“Phoebe” is now in her early 60s, but was in foster care as an infant. She wrote about how it shaped her growing up. She was not allowed visitations at all then, “I was being legally prepared for relinquishment for adoption.” She was adopted as a toddler and tells her story like this:
“Infants can’t talk. Cried little. I asked adoptive parents about the ‘whys’ and they told me they didn’t know. [They] told me that maybe my mother was poor, sick, etc. Finally, I was told by my adoptive mother, ‘Some lady made a horrible mistake and you have no right to remind her of it.’ [The foster care system] is conveniently used to help remove a child from its mother and family. It made me a ward of the court and [they] received money to keep me in foster care. My adoptive parents paid a large sum of money for me ‘because of the cost of my care.’ I found out years later from own costly sleuthing that my mother and grandparents paid hospital bills, etc. Also, I am not being given the names of the two families that fostered me. Why are they kept confidential?”
She had nothing to say about how the system may have helped her and was unable to name a “best part” of her fostering experience. But in response to the worst part of her fostering experience, she said this, “Not my family. Not necessary. [They] should have been encouraging and helping my family come to terms with my unplanned birth rather than hide the shame of me. Also, keeping the identities of the foster parents from me [was a bad part of it]. They may have been loving, wonderful people that remember me as an infant – or not.”
When asked about supports and obstacles encountered as a result of foster care, Phoebe said, “I am innately a smart, capable, creative, caring person. My environment didn’t make me. God did – and my biological parents with their DNA. There was love and abuse along the way—that I know of through my adoptive family. The agency was a tool that used the foster care system to facilitate a private adoption. It should have advocated for the infant I was, with a vulnerable mother and distraught family, and helped them deal better with my unplanned birth rather than exacerbating the situation causing the greatest loss a human can experience.”
My adoption shaped my experience vis-à-vis “Lies, secrets, and abuse. It caused me to be untrusting, feelings of rejection from society, no nationality, [I was a] pretend person to fill the needs of infertile people who projected superiority to justify my loss. I felt disconnected and ashamed as the real me had to be hidden even from me, though I always felt my adoptive parents knew the truth and were trying to change and fix me.”
The goal of foster care should be “To only intervene when serious abuse is proven an even then to arrange opportunities for reunification.”
“I was in the first home for just a month, from my release from the hospital two weeks after my birth, because they ‘moved’.” I was put into another foster home for 5 months preceding my placement in my adoptive home. My adoptive mother said I was in clothes that were sad. I was told I was chosen (for adoption) from a lot of other babies (in foster care). That only made me very sad for those left behind and guilty that I was thought to be better than those other babies. I hated being chosen. I often wished I could have lived in an orphanage.”
It is important not to dismissed Phoebe’s story because she is a generation removed from the policies that currently shape foster care. While the foster care system has changed dramatically since the 1980s, let alone the 1950s when Phoebe was adopted, there are still themes that persist.
Like many foster youth that age-out today, and immediately seek reunification with biological families, Phoebe’s story echoes a lack of closure with her biological family. The answered “whys,” as she described them, shaped her sense of self. There tend to be two reactions young people have if they immediately return to their biological families after aging-out. Phoebe hints at the them in her story when she says they may or may not have been wonderful people. If the aged-out youth returns home and has a positive experience, they are righteously embittered against the system for the injustice of being taken away. (Of course, they cannot account for any immeasurable maturity or circumstantial changes that resulted because they were removed.) The other response is a kind of embittered confusion if they return home and discover that their family is an unhealthy environment like they were told all through their time in foster care. It is difficult to be angry with people who love, whether they did you wrong or not, sometimes. And these are disorienting feelings for many youth. Some are grateful only after going back home for their time in foster care. Others are more angry than ever.
Moving forward, what can we do with policy that will help youth removed from their families find closure that brings healing and wellness?