“Heather” writes as a 30-something, white adult about her experiences in foster care from ages seven to 16. During that time, she had five placements. She described her childhood class affiliation as below poverty/poor, and the same for herself currently, making less than $20k a year.
“When I was first in foster care, I had to wait 90 days [to see my family], then after that once a month.” That amount of visitation did not satisfy her though. “No. I never felt that my case manager made a good choice. I was never asked how I felt about anything. No one cared about how I felt.”
Heather described how she felt foster care failed her. “Oh, my this could take some time!!! Well first off, I was seven when a case worker showed up and asked me if I wanted to go to McDonalds for something to eat, and my mom telling me that it was ok that she just wanted to talk to me. Little did I know that I was really being taken from my mom and put into foster care. I didn’t see my mom after that for 90 days. I was scared and felt alone also. I felt tricked and lied to. After that I lost trust for people and I didn’t like the system because they took me from my mom by lying. The system kept failing me by moving me around and not caring what I wanted. I don’t feel that [foster care] helped me. It made my childhood sad and lonely.”
What was the best part of her fostering experience? “Nothing.” What was the worst part? “Not being able to go to school dances, having to do all the house work while the parents get to collect the pay check. My foster parents were lazy.” Heather described unrealized dreams as obstacles she experienced. “Well, when I was 16, I wanted to try to get into modeling. But because I was the state’s child, I couldn’t. Who knows how my life would have been given the opportunity to have a life.”
The outcome was contradictory because she put a positive spin on bad experiences. “I believe that I am who I am today because of the choice people made for me. Now I struggle because of the system.” What did she believe the purpose of the system is? “I’m not sure. All I now is I was a slave for these so-called foster parents. You get treated different and it’s not right. I didn’t love any of my foster homes. Growing up my privacy was always violated and I was never treated like the family. I was always grounded and I could never go anywhere. And the foster parents kids were mean and my stuff was always stolen and there was never anything done about stuff that I reported. Foster care should not be a rotten thing for kids. I don’t wish foster care on anyone. The state took me away from my mom just to put me in 5 different places that really didn’t care about me. Thanks for messing up my life.”
Heather’s story explores some ways in which youth in foster care experience childhood differently. She experienced her difference acutely through different sets of expectations, rules, and consequences between herself and the children of the foster families. It also manifest in the smaller things like missing school dances. While these may seem like small things to weigh against “saving” her from her family conditions, they add up to feeling like a perpetual outsider. A sad sort of irony is that one of things cited as a goal of foster care is present an experience of “normalcy.” And what Heather describes is a both an indictment of that failure, and has become a reason more legislation is focused on making those small moments easier for youth to participate in. Policymakers are increasingly looking at how to make participation in sports and school events easier for fostered youth. The problem is that this goal is at odds with current safety protocols.
Additionally, it cannot be denied that Heather experienced differential treatment from her foster families. Some of this might have been the result of how families are legislated to provide foster care—like how they may have needed case worker approval to let her go to a dance, which is either too much work or maybe they never heard back. Fostered youth often cannot receive rides from non-foster families or have sleepovers too. But what she calls slavery is a consequence of actual favoring of the foster family’s children. Maybe they thought they were being fair. Maybe they knew they were not and didn’t care. Maybe they even had reasons for what they did. I think if most parents were honest with themselves, they would be hard-pressed to truly treat their own children the same as fostered children—especially with their thick files of (Real? Overstated? Nonexistent?) behavioral problems.