Youth in care will tell you how their voices were often given the least value or weight when important decisions about their life were being made, and how frequently their input was entirely bypassed. They spoke of feeling like extraneous cogs in a big wheel that went on around them. Some hid the fact they were in foster care for as long as they could from their peers, because people treated them differently once they knew they were "foster kids."
1. "We come from diverse family backgrounds."
Over half the children in care are minorities. Although a disproportionate amount come from impoverished families, many have middle class backgrounds.
Some of these young people who come from well-respected communities and suffer abuse from their parents, are made to feel like their struggles are not as "important" as those children who come from less well-off families.
Too many children suffer from neglect or abuse, and it cuts across every social and racial barrier. No community is immune or free from this social ill.
2. “Our parents aren't perfect, but they're ours.”
Sure, there are some unashamedly monstrous parents who abuse and intentionally inflict harm upon their children in unimaginable ways. However, many more are simply broken adults.
They are poorly equipped to take care of themselves, let alone their children. They are individuals battling demons of mental ill health, drug and alcohol addiction. Very often, they were struggling to break free from the cycle of abusive relationships or the lingering effects of their own traumatic childhoods.
The thing you need to remember is that to you they may just look like a screwed up, terrible excuse for a parent; but to those kids, that person means the world. Despite the anger that a lot of them felt, they didn't stop loving their parents.
3. "The adults messed up, we didn't.”
All too often, teachers and parents of other kids form fears or prejudices about children in care, making assumptions that they had done something pretty terrible to wind up in care. The stigma attached to child welfare says that being in care means that you must be a “bad kid” from a “bad” family. It’s like having two strikes against you before you even start out in the world. It’s not their fault.
4. “We have dreams and ambitions”.
The negative impact frequent school moves has on their education is rarely factored in to decisions about placement changes. 56% of Ontario Crown Wards drop out of high school and poor academic outcomes are typical for youth in care.
Some of the brightest and most talented young people will not fulfill their potential, because no one cared enough to push them to do better.
5. "The system isn't working for us."
Poor outcomes among youth who age-out of care are well established. Too often these outcomes involve:
- Low academic achievement
- Unemployment and underemployment
- Social assistance and poverty
- Homelessness and housing insecurity
- Criminal justice system involvement
- Early parenthood
- Health and mental health outcomes
- Loneliness and isolation
6. "Sometimes we just have regular kid problems."
Although being in foster care is a huge deal, it doesn't eclipse who they are. Being in foster care doesn't mean they get a pass on the everyday issues that bother their peer group. They will still have exam anxiety, fights with friends, broken hearts and first crushes, insecurities and weaknesses, good days and bad days, and of course, puberty.
And yeah, there will be moments when being foster care will affect their relationships and everyday handling of normal life but you know what? Sometimes, it's not all about being a foster kid.
7. "Adoption does not equal goals.”
Not every young person wants to be adopted. Many live with the hope of being reunified with their family, and if that is not possible, they desire a long term stay with their foster family.
Too many children are languishing in foster care, but they don't need to be. They can thrive in foster care. For all the glaring faults of the system, there are remarkable transformations in children who are placed with caring, compassionate and competent foster families. Where family reunification is simply not possible, foster care can work.
Long term foster placement can play an important role in enriching, rebuilding and bettering the lives of children in crisis.
8. "We're not 'just' foster kids."
Perhaps this is the most important thing young people need you to know. Foster kids aren't actually “foster kids.” They are young people who happen to have experienced foster care. They are not a monolith with uniform feelings or responses on every issue. The experience of being in foster care will undoubtedly leave an indelible imprint on their lives, but every young person's journey and future will be shaped by it in different ways.
The fullness of who they are cannot be contained within their files.
At the beginning, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges that faced them, and underwhelmed by the tepidity of the system.
However, I was inspired by their resilience, fortitude and tenacity amidst constant changes and upheavals and their immense capacity to adapt to new situations. They are all uniquely sentient, nuanced and complex young people with their special set of quirks and habits, weaknesses and strengths, gifts and talents and fears and aspirations.
Each and every single young person in foster care is a courageous individual with something to say.
Listen to them.