Often researchers get involved with certain kinds of research because of a personal experience. So, if you are curious about that, I hope this mini-bio can explain why, at least in part, people affected by foster care became so important to me.

As a child in rural upstate New York, there came a time when I realized my family was not wealthy. Family life was sometimes wonderful and sometimes strained. On and off during my childhood, I had some pretty common experiences for young people growing up in a family that lives paycheck-to-paycheck:  I was a latchkey kid (no adult supervision after school), money was a constant source of stress and anxiety, my parents divorced (and then, unusually, remarried each other years later), I experimented with illegal substances at a young age, and I was often humiliated at school when my lack of money was highly visible.  But I had one really great thing going for me that I believe made a significant difference: I had a massive network of local family and adult family-friends who watched out for me and guided me toward opportunities and who straightened me out when I needed it. Even when my parents were divorced and I saw my father infrequently because transportation was a problem and saw my mother infrequently because she worked two and sometimes three jobs at once, I knew I had people around me I could count on—adults, who could offer guidance if I asked and would certainly deliver discipline when I required it.  Although some of these people were not technically biological kin, they were all family. Not only that, but if tragedy struck me tomorrow, I know I could count on those family members to help my family (just as I would help them without even blinking), merely because of the important obligation, the contract of ‘being family.’ I think it is very significant that I have always had people to help me in times of need. As the shape of the American family continues to change in response to economy and other social factors (just as it always has changed throughout history and in different places), it is families without money (and so they are also without power, generally) that are affected most by these changes. Children without money, power, or family seem to be among the most vulnerable of all.

The first time I learned about foster care was when a new boy, recently adopted by a local family, showed up a grade below me in high school. Then, suddenly, other kids were saying that they were adopted or had been foster care, or had a cousin in foster care. I recognized two important things at that moment: first, there were more people around me in foster care than I knew; and second, the main difference between us was my huge family network. I also realized that there were times when conditions had been bad enough that it was possible that I could have ended up in foster care too, if it weren’t for that huge family network.

Looking back as an adult, the core of the problem seems pretty clear to me: poverty. And more families live in poverty and homelessness today than when I was a child (in rural and urban areas). That means that more kids than ever are in foster care, or at risk of ending up in foster care. It is never a child’s fault that they enter foster care. I had a lucky advantage of family growing up, but some kids are not so lucky. And rich kids don’t go into foster care; money makes other opportunities for them.

I have been very fortunate in being able to receive an amazing education, an education I was able to pursue only because of important family supports. Now I want to use that resource to reveal what is working, and what is not working, in the foster care system. I can’t personally put and end to poverty. I don’t have the skills or knowledge to create jobs. If we ever lived in city for more than four years, we might have fostered or adopted more children. But even so, creating a home for children in foster care is just one way to approach the problem and look for solutions. I want to help not only all the children who may enter foster care in the future, but also the emotionally- and work-overloaded social workers, and also the under-appreciated and mischaracterized foster families, and also the kin of children who enter foster care—whose stories are rarely heard.

But in order to create change in the right direction, we need to really understand what is going on. The foster care system in the U.S. is very complex. Most people who are a part of it only ever experience a slice of it. The very complexity of the system gets in the way of writing effective policy and practical implementation that works well for everyone.

I think not enough sides of the story are being told about foster care in the U.S.  There is a lot of talk about how the foster care system is ‘broken’ and not doing its job.  I’m not sure we even all agree about what it is the foster care system is responsible to do.  And I think the best way to find out is to ask the people who would know best—the fostered children, foster parents, biological families of fostered children, family friends, social workers, court advocates, and all those who have personally experienced it from many different perspectives. If these people will tell their stories, I hope to synthesize what they say into meaningful data that can tell a bigger story about the foster care system—one that can enlighten us, open our minds, and maybe help shape policy to make things better for everyone.

Welcome!

– Nikky