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America's Investment in Foster Children: A Fiscal Imperative

Right now, the fiscal crisis is driving an agenda that would see our social services infrastructure dismantled. This has created a watershed moment, wherein we will have to determine our -- the public's -- responsibility in helping those who need it most.
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Former foster youth Sokhom Mao is sworn in as a commissioner of Alameda County's Juvenile Courts, illustrating the power of the public's investment in children.

These are formidable days for the future of our nation. Right now, the fiscal crisis is driving an agenda that would see our social services infrastructure dismantled. This has created a watershed moment, wherein we will have to determine our -- the public's -- responsibility in helping those who need it most.

With this in mind, I offer the story of a young man the public invested in who is now giving back in incredible ways.

Earlier this month, I visited the Juvenile Justice Center of Alameda County atop a hill in San Leandro, Calif. I was there, along with 25 other people, celebrating 23-year-old Sokhom Mao's swearing-in as a commissioner to the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission.

At 23, being a commissioner tasked with oversight of the institutions that house juveniles and the community-based organizations that work to prevent delinquency is a feat in itself. But more impressive is where Sokhom came from to get where he is today, and what that can teach us all about the importance of investing in our youth.

Sokhom grew up as the fourth of six American children born to parents who had fled the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian killing fields. Like many Cambodian refugees, the Maos started their hard odyssey in Oakland. The family relied on state housing and welfare, which Sokhom's father gambled away and spent on drugs.

"My dad had a hard time adjusting," Sokhom explains. "He ran into the wrong crowd and starting using drugs, crack and cocaine."

Sokhom recalls his mother enduring abuse at the hands of his father. She escaped to battered women's shelter in the Bay Area with Sokhom and his five siblings, then on to Long Beach, where Sokhom's father tracked the family down.

Together again, Sokhom's father heard of work in Lowell, Mass., and like a modern incarnation of Joads from Steinbeck's classic novel the "Grapes of Wrath," the whole family set out across the country. In New England the problems persisted. Still a young boy, Sokhom remembers his mother growing tired, unable to walk. She had been hiding money from her husband in the small Buddha statue she would pray to.

"She took the statue and cracked it," Sokhom tells me. He remembers the money spilling out. With that she bought a plane ticket to California. It would be the last time Sokhom saw his mom.

By the time her six children had made the cross-country trek back to California in a Greyhound bus, the illness that had made Sokhom's mother so sick and tired in Massachusetts had killed her. Sokhom's father took custody of the children.

"We were kids taking care of ourselves," Sokhom said. "It was so dirty with mold and roaches. I remember going to the nearby church and getting food in a bag, some bread." At school, the other children teased Sokhom for wearing the same clothes day after day.

The Mao children told a school counselor of their situation and the next thing Sokhom remembered was the police coming to the school. The children were split apart and whisked into the foster care system.

Along with his older brother Sokha, Sokhom bounced through Oakland's group homes for a couple of years until landing back with their siblings at their aunt's house. Sokhom thought he had escaped the abuse and neglect at the hands of his father and the emotional pain he suffered at the foster care placements. But, it was not long until his biological aunt and her husband physically abused him and his six siblings, Sokhom says. "She would not feed us, instead she would buy food for herself and her husband to eat with the money she received for all of my five siblings."

The situation was unbearable. A year later, Sokhom and Sokha found out about an adolescent living program in Oakland called Real Alternatives for Adolescents (RAFA) and the two moved.

From 16 till he aged out of care at 18, the social workers at RAFA made sure he was on track to graduate and helped him with his applications to college. In 2005, he was one of the first freshmen admitted to San Francisco State University as part of its Guardian Scholars program. After graduating in May of last year, he had landed a job at UC Berkeley working as a data analyst. And just last month he was sworn in as a Juvenile Justice Commissioner.

At the swearing-in ceremony, Juvenile Judge Trina Thompson walked Sokhom through the oath of office adding a little flair for the occasion. "I will continue to be a sparkle of hope for those in despair, a beacon of light for those in need," Thompson said for Sokhom to repeat.

"I will continue to be a sparkle of hope," he repeated.

Then Thompson left him to the podium to tell everyone crowded in the court chambers how he felt. "Most importantly, I will serve as a key voice for the thousands of foster youth in Alameda County," he said. "We must not give up hope on our children. Instead, we must invest in their talents and skills."

Remember, Sokhom came from a family living on welfare. When it all fell apart the state helped lift him and his siblings up. Right now, Sokhom is working to ensure that his little sister Chhienda is admitted into San Francisco State. He is gainfully employed, paying taxes and a sparkling role model for those in despair.

So, when we think of the public's role in social services, it is important to realize that our investment in children is the most valuable investment we as a society can make.

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Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist and the director of Fostering Media Connections, a project which harnesses the power of journalism and media to drive policy and practice that improves the well-being of children in foster care.